Book Review - The Art of Learning
This is a review of The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Joshua Waitzkin.
I’m sort of surprised how much I liked this book. At times, it bordered on self-help, spiritual BS but Waitzkin’s undeniable competitive success and tempering of the more spiritually flavored advice with insightful musing on how to master a domain or understand one’s opponent elevated it far above the self-help morass.
In this review, I summarize the book while musing on how well Waitzkin’s insights apply to the areas in which I’m interested. As I’m sure the summary components illustrates, I lack Waitzkin’s ability to describe technical insights into skill development in reverent, lyrical terms that highlight their profundity, so I highly recommend reading the actual book if you enjoy the quotes I’ve included in my summary. Before going on, I do want to add a disclaimer that this review is not especially critical of the book. While I have no problem with critical reviews (I am friends with Alexey after all), in this case my goal is to extract insights that apply to my own pursuits, so I only apply a critical lens to Waitzkin’s lessons insofar as it’s relevant to achieving this goal.
The Art of Learning is structured chronologically but different periods of Waitzkin’s development are used to illustrate facets of the art of learning. The narrative tracks Waitzkin’s development into a chess master, his subsequent disillusionment with chess, and his discovery and mastery of Tai Chi Push Hands, culminating in his winning of the World Championship. While Waitzkin’s career story grounded the abstract discussion, I’m more interested in focusing on the themes he discusses and their application to activities in which I’m interested.
Internalizing foundational principles and techniques #
The themes Waitzkin focuses on evolve over the course of the book as the challenges he faces and his attitude towards competition do. However, a couple of key ideas repeatedly reappear. One such idea is internalizing foundational principles so deeply that you can leverage them creatively and build upon them. As an example, Waitzkin discusses how part of his deeply internalized intuition for individual chess pieces’ strengths and weaknesses came from starting his serious training by mastering endgames. In endgame practice, only a few pieces remain on the board and so the player can focus on building a fingertip feel for how these pieces operate and act in tension with each other. To give you a flavor of Waitzkin’s characteristically spiritual but technical style, here’s his description of why studying endgames helped him:
Once he had won my confidence, Bruce began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king—just three pieces on the table. Over time, I gained an excellent intuitive feel for the power of the king and the subtlety of the pawn. I learned the principle of opposition, the hidden potency of empty space, the idea of zugzwang (putting your opponent in a position where any move he makes will destroy his position). Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight. Then we turned to rook endings, bishop endings, knight endings, spending hundreds of hours as I turned seven and eight years old, exploring the operating principles behind positions that I might never see again. This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning—the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspectives, I learned from the foundation up.
Most of my rivals, on the other hand, began by studying opening variations. There is a vast body of theory that begins from the starting position of all chess games, and it is very tempting to teach children openings right off the bat, because built into this theoretical part of the game there are many imbedded traps, land mines that allow a player to win quickly and easily—in effect, to win without having to struggle to win
We see this same idea again in a different form later when Waitzkin’s discussing mastering Tai Chi:
The straight is the power punch coming from the ground, generating through my left foot, and moving through my left leg, torso, diagonally across and up to the right side of my back, through the shoulder, tricep, and finally delivered by the second and third knuckles of my right hand. First, I practice the motion over and over in slow motion. We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed. I release my left hip, wind up, and spring the right hand into motion as my left foot and hip joint spin my waist and upper body into action. Different discipline, same idea. Break things down and internalize the pieces so deeply that you know them in your bones.
These quotes also highlight why my love of this book took me by surprise. Often the lessons Waitzkin shares are lessons I’ve heard many times before, yet they don’t feel stale coming from him. “Master the basics and build intuition for their use.” This is deliberate practice literature 101. And it’s certainly not the application to chess that is novel. Chase and Simon’s Perception in Chess paywalled link) from 1973 was the seed for the entire deliberate practice literature and is all about how what separates expert and novice chess players is the experts’ ability to handle a greater amount of information by chunking meaningful sub-structure in a chess position. But somehow seeing it described abstractly doesn’t do the same thing for me that having Waitzkin describe his lived experience does. Part of this may be the standard insight porn glow, but I think there’s something more. What Chase and Simon and other discussions of deliberate practice lack is the why. As a not that competitive person, crushing my enemies and seeing them driven before me is not going to get me excited about hours spent toiling over chess pieces / writing and rewriting a manuscript / refactoring a program for the 5th time to find the exactly correct abstraction. On the other hand, Waitzkin conveys how this sort of work can itself become intrinsically rewarding and meaningful. Put a different way, with apologies to William Blake:
To see a World in a Single Punch
And a Heaven in a Rook’s Advance,
Hold Infinity in the depth of your hunch
And Eternity in the fleeting chance.
