Editor’s note: I’m thrilled to have this guest post from Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, and the subject of the book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. An eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth, he is now a martial arts champion, holding a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships.
I recently wrote an article about a heartbreaking new trend in our classrooms. In Universities throughout the US, students are surfing the internet, shopping online, Facebooking, and emailing while their professors speak to disengaged minds.
One can argue that kids have always passed notes, but this semester’s explosion of multi-tasking is on a terrifying scale and teachers nationwide are bereft. The Dean of the University of Chicago Law School just banned surfing during class. Harvard Business School was forced to cut off internet access. Columbia, Barnard and countless others are hustling for solutions, but students demand that their rights are not infringed upon.
You can read my account of this crisis and of the dangers of multitasking in this piece on the blog of Tim Ferriss. What I would like to do now is propose some actionable solutions to a cultural problem that extends far beyond our schools.
In my opinion, cutting off internet access in classrooms, while a good idea, is just addressing the symptom of a much broader disengagement. We have to get to the root of the problem by understanding why kids, and adults for that matter, are not deeply immersed in what they are doing.
What is getting in the way of presence? Alienation. From a very young age, kids are not being listened to and so they are turning off their minds. Horrible policies like No Child Left Behind, and the gauntlet of standardized tests our kids have to endure, are turning education into a forced march. Most of the professional world is an extension of the same problem. Everyone is being jammed into the same cookie cutter mold, and that is not how anyone will thrive. Below are some internal solutions to navigating an increasingly disconnected external environment.
1. Do what you love. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s incredible how few of us actually do it. Life is too short to bog ourselves down in a life that doesn’t inspire us. I believe that children, from a very young age, should be encouraged to pursue what they are passionate about. Most kids are drawn to something early—maybe it will be math, music, a sport, painting, dance, reading, chess, whatever. Once you see that spark of inspiration in your child’s eyes, encourage her to dive in. If we dig deeply into something, anything, at a young age, and we touch Quality, then that scent of Quality will be a beacon for us for the rest of our lives. We will know what it feels like. And we will know what it is like to love learning. Then, as adults, we should build our lives around what inspires us. It is common to box ourselves into a lucrative career that we hate, with the belief that the money will make us happy. Of course it will not. I have found that if we do what we love, and we do it passionately, the external will follow naturally.
2. Do it in a way you love and connect to. It is astonishing how this principle is ignored. All of us have different minds, and so our road to mastery will be unique. The art in the learning process emerges when we begin to tap into the unique nuance of our minds—when the walls are broken down between the conscious and unconscious minds, when creative inspiration directs our technical growth. There are some very simple questions we can ask ourselves to get moving in this direction. For example, am I primarily an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner? What about secondarily? I, for one, am a visual and kinesthetic processor. If I see ten phone numbers I can remember them, but if I hear one, it will be a challenge. Imagine if you have a teacher who is an auditory processor, speaking in his or her language to your child who has a visual mind. The disconnect will be huge. And your child might be incorrectly diagnosed with a learning disability.
But this is just one question. Are we charismatic, creative, aggressive, conservative, organized? Do we thrive in stormy conditions or when things are under control? Introspective sensitivity should be at the core of our learning process, so we can build games and loves around our strengths, and so we can address our weaknesses in a language that makes sense to us. This issue is very personal to me, as it precipitated the crisis that ended my chess career. I lost a life’s work because I did not listen to my gut, and it took me many years and a new discipline to return to my roots. We must be true to ourselves to thrive.
3. Give people a Choice and they become engaged. My mom told me a beautiful story a few nights ago. She learned to play chess from me and for the past fifteen years has run chess programs in schools in New York City and New Jersey. She’s the greatest teacher and mother I could ever dream of. In one of her kindergarten classes there is a little boy named Evan who drives all his teachers crazy. No matter what they are doing, he always wants to read a book. His school life has become defined by teachers taking books out of his hands, telling him to sit down and listen with the rest of the kids. This is unfortunately a typical response to an unusual mind.
So in my mom’s first few chess classes with Evan, she would be teaching a lesson on a demonstration board, or everyone would be playing chess games, and Evan would walk to the bookshelf, pick up a book, sit down and start reading. My mom’s solution: she smiled and gave Evan a chess book that covered similar material to what she was teaching. He immediately put down his other book, opened his eyes wide and started reading the chess book. The wonderful thing about the story is that after a few classes in which my mom embraced his mind and gave him a chess book to read, Evan started putting down the chess book and listening to her lessons. Then he started playing chess with the other kids instead of isolating himself. The next somewhat surprising step is that some other kids started asking for chess books too. The visual learners started to creep out of the woodwork, and the whole class now thrives because a teacher was willing to listen to them.
4. Release a fear of failure. This is a big issue. The constant testing in our schools, and the bottom-line language of our culture has kids terrified of failing. We’ve all heard the “I wasn’t trying” excuse. That is protecting the ego. And disengaging from any one thing by skipping along the surface of everything is another version of not trying. Many kids, by the way, have told me their attraction to video games is an escape from the pressures of the real world. They are safe from failing in that virtual reality. If we can relieve the fear of failure, then engagement will become a less terrifying experience.
