Please enjoy this transcript of my fourth interview with Josh Waitzkin, an eight-time national chess champion, a two-time world champion in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands, the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt under nine-time world champion Marcelo Garcia, and the author of The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Joshua. Good day, sir.
Josh Waitzkin: Timbo.
Tim Ferriss: Good to see you yet again. We’ve had a chance to spend a bunch of time together and all sorts of questions that come to mind that I’ve wanted to ask you. And all sorts of discussions have come up over meals and wine and cold plunges that I’ve wanted to explore with you. Let’s talk about—if you’re open to starting here—some recent explorations of learning, and specifically, some insights related to someone you introduced me to quite a few years ago, Maurice Ashley.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, man. Maurice is a dear friend and we became very close when I was 11 years old playing chess and between the ages of around 11 and 23, 24 we studied chess five, six hours a week together, sparred together, traveled around the world, competing together, against one another, and as a team, as training partners. It was actually really cool. He came to visit us a couple weeks ago and it was a really unusual life opportunity because Maurice and I haven’t talked about chess in about 20 years.
So imagine going all in, just deep dive with someone for 13 or 14 years in an art, not talking about that art for 20 years, growing in different directions, and then coming together and a lot of what we were exploring were questions around, for example, what were our assumptions or our shared constructs 20 years ago? Things that we agreed to be true that we now don’t believe to be true.
Tim Ferriss: And for context, I mean, Maurice was a high-level chess player.
Josh Waitzkin: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: For people who don’t know the chess world, how would you describe—
Josh Waitzkin: He’s a strong Grandmaster. I mean, we came up the ranks together. He’s older than me, he’s about, I think 10, 11 years older than me, and he’s a beautiful soul. I mean, back in the day, we were just brothers, very similar to my relationship with Dan Caulfield that I have today in martial arts and foiling. Maurice was my sparring partner in the chess world. I think what you’re referring to, in terms of, what we were exploring was fascinating because—I mean, a lot of what I think about today is the emptiness of mental models, or the relativity, the non-absolute nature of any ideas or constructs or networks of ideas that we have, things that we believe today will likely see a somewhat flawed five years from now.
And so I work on seeing them as flawed today and seeing the holes in them. And so what was really interesting to explore with Maurice are what were the things that we believed, as pretty strong chess players back in the day, that we just no longer believed to be true—individually and collectively.
Tim Ferriss: What came up?
Josh Waitzkin: A lot came up.
Tim Ferriss: What came up for you?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, one of the directions of thought that I found most interesting, it’s not just what were our false constructs 20 years ago, but what are the common root structures to my current constructs and my false constructs 20 years ago?
Tim Ferriss: I see. So in other words, what do you now disagree with, in terms of beliefs you held 20 years ago, that nonetheless sprouted from roots or seeds that current beliefs share?
Josh Waitzkin: That I may or may not be present to?
Tim Ferriss: You may not.
Josh Waitzkin: And then part of the challenge is to be present to them and then examine their emptiness today. One of the interesting differences between Maurice and me 20 years ago is that when Maurice studied chess, he was extremely idealistic, fanciful. Somewhat to a fault, competitively. So there were moments where, for example, Maurice would be playing a beautiful chess game and he would make a mistake, as we all do, and he would lose interest in the game because the poetic perfection or something of what he’d been creating had been marred. His idealism was obviously so beautiful to me, but also was sometimes a little bit frustrating when we were training together. And that frustration we both learned from, and it was really interesting.
It was an example that came to mind for me, where there was a moment I recall, viscerally when I was probably 22 years old, we were studying a variation of the Najdorf Sicilian, and we saw there was a position that would come after three incorrect decisions. So in other words, in this complex opening that we were studying, there will be three mistakes that we made and led to this fascinating position. And Maurice was like, “We should study that position.” I thought that was completely impractical. I was like, “Dude, what are we going to study this for? It’s imprecise.” Right? “We should spend our time studying a position we might actually see.”
And it was an example of me feeling that Maurice was being overly fanciful or idealistic in the moment of training and Maurice just being fascinated by something and seeing it would be cool and interesting to learn from potentially. So in that moment, I had a lot of confidence that he was barking up the wrong tree. And when I think about that now, 20 years later, I was absolutely wrong. I think that studying that position, so much of what learning is at a high level to me today is conceptual learning, thematic learning, it’s not about anything local. And so that position had so much dynamism to it. So the convergence of different dimensions, and we would have learned so much from studying, we actually did end up studying it. We didn’t learn so much from it.
But when I think about it today, that was a massive blind spot for me. So then how do I deconstruct that into a common root structure today? Well, if you look at the way my buddy Dan and I studied martial arts together for a lot of years, we took on tai chi push hands together starting in 2000, in training camps for the 2002 and 2004 World Championships, and then we transitioned to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, reached high levels in that art and now, we’re taking on surfing and foiling together, really all in on foiling.