Grow, but be true to your self #
Another aspect of Waitzkin’s discussion of mastery which goes beyond what one finds in scientific papers on deliberate practice is his nuanced understanding of how to harmonize individual personality and skill development. Waitzkin discusses how a trainer pushing him to subjugate his natural, self-described wild style in favor of a plodding strategic one, inspired by Karpov:
But Karpov had cold blood and mine boiled. When he searched for tiny strategic advantages, I yearned for wild dynamics. As I tried to play in the style that pleased my coach, chess began to feel alien. At times I felt as though my head was in a thick cloud and I couldn’t see the variations. My strengths as a young champion—consistency, competitive presence, focus, drive, passion, creativity—were elusive and moving out of reach. I still loved chess, but it no longer felt like an extension of my being.
Throughout the book, Waitzkin harps on the importance of finding ways to continue growing while not losing track of one’s connection to the discipline. He even attributes some of his success in Push Hands to avoiding this mistake, having experienced its impact on his relationship to chess. On its own, this may come off as no different from the trope-y self-help author who stresses the importance of being true to yourself. What separates Waitzkin from a trope-purveyor is his recognition that a fastidious devotion to remaining true to oneself can also limit growth. Continuing in his discussion of Karpov in the context of describing the contrasting opinions of two of his coaches, Waitzkin writes:
On the other side of the argument was Yuri Razuvaev, who insisted that I should continue to nurture my natural voice as a chess player. Razuvaev believed that I was a gifted attacking player who should not be bullied away from my strengths. There was no question that I needed to learn more about Karpov’s type of chess to make the next steps in my development, but Razuvaev pointed out that I could learn Karpov from Kasparov.
This was a delicate and rather mystical-feeling idea, and I wish I had possessed the sophistication as a sixteen-year-old boy to see its power. On one level, Razuvaev’s point was that the great attacking players all possess keen understanding of positional chess, and the way for someone like myself to study high-level positional chess is to study the way the great players of my nature have integrated this element of the art. An interesting parallel would be to consider a lifetime rock guitarist who wants to learn about classical music. Let’s say there are two possible guides for him in this educational process. One is an esoteric classical composer who has never thought much of the “vulgarity of rock and roll,” and another is a fellow rocker who fell in love with classical music years ago and decided to dedicate his life to this different genre of music. The ex-rocker might touch a common nerve while the composer might feel like an alien. I needed to learn Karpov through a musician whose blood boiled just like mine
Waitzkin understands that growth requires going beyond some of one’s natural inclinations but argues that there’s a way to achieve this that doesn’t run roughshod over these inclinations. I suspect Waitzkin’s experience is one that many people, in particular the sort of people who can’t help but want to improve at activities they pick up, can relate to. You start out liking a subject or hobby. You get better and better at it. But then, something happens and the magic fades. All of a sudden, practicing and improving becomes a chore. I confess this happened to me with math during undergrad. Prior to college, I’d always considered myself a math person albeit not to the degree some of my current friends who participated in the IMO and went to Math Camp did. I enjoyed the feeling of mastering topics and then being able to quickly answer questions through understanding (as expected, I wasn’t always a fan of showing work). Yet the latter component of the calculus sequence combined with an engineering-style differential equations and a systems class during my first two years of college changed my self-identity from “person who’s good at math” to “person who has no use for all that abstract nonsense. This new negative attitude persisted until about two years when, forced by my desire to become a machine learning practitioner, I rehabilitated my relationship with math.