Fortunately, this is not so difficult. Parents and teachers simply need to transition from result-oriented to process-oriented feedback. Tell a child you are proud of the work done instead of praising the result. Help them internalize what developmental psychologists call an incremental theory of intelligence—a perspective that associates the road to mastery with effort and overcoming adversity. The alternative, a fixed or entity theory associates success with an ingrained level of ability in a particular trait—thus the language “I’m smart at math.” This is a much more brittle approach because it does not embrace imperfection. Most valuable lessons come from learning from our errors, and if we associate messing up with being “dumb” then we can become paralyzed by a fear of failure. Think about it this way—if a well-intentioned parent tells a child that she is a winner, and that child associates success with being a winner, what happens when she inevitably loses? The winner becomes a loser. The developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has done very important research and writing in this field, and I have explored the dynamic in the context of my life in The Art of Learning.
5. Build positive routines.Cultivating new habits is the best way to get rid of bad ones. This is a simple truth with infinite application. We are creatures of habit, and so we should build positive routines into our lives. Exercise, honesty, process-oriented language, introspection, meditation, reading—anything we believe will help our growth can be put into a routine that will help us thrive. So if you are trying to get your child to stop playing video games, then I would suggest replacing the activity with something else that he or she loves to do but that is healthy—for example go outside and have a catch, read a book together, or go to a dance class during video game hours. Do this for 5 or 6 days in a row and the craving for reading or exercise will replace the craving for Nintendo.
Routines can also be built to help us enter states of deep concentration or connectedness. In my chess and martial arts careers, a moment without presence can have devastating effect, and building routines that I condense into triggers for the zone has been an integral part of my process.
6. Do one thing at a time. If we are tackling multi-tasking, we can replace the habit of doing 6 things at once with the routine of doing one thing at a time. Leo has written powerfully about the effectiveness of focusing on less, and I couldn’t agree more. Skipping along the surface will get us nowhere, and if we cultivate the muscle of digging deep, then it will grow. Not only will single-tasking increase effectiveness, but it will also open up our creativity in the learning process. We’ll start making connections we never dreamed of, because we’ll be touching the principles that operate everywhere.
Let’s take the martial arts as an example—most people want to start off by learning ten or fifteen fancy techniques that they’ve seen in movies or watched the advanced students apply. This will lead to years of wasted time and hollow learning. The more powerful approach is to spend days, weeks, even months on one relatively simple technique. What happens then is quite beautiful. You start to get a sense for what it feels like to do something well with your body. Your mechanics become unobstructed, you experience a smooth fluidity, you focus on subtle ripples of sensation. Once you reach this point of full body flow, you can turn your attention to other techniques and you will very quickly internalize them at a high level, because you know what Quality feels like—or in less abstract language, you have internalized axioms that govern all techniques. This same process applies to chess. Learn a principle deeply, and it will manifest everywhere. Whatever we are cultivating, depth beats breadth any day of the week.
7. Take Breaks. This is a terribly underappreciated tool, especially in the work place. When I begin to train a company, without exception I see too much linearity in the workday and creative process. People start the day buzzing with energy, but then after a few hours they are tired and perform at a much lower level. That’s when the hunt for coffee begins, there is a brief buzz, and the inevitable crash looms just around the corner.
There is no way we can focus intensely on something for many hours in a row without burning out. The human mind thrives in an oscillatory rhythm. We need to pulse between stress and recovery in order to think creatively over long periods of time. I learned this lesson in my chess career, trying to concentrate feverishly in world-class tournaments 8 hours a day for two weeks straight. After starting to train with the performance psychologists at the Human Performance Institute, I noticed that after an intense 13 minutes of thinking in a chess game, the quality of my process deteriorated slightly. So I started taking little breaks between chess moves or whenever my energy flagged—if extremely tired, I’d wash my face with cold water or even go outside and sprint 50 yards, which would flush my physiology and leave me energized. My endurance and creativity soared. A nap is a beautiful thing to fill up the tank. So is a quick 30 minute workout. A great way to improve mental recovery is with physical interval training. Have you or your child’s physical exercise follow the rhythm of stress and recovery, and your ability to take breaks and recover from mental strain will also improve dramatically.
A big obstacle in this battle against disengagement is guilt. We have so much to do and so little time, taking a break seems absurd—the same could be argued for doing what we love in a way we connect to, releasing perfectionism, giving ourselves some freedom to choose our way, building positive routines, and doing one thing at a time. Release the guilt! Four or six hours of high quality, inspired immersion will be infinitely more effective and satisfying than eight or ten hours of grinding your way through the day and getting locked into a mechanized, inside-the-box mode that ignores your true potential. For child and adult, learning or working should not be a forced march, and in order to engage deeply and creatively, we need to be as organic as possible by listening to our internal rhythms.
A note from Josh: Dear Teachers and Parents, I am researching the effect of video games on young minds. If you think it might be a healthy experience for your kids, please ask them to give up video games for two weeks, and write me about the experience at [email protected] Thank you! Josh Waitzkin
Josh is president of the JW Foundation, an educational nonprofit. He is currently training for the World Championships of his third discipline, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and lectures nationwide on the subjects of the learning process and performance psychology.
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