One of the differences between the way Dan and I approach learning is that I would argue that he’s a much more gifted athlete than me, and I’m much more of a deconstructive learner than Dan is. So early in the learning process around something, I’ll tend to deconstruct it down to the component parts, which might be technical or often will be thematic. And then I’ll internalize those component parts and then I’m ready just to go all-in on chaos. Dan likes to just throw himself off a cliff, and then he reaches his technical clarity by just jumping right into the chaos. And so we have different paths to a similar place and we’ve learned to navigate that together.
So the interesting thing is that there’s a little bit of an identity or a stiffness in my approach there. So there’s something about the early stages of learning a new part, for example, of foiling. For example, we’ve recently started dialing in toe foiling, whipping on a jet ski, whipping somebody on the lightest possible high-performance foil board and riding big waves.
Tim Ferriss: Can you describe for people who may not have heard our last conversation together what a foil board is?
Josh Waitzkin: So foiling is you’re on a surfboard and then beneath the surfboard is a two and a half to three-foot mast, which is sort of like a big guillotine. And then beneath that is a wing, which can be a big—
Tim Ferriss: It’s a giant razor blade.
Josh Waitzkin: Yes, exactly. It’s a really safe art. Once you’re in a wave, the wing is what you’re riding. So the wing is interacting with underwater wave energy.
Tim Ferriss: The board is lifted off of the surface of the water.
Josh Waitzkin: Right.
Tim Ferriss: For people who are visualizing this.
Josh Waitzkin: The wing is in the water and you’re standing on a surface, which is a few feet above the water and it’s crazy because it’s frictionless, it’s incredibly fast, it’s so dynamic. It’s awesome. I mean, I’ve never been more in love with an art in my life.
Tim Ferriss: And the purpose, if I am getting this right, of using a foil, aside from the different kinesthetic experience and aesthetic experience, is to be able to move faster on bigger waves. Is that how foiling came about as a technology?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, yes, I guess maybe that’s a part of why it came out. I mean, you’re above the surface chop. So it can be choppy weather and you’re feeling a foil, you’re just above it all. So you’re frictionless. So conditions that are unsurfable are foilable because the surfer would be chattering on all this surface texture and the foil is above it. I think that so much of how I personally relate to it is its frictionlessness. I think of learning as unobstructed self-expression. So friction is a form of obstruction. What’s fascinating is foiling, it’s such a powerful physical embodiment of that principle.
Tim Ferriss: I know we’re going to hop around because we both had a lot of coffee, but we were talking about these labels and inflexibility, so we may come back to that. But one thing that has really impressed me that you and Dan share in common is I suppose you probably focus on this perhaps more, you could correct me, but the use of technology and training to really accumulate focused repetitions, right? So for instance, you have a foil board and then you have an eFoil.
Josh Waitzkin: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Right? So how would you use an eFoil?
Josh Waitzkin: So the way I took on foiling was I got an eFoil, and I spent about two months flying around 2,000 miles on flat water. So I learned foiling and that’s just, first of all, working on flight with a motor. So an eFoil is a foil with a prop on it with a lithium battery and I was flying in flat water at between 15 and 25 miles an hour just getting used to flight dynamics because being on a foil board, it’s micro-micro recalibration. If you back weight, you fly up. If you front weight, you could go down. If you over weight, you crash into the water, or if the wing comes out of the water, you’re catapulting.
So I worked on flight dynamics, then I worked on breakfalls, which is a hugely important part of it, which I don’t see a lot of foilers do, which is really training in the art of falling, which something that Dan and I did, of course, for many, many years in the martial arts. It’s not just learning how to fall when you want to fall, it’s actually turning a fall that’s out of control into a breakfall. So it’s really learning how to prepare for the moments you haven’t prepared for. And being good at breakfalls opens—like when I took on onewheeling, right? Which is an electronic skateboard with one wheel in the middle around New York City.
I had a lot of falls at 25 miles an hour into New York City pavement. And if you don’t know how to breakfall, you’re going to get hurt. But if you do, you can just roll out of it and be fine. So I think that being comfortable falling, it’s a really important principle, I would say and we could talk about designing the learning process around principles as opposed to around techniques. The technical arsenal of breakfalls, it would fall into the principle of just being comfortable falling and then you can take a lot more risk than you can take otherwise because the fall will be something that’s part of your domain.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s take an example of practice that I’ve never heard anyone else discuss. Maybe this is common practice. I suspect it is not. But you’ve achieved the world-class levels in multiple arts. That in and of itself is very uncommon. With foiling specifically, and we won’t spend an hour talking about only foiling, but I think I want to highlight for people that this is a discussion of learning and principles using the example of foiling. Using an eFoil to go through boils over and over and over again, is that principle-based? Is that technique? Perhaps you could just paint a picture of what a boil is and why you chose to practice in that way?