Waitzkin’s discussion of harmonizing growth with personality helps me understand part of what happened to my relationship to math in those years and why certain aspects of my rehabilitation strategy did/didn’t work. Especially as I’ve spent more time around other highly technical people and observed them solve problems as a software engineer and, more recently, an ML practitioner, I’ve noticed that compared to others, I rely less on and am often worse at step-by-step reasoning (don’t even get me started on algebra mistakes) and instead lean heavily on what I describe as analogies and intuition for lack of a better term (for more on this distinction, I highly recommend this blog post by Lucy Keer). Because I was unwilling to put in the work required to internalize mathematical concepts in the way my intuition could leverage in these college classes, math became a quest to just figure out the right formula to apply to get through a problem set or exam. That college math introduces higher levels of abstractions and the definition-theorem-proof style which notoriously obscures the intuitive basis of mathematical concepts only exacerbated my feeling of ungroundedness from the material. (It’s important to note that this wasn’t the only cause. Like many others, this was my first time experiencing not being able to coast while still doing well, and I was also distracted by other typical college student activities.)
My more recent study of linear algebra provides a good case study to contrast with my college experience. At first, presented with a mass of definitions and exercises, I would just try to power through, focusing on the exact content of definitions and questions rather than taking time to understand the latent generators of their content. This led to repeated cycles of frustration in which I’d look at a theorem to prove or example to provide and find myself reading the words over and over again having no idea how to proceed. However, with the help of a wonderful tutor who knows more math than I ever will, I learned to avoid or at least minimize this agony by spending time probing definitions, asking why they were the way they were, what underlying concepts led to them being defined they were, and exploring how changes to them would cascade through proofs which depended on them. This not only helped me improve but also made the learning process more enjoyable, although still difficult, by better aligning it with my natural inclinations. It’s worth noting that while my math ability and knowledge still pales in comparison to real mathematicians’, two of the greatest (and most eccentric) mathematicians seem to have benefited from doubling down on their natural inclinations rather than subjugating them. The first, Alexander Grothendieck, is seemingly universally agreed upon to have been an alien, capable of seeing things that noone else could. His and his disciples furious work over a ten year period yielded thousands of pages of novel math which laid the foundation of algebraic geometry – which I know nothing about – and led to the resolution of the third Weil conjecture. Grothendieck is famous for his “rising sea” approach to mathematics, which he described as follows:
I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened.
The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better,and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months – when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!
A different image came to me a few weeks ago.
The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration… the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it.. yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.
– Alexander Grothendieck (source)
Grothendieck’s approach is often contrasted with other mathematicians’, in particular his collaborator Jean Paul Serre, who solved problems through what he describes as applying a chisel to a nut. In a different passage, Grothendieck directly addresses the question of being true to oneself:
Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.
In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.
– Alexander Grothendieck (source)
Would Grothendieck have been a great mathematician had he conformed more to the rest of the field? Maybe, but I highly doubt he would have been as original and impactful had he chosen to do so. The second famous mathematician who exemplifies what good can come of letting people learn in a way that’s suited to their personality is Bill Thurston. Thurston is famous for his work on geometry – as with Grothendieck, I understand none of it – and in particular his preternatural geometric intuition. Thurston described his approach as “lazy”, saying:
I’ve always taken a “lazy” attitude toward calculations. I’ve often ended up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out an easy way to see something, preferably to see it in my head without having to write down a long chain of reasoning. I became convinced early on that it can make a huge difference to find ways to take a step-by-step proof or description and find a way to parallelize it, to see it all together all at once—but it often takes a lot of struggle to be able to do that. I think it’s much more common for people to approach long case-bycase and step-by-step proofs and computations as tedious but necessary work, rather than something to figure out a way to avoid. By now, I’ve found lots of “big picture” ways to look at the things I understand, so it’s not as hard.
– Bill Thurston (source)
A colleague of Thurston offers an easy-to-understand anecdote which sheds additional light on Thurston’s unique way of conceptualizing mathematics:
As a first-grader he made the decision “to practice visualization every day.” Asked how he saw in four or five dimensions he said it is the same as in three dimensions: reconstruct things from two-dimensional projections.
To stop sibling squabbling Paul would ask the kids math questions. While driving, Paul asked Bill (when he was five), “What is 1 + 2 + · · · + 100?” Bill said, “5,000.” Paul said, “Almost right.” Bill said, “Oh, I filled one square with 1, two squares for 2 and all the way up to 100, so that’s half of 100 × 100 = 10, 000, but I forgot that the middle squares are cut in two, so that’s 5,050!” (1)There’s a very similar story about Gauss being asked this same question and answering it immediately, so asking kids it seems to be a good way to identify future eminent mathematicians.
