The Art of Learning

It’s been over two months since I started writing this entry, so rather than prolong the agony any further, I’m just going to post it somewhat unfinished and hope that it prompts further discussion via the comments.

Back in May I heard a snippet of a Talk of the Nation episode featuring Josh Waitzkin, and I was really impressed. If you’re not familiar with the name, he’s the kid that the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on. He ended up becoming an international chess master before ditching competitive chess and taking up Tai chi chuan. When his instructor encouraged him to try a competitive form of Tai chi, called Push Hands, he did so — and eventually became the world champion. Here is an interview with him from YouTube. He seems like an extraordinary guy who still manages to keep his head on straight. Pretty cool.

Two things that particularly interested me were Waitzkin’s concept of the beginner’s mind and his assertion that people need to risk losing, to invest in loss, to let go of the ego’s need to be great at something at every moment.

I remember as a writing instructor trying to break down my students’ writing, to force them to examine it and even allow it to be worse for a while before it got better. The ones who were willing to do that seemed to be the ones who made the greatest strides. The students who were heavily invested in the idea that they were great writers already invariably stagnated.

I also remember as a young violinist (between the ages of 5 and 13) being told repeatedly by my instructors to keep my left wrist straight. It was painful for me to do so, and my playing suffered when I couldn’t rest it in its “natural” position, bent back, with the palm of my hand touching the violin’s neck. I didn’t want to risk sounding worse. And I certainly didn’t want to experience the discomfort. So, instead of allowing myself to temporarily regress in order to ultimately take my violin playing to new heights, I stayed at a comfortable plateau. Sure, I improved over the years, but not nearly as much as I would have if I had been willing to suspend my short-term ego needs for long-term benefit. I doubt I would have continued playing the violin after the age of 13, even if I had approached such trials differently. There were simply too many other competing interests at the time. Still, it makes me wonder.

As an adult, I feel like I’ve been able to let go a little bit of the need to be good at something from day one, but only with some things. With photography, for example, I started taking pictures in earnest about eight years ago, and from the start I was determined to let myself be bad at it for as long as it took to learn to be something other than bad at it. Sometimes I have to beat back the notion that this is about as good as I’m going to get—not that I think there is nothing left for me to learn, but that I’m not capable of learning what’s left. But as I find time to take more pictures again, I’m hoping to keep Josh Waitzkin’s advice in mind.

This is turning into too much navel-gazing, so I’m going to stop now. But I’m really curious about others’ experiences, and I’d love to hear about them in the comments, if anyone would be willing to share. What do people do to maintain this “beginner’s mind”? How do people keep allowing themselves to take risks while their proficiency increases? What have been your successes and failures in this area? How can we teach our kids to be curious and adventurous and willing to make mistakes?

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5 Responses to The Art of Learning

  1. DEAN says:

    I have one thing to say about kids. I have been a soccer coach for many years and many more years to come. One team is u-16 female travel and the other team is u-6 coed intramural. The one thing I repeatedly tell my kids during practice is to keep trying new moves, be creative and never get mad at making mistakes. I tell them this is why we practice and once you perfect your moves and skills. Try it in a game and see how you do. I never get mad at a kid for being creative, trying things and making mistakes. As long as they learn from their mistakes and its how they recover from their mistakes and know how to correct their mistakes. Your never to old to try something new, so keep an open mind.

  2. (another) Sara says:

    Karl, I loved this post and the video. I think about things related to this idea quite a lot, and I think there’s so much to be said for detachment as part of the learning process — mucking about, trying things, and then detaching from small successes in order to push yourself to find something more layered and complex. In painting it’s hard, since the pieces are singular by nature. So detaching from my satisfaction with some small area on a canvas is necessary if the whole work is going to grow. It means losing, and finding, and losing and finding again.

    This is timely, too, because I’m exploring some new areas of work entirely, and it’s awkward to be the beginner yet again. Thanks for the inspiration to keep finding ways to slow down and let the discovery happen naturally.

  3. Sara (again) says:

    Also Karl, have you looked at Twyla Tharp’s _The Creative Habit_? It looks a bit self-helpy on the cover, but it’s actually got quite a lot of good discussion in this same realm.

  4. Karl says:

    Dean, I can only hope that my kids have teachers and coaches with the same kind of healthy perspective as you have.
    Sara, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about painting and how it relates to these ideas of “beginner’s mind” and divorcing your ego from the process. I’ll have to look into that Twyla Tharp book.
    If anyone out there hasn’t seen Sara’s really, really cool paintings, you should check them out!

  5. Dad says:

    This is one of the most interesting items on your blog, Karl. I guess I’ve watched the clip 5 or 6 times by now, but I find it hard to personally relate to his story. My ego must always have been pretty needy, or maybe it’s been insecurity. Anyway, Josh Waitzkin is an amazing guy, that’s for sure.

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