In this continuation from Part 1, Josh Waitzkin further explores the “multi-tasking virus” and learning. At the end of this post, he also responds to readers’ comments and elaborates on his own experience.
Bio: Josh was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer and an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He also holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts, and now trains hedge funds and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. I became friends with Josh after reading his book, The Art of Learning, which presents his learning strategies and approach to skill acquisition.
I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning.
Throughout my youth, I had been a creative, aggressive chess player. I loved the battle, and wild, dynamic chess felt like an extension of my being. Then, in my late teens a coach urged me to play in the opposite style, his style of quiet, positional, cold-blooded prophylaxis. Instead of cultivating my natural strengths, he boxed me into the cookie cutter mold he knew. In time, I lost touch with my intuitive feeling for chess, and without an internal compass I foundered in the swells of fame and high-pressure competition.
I see myself in the eyes of so many kids today. Too many primary, elementary, and high schoolers are being boxed into the mold of conformity required by big classes, competition for grades, tests with multiple-choice questions.
The first grader who leaps to his feet when he figures out the math problem is diagnosed as ADHD and medicated to sit quietly with the class. Young learners have immense pressure to perform, to get good grades, but no one is listening to the nuance of their minds. They feel suppressed, they are suppressed, and by the time students get to college, they have become disconnected from the love of learning. Then they are asked to read 1000 pages in a week and skimming is the only solution. Many of the students who actually were engaged in the Gandhi lecture, the ones who wanted to learn more than to shop, were taking notes on their computers in a frenzy, researching events online while Dalton described them, typing every last word of the lecture. But Dalton had already supplied them with a detailed course packet with all the relevant dates and facts. His classroom is an environment for reflection, introspection, and letting resonant themes sink into your being. Unfortunately, to these college students, the notion of delighting in the subtle ripples of learning is almost laughable. Who has the time?
The societal implications of this educational crisis are huge and the issue must be addressed creatively.
We cannot afford to lose a generation to apathetic disengagement. Part of the responsibility lies in public policies like No Child Left Behind, the standardized tests that are turning education into a forced march, and a culture that bombards us with so much stimulation that it is difficult to know what to focus on. But part of the burden also lies with parents, teachers and coaches, and with students themselves. I recently tried to persuade two smart 11-year-olds to give up video games for three weeks. One agreed to the experiment and also agreed to send me a description of how the process felt. The other simply couldn’t imagine life without the PSP, even for a day. Here was an eleven-year-old self-proclaimed incorrigible video game addict!
This story has a happy ending. In the final month of classes, Dennis Dalton discussed the issues of multi-tasking with his students, and many responded. Last week when I went back to hear the final lecture of Dalton’s Barnard career, there were only a few kids surfing the internet—nearly all the students seemed riveted. Many told me they were relieved to have turned off their computers and relaxed into listening. A number of my old classmates came, and afterwards we threw a party for our teacher. After four decades inspiring college minds, he has decided to nip apathy in the bud by teaching younger kids. He will start with high school, but Dennis Dalton, one of our culture’s greatest minds, dreams of teaching kindergarten.
Afterword from Josh:
Thanks to all of you for the powerful responses. I want to address a couple of the issues raised.
We obviously live in a world that bombards us with information, and we feel the need to respond to stimulus as it comes in. The problem with this is that we get stretched along the superficial outer layers of many things. I believe in depth over breadth in the learning process. Let’s say we have three skills to learn. The typical approach is to take them all on at once. It is much more effective to plunge deeply into one, touch Quality, and then transfer that feeling of Quality over to the others. A martial artist, for example, should internalize one technique very deeply instead of trying to learn 10 or 15 superficially.
This approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered—our brain does not re-map effectively when we are skipping along the surface.
As for Jose’s question—“How do you remain focused all the time?”—you don’t. It’s useful to build triggers for the zone, so you can slip into it at will. Then, once we know we can attain a state of intense concentration, we are free to let it go and recover.
I learned this lesson in my late teens/early twenties trying to stay concentrated for 8 hours a day, two weeks at a time in world chess championships—I would burn out. When I started taking mini breaks, my endurance and quality of focus surged. Stress and recovery should be our rhythms, and physical interval training can be an excellent tool for improving mental recovery. One of many problems with multi-tasking is that the frenetic skipping leaves little room for relaxation, and thus our reservoir for energetic presence is constantly depleted.
Tim, now I think it’s important for us to home in on the root of the problem. Multi-tasking, in my opinion, is just a symptom of a broader cultural disconnect that emerges from too much rigidity and too little creativity in our educational and corporate worlds. If we love what we are doing, odds are we will want to focus on it. So the solution is two pronged—help people discover the love, and arm them with strategies to zone in when they want to. The second I addressed above. The first, I will tackle below:
The path to mastery and to engagement is highly individualized—this is a truism that much of our educational system ignores. Those who succeed at the elite levels of any discipline have built relationships to learning around subtle introspective sensitivity. They understand how their minds work, and both cultivate strengths and take on weaknesses through their unique natural voice. They have learned to open communication between their conscious and unconscious minds, and construct repertoires around moments of creative inspiration. They have built triggers for their peak performance state, learned how to funnel emotion into deep focus, turned adversity to their advantage as a way of life—and they have done all of this in a manner and language that feels natural to them. That is how they seem so unobstructed, so fluid…they are just being themselves. Like children.
My road from innocence to alienation to a renewed childlike love for learning is the catalyst for my writing, my educational nonprofit, and my commitment to helping kids shine. As parents, teachers, and coaches, we must reach children when they are young, nurture their natural curiosity, help them understand their minds. Teachers have a responsibility to listen first—is a child auditory, kinesthetic, or visual? Are they naturally extroverted or introverted? What excites them? What gets their creative juices flowing? How can we take that unique potential and help it grow? How can we help our child enjoy learning instead of being paralyzed by external pressures?
In my case, I had to let go of a life’s work and start over. It wasn’t until I left chess behind and became a beginner again, meditating, studying philosophy and psychology, and ultimately taking on my second discipline, Tai Chi Chuan, that I began to regain a feel for the art within the learning process. I had to release myself from the desperate need to live up to the expectations of others, and in its place grew presence to a natural creativity that had been smothered by baggage. I started discovering connections again, chess and the martial arts became one in my mind, and I could transfer my ideas, my feeling of Quality from one to the other. Learning became an expression of my being. After years of slogging, I was being true to myself once more. Hopefully, the lessons gleaned from the painful end of my chess career can help others avoid similar pitfalls—and perhaps my rediscovery of a passion for learning holds some solutions to the crisis we face in our schools.
A note for 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 or three weeks, and write me about the experience at TheArtofLearning(at)gmail(dot)com.
For more: Josh at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. Length: 50 minutes
Posted on: May 26, 2008.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.