– David Gabai and Steven Kerckchoff (source)
As with Grothendieck, Thurston’s success partly resulted from his doubling down on an approach that jived with his natural fluency with geometric thinking. Notably, Thurston attended a small liberal arts school where he seemingly learned math almost entirely through independent study from textbooks. This enabled him to learn math at his own pace and in a way that fit with his geometric perspective without being pushed to abandon it by overzealous teachers.
That said, while we’ve seen that Waitzkin’s nuanced approach to harmonizing personality and growth seems to work well for these famous mathematicians, my own discipline of machine learning provides an example in which I think his solution is more in tension with success. Imagine you’re a machine learning researcher in 2010. You’ve heard rumblings about neural networks starting to work better when combined with backpropagation and admit to a certain curiosity about them but you just can’t get over the fact that it’s so hard to come up with theory about them. Your beloved SVMs on the other hand are the target of some of the most elegant theorems in all the land. As a devotee of beautiful theory but also someone who cares about doing useful research, is pivoting to focus on these new messy models an opportunity for growth or a dangerous neglect of your personal inclinations?
Or to take another example I’ve thought about before, suppose you’re a physicist interested in pivoting into biology (now, not historically). Your love of simplicity and mathematical beauty drove you to physics, but the track record of simple mathematical models in biology is not great post-double helix discovery era. Is forcing oneself to abandon the need for mathematical clarity and simplicity neglecting one’s natural inclinations, a necessary step to do important work, or both?
I think Waitzkin would say that in both cases, you should find a way to shift focus that doesn’t alienate you from the thing that drove your passion for research in the first place, but I don’t know what this looks like in practice.
At risk of going down an even deeper rabbit hole, another reason we might be skeptical of Waitzkin’s argument about individual style ironically comes from recent developments in chess. The reason for skepticism can be summarized as “style is for puny humans, not true optimizers.” While Kasparov or Carlsen may be able to stick to a certain style and beat all other humans, no style can even come close to matching the power of AlphaZero or even Stockfish. In other words, the superiority of chess-playing engines, which lack a coherent style or pre-disposition, illustrates that style is a solution to the problem of bounded cognition rather than a necessary feature of excellence. On the other hand, as long as we remain stuck with unaugmented brains, style seems to be a necessary crutch for sustainable peak performance.
Systematizing focus #
The power of presence and flow are well described at this point but Waitzkin adds ideas on how to systematize entering flow and using interruptions and adversity to fuel an even deeper level of presence and concentration to the discussion.
Flow on demand #
Waitzkin’s discussion of engaging flow starts by focusing on how one can get into the zone rapidly assuming relatively normal external conditions. In a chapter called Building Your Trigger, Waitzkin outlines a process for finding a flow trigger routine and then condensing it untilsimply thinking about it causes you to enter a flow state. Rather than describe it further, I’ll simply quote an example he provides in which he walks someone (Dennis in the story) through this process:
I have observed that virtually all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner, but they usually dismiss them as “just taking a break.” If only they knew how valuable their breaks could be! Let me emphasize that it doesn’t matter what your serene activity is. Whether you feel most relaxed and focused while taking a bath, jogging, swimming, listening to classical music, or singing in the shower, any such activity can take the place of Dennis’s catch with his son.
The next step was to create a four- or five-step routine. Dennis had already mentioned music, meditation, stretching, and eating. I suggested that an hour before the next time he played catch with his son, Dennis should eat a light snack. We decided on a blended fruit and soy shake that he enjoyed making in his kitchen. Then he would go into a quiet room and do a fifteen-minute breathing exercise that he had learned a few years before. It was a simple meditative technique where he followed his breath. When he noticed his mind wandering, he just released the thought like a cloud gliding by and returned to his breath. For beginners, this meditation may seem frustrating because they notice their minds racing all over the place and feel that they are doing badly; but that is not the case. The return to breath is the key to this form of meditation. There is no doing badly or well, just being with your breath, releasing your thoughts when you notice them, and coming back to breath. I highly recommend such techniques. Not only is the return to breath a glimmer of the zone—a moment of undistracted presence—but the ebb and flow of the experience is another form of stress and recovery training. Finally, if there is nothing in your life that feels serene, meditation is the perfect hobby to help you discover a launching point in your search for a personalized routine.
Dennis has had a light snack and done some breathing exercises. After these twenty-five minutes, the next step would be a ten-minute stretching routine from his high school football days. I asked Dennis what kind of music he listened to. He had eclectic taste, everything from Metallica to Bob Dylan to classical. I told him that I loved Bob Dylan as well. We decided on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” a beautiful, mellow, long Dylan song; but really any music would have worked, depending on the individual’s preference. After listening to the song, Dennis would get his son, and they would go outside and toss around the baseball as they did every day. I told Dennis to treat the catch like any other catch, just to have fun.
So we created the following routine: 1. Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes 2. 15 minutes of meditation 3. 10 minutes of stretching 4. 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan 5. Play ball
For about a month, Dennis went through his routine every day before playing catch with his son. Each step of the routine was natural for him, and playing ball was always a joy, so there was no strain to the experience.
The next step in the process is the critical one: after he had fully internalized his routine, I suggested that he do it the morning before going to an important meeting. So Dennis transplanted his routine from a prelude to playing catch with his son to a prelude to work. He did so and came back raving that he found himself in a totally serene state in what was normally a stressful environment. He had no trouble being fully present throughout the meeting.
The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes. Dennis was always present when playing ball with his son, so all we had to do was set up a routine that became linked to that state of mind (clearly it would have been impractical for Dennis to tow Jack around everywhere he went). Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge. Let me emphasize that your personal routine should be determined by your individual tastes. If Dennis had so chosen, he could have done cartwheels, somersaults, screamed into the wind, and then taken a swim before playing catch with his son, and over time those activities would become physiologically connected to the same state of mind. I tend to prefer a routine like Dennis’s, because it is relatively portable and seems more conducive to a mellow presence, but to each his own.
At this point, Waitzkin digresses into discussion of some of his own struggles with getting himself into the zone, but let’s instead just jump to the conclusion of the Dennis story, where we see how to condense the routine:
Next, for a few days, Dennis meditated for twelve minutes instead of fifteen. He still came out in the same great state of mind. Then he stretched for eight minutes, instead of ten. Same presence. Then he changed the order of the stretch and meditation. No problem. Over time, slowly but surely, Dennis condensed his stretching and meditation routine down to just a few minutes. Then he would listen to Bob Dylan and be ready to roll. If he wasn’t hungry, he could do without the snack altogether. His routine had been condensed to around twelve minutes and was more potent than ever. Dennis left it at that because he loved Dylan so much, but the next step would have been to gradually listen to less and less music, until he only had to think about the tune to click into the zone. This process is systematic, straightforward, and rooted in the most stable of all principles, incremental growth.
What I appreciate about this passage and the surrounding discussion is the way in which it demystifies the process of entering the zone. Having read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, I’ve often been bothered by the mysterious air surrounding flow. Waitzkin, lacking the luxury of being able to wait for the zone to strike him, has broken down the flow engagement process in a way that enables someone like me to develop my own process. Although I haven’t yet actually developed such a routine, writing this section has revived my intention to.
Be like water #
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
– Bruce Lee (source)
Chess and Push Hands competitions acted as a crucible for Waitzkin learning to not only engage focus on demand but also channel distraction, adversity, and his emotional responses to them into even deeper focus. On the topic of distraction, Waitzkin’s approach is very reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s admonition to be like water. Early in his chess career, Waitzkin would try to force himself to focus and ignore distractions. Like anyone who’s employed this strategy while experimenting with meditation, he found this didn’t work. Instead, he found that the best way to deal with distractions was a two-pronged approach:
- In the moment, let them flow through him rather than block them out.
- Practice in distracting situations like playing chess in a smoky room or with loud music playing to build resilience.
Elaborating on the first point, Waitzkin believes the key to not letting distractions rattle you is to harness the emotions they produce into improving your performance.
Some of Waitzkin’s most challenging experiences with distraction occurred as a result of competitors intentionally seeking to throw him off his game. He describes intentionally practicing with a dirty Push Hands partner, playing chess against a boy who would kick him while he was trying to think, and competing against an especially aggressive Push Hands opponent in the World Championship. Yet none of these stories capture what I see as the essence of dealing with an opponent as well as my favorite passage in the entire book, a story relayed by Waitzkin about a seasoned hunter in the Amazon’s encounter with a jaguar. I’m including the entire thing here because it’s so good (the hunter’s name is José):
One night José was moving through the forest, darkness closing in, on the way home with a small capybara strapped to his back. Suddenly his skin prickled. He stopped, listened, heard the deep rumble of a cat. He smelled the animal, knew it was near. He felt for his blowgun, but it had been a long night hunting and there were no darts left. José was standing next to a giant Sumaumeira tree, which are often used by Amazonians for communicating over long distances in the jungle. Immediately, José took his machete and swung it back and forth in a blur, clanging against the tree’s magnificent exposed root and sending a pounding call for help through the darkness. These vibrations can be heard over a mile away. Hopefully his son would be listening.
Then José stood in silence, waiting. He smelled the cat. It was close. A few moments later a large black jaguar, onza negra, over two hundred pounds, glided down from a tree twenty feet ahead of him and started moving in. José remembered the glowing yellow eyes, as though a demon were coming for him. He knew if he ran the cat would be on him instantly. He tossed his night’s catch forward onto the forest floor, then held his machete and stood his ground, moving his weapon rhythmically, preparing for the fight of his life. The cat walked straight toward him, and then changed course about eight feet away. It started pacing. Back and forth, keeping distance, but never taking its eyes off José. It watched the machete, followed its movements.
At first, the jaguar’s pacing felt good. José thought that maybe it was indecisive, considering the dead rodent. The minutes passed. José’s arm got tired from swaying. He watched the rippling muscles of the cat’s legs, imagined them hurling the beast on top of him. There would be only one chance. When the cat came, he would need to dodge and strike in a blur. He would have to get to the neck or take off a limb and somehow roll away from the razor claws. It would all happen in an instant. But the waiting was eating him up inside. His whole being was on edge, poised for battle, exploding, while the cat paced, languid, easy, yellow eyes glowing, edging closer, now seven feet away, now six feet.
After ten minutes the tension was unbearable. José was drenched in sweat, his right arm shook from the weight of the machete. He switched hands, felt the weapon in his left, hoped the cat didn’t notice the new awkwardness for a minute or so while he recovered. He felt dreamy, as if the cat were hypnotizing him. Fear overwhelmed him. This man of the jungle was falling apart. After fifteen minutes, the cat started moving faster. It edged in, coiled, watched the machete move, then turned back to pacing. It looked for openings, felt the timing of the weapon. José was all strung out. His nerves were frayed. The yellow eyes were taking him over. His body shook. José started sobbing. He backed away from the cat, and this was a mistake. The jaguar moved in. Straight in. It showed its teeth, crouched to leap. José had no fight left. He gave himself up and there was a crack through the night. Then shouting. The cat turned. Another crack rang out and then two young men ran through the bush screaming. José’s son took aim with his gun, but the cat vanished into the darkness, leaving a father weeping on the jungle floor. Three years later, José still hadn’t recovered from this encounter. The villagers say he went mad. His spirit was broken.
To me, what’s so powerful about this story is how much it captures the feeling of being worn down by something (not necessarily a predator or another person) relentless. And while Waitzkin doesn’t return to this story after telling it, in my mind, all of his subsequent discussion of dealing with adversity is ultimately about preparing for a metaphorical jaguar.
I’ll conclude this section with what I expect to be my most controversial opinion in this entire review - the person in the business world who most embodies Waitzkin’s ideal of channeling hardship and emotion into deeper resolve and focus is Elon Musk. Reading the Musk’s biography and learning about how much he was willing to risk repeatedly on his companies, I am convinced that presented with a jaguar, Elon would break down physically rather than breaking down mentally like José.
As I was writing this review and re-reading my notes on and passages from the book, I kept finding more and more topics I wanted to cover. For example, I’ve only just scratched the surface of Waitzkin’s discussion of how to translate epiphanies and breakthroughs into principles and chunks! However, this review is already long and I feel like short of writing my own version of the book, I’ve captured what I want to capture.
Underlying Waitzkin’s various stories and discussions is a philosophy in which mastery is intrinsically tied to personal growth and development. This sounds vacuous when stated abstractly but I believe Waitzkin’s story provides at least inspiration and lessons for both how one can and why one would want to adopt this perspective in their own pursuits.
As always, if you have feedback on this feel free to reach out!