Josh Waitzkin: Right. Okay. So zooming out for a moment, the way I think about taking on these arts, it’s understanding what are the component parts and doing lots of reps in them so that you’re comfortable with them, then putting them all together. So my learning process won’t look great in the first couple of days or couple of weeks. And I’m not concerned about that. I think that one of the interesting parts of it, I think that a lot of what’s happening in surf culture and foil culture is people have these Instagram accounts, and they’re always posting videos of what they’re doing, and they have to look cool.
So there’s this groupthink that I observe around what looks cool, and what the micro-culture will approve of. So you can’t really do things outside of that. And so for example, going through boils when you’re on big wave faces on a reef, sometimes there’s an upwelling of water that, if the water interacts with a shallow spot, or a ledge or a big rock, you’ll have a boil and just like a big shooting up of water pressure from the bottom.
Tim Ferriss: It looks like boiling water?
Josh Waitzkin: It looks like boiling water, and when the wing hits that or when a piece of a wing hits that, a foil wing, you just can get thrown. So you have to learn to absorb it. So you have to learn how to either weave around it, weave through the boils or absorb them. And so one of the things the eFoil opened up was the ability to really seek out boils and learn how to—lowering level a little bit at the top of your mast when you enter it, and then just learning what the boil does, if you hit the ring straight on the corners, lots of falling.
But for example, putting on a helmet, putting on an impact vest, those things don’t look cool on Instagram. And so you can’t do those things if you’re going to be posting on Instagram every day, right? But if you’re living a bizarre hermit life, like, I guess I do and not doing that kind of thing.
Tim Ferriss: You guess? I can confirm.
Josh Waitzkin: I mean, embracing looking absurd in certain moments is a very interesting hack to what others might not be taking advantage of in the learning process. I mean, I went over hundreds and hundreds of boils on the eFoil and learned how to absorb them. I had incredible crashes, but then I learned how to dial in those crashes and I learned how to hit the boils at different speeds and absorb—I mean, I got thrown off at mid-30s miles-an-hour after Dan whipped me off of the jet ski on a four-pound foil board the other day and this boil just erupted me and I went flying. I mean, it’s an ongoing process at different speeds.
Tim Ferriss: I was just going to say, I remember the first time we spoke about this because it coincided with a week later and we talked about this. Me going to volunteer at something called Zendo at a festival called Lightning in a Bottle which I’d wanted to attend specifically not because I’m a concert- or festival-goer, but because it’s effectively like a mini-Burning Man that skews to younger ages. For people who don’t know, Zendo is a peer-supported, harm-reduction, volunteer outfit that helps people who are going through difficult drug experiences generally, or, oftentimes, psychedelic experiences that do not require medical intervention.
So there’s medical triage for people who have done something that could be physiologically dangerous but otherwise, for me, it was the equivalent of you going through boils. Because if, for instance, and I’m not a facilitator, I do not support or have not chosen as a career, supporting people going through psychedelic experiences, but I wanted to develop a level of confidence that if I were in an environment where I was called upon to handle a worst-case scenario, that I would at least have a certain degree of comfort and exposure to that. But it’s really uncommon that you would get a lot of repetitions with that. That would, in fact, mean that you would in some way be manufacturing these terrible conditions.
So one of the few ways to do it was the volunteer at Zendo where you get these redline cases, and you get put in the crisis tent over and over and over and over and over again. And we had a really rich conversation about that, about this type of deliberate practice with the edge cases that are nonetheless really important to develop a degree of comfort around.
Josh Waitzkin: I think that you can do it thematically or non-locally. You don’t have to do it specifically in the thing. So for example, one of the beautiful things that the eFoil opened up to me and Dan was the ability to just—where there was one wave that we fell in love with, the offshore reef, and it would just mound up into this super steep ramp that just kept on going, and it was actually two converging ramps, and we called it ramps. And this wave was—it was the drop that you’d make surfing that would last a second, that drop would last 45 to 60 seconds. And a buddy who surfed it said it would we should call it aneurysms because it felt like you’re having an aneurysm that lasts for 60 seconds.
But we did so many thousands of those waves, then it’s like you get used to the aneurysm. Then the aneurysm becomes mellow, it’s just a mellow place to be. And then you translate that over to foiling on the lightest, most high-performance board possible. The drop you make down a steep face before a bottom turn. We’ve just done so many of those that lasted for so long, these sections that would have felt super critical to us before just don’t anymore. Similarly, you can do cold plunges.
So if you’re cold plunging in 33-degree water, your body is going to go into that same freakout, fight-or-flight place. And then learning to breathe through that and come out the other side, I mean, cold plunges are, in a non-local way, a great way to train at making steep drops, surfing or foiling.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s controlling. It may not even be controlling a panic response, but becoming familiar with the physiological response to panic on some level.
Josh Waitzkin: Right.
Tim Ferriss: And those people listening obviously can’t see what’s going on here. But you have a richness, a smorgasbord of cold plunge options here. And 33 degrees is not a grand exaggeration, because I unplugged one of the cold plunges a few days ago because it was turning into an entire ice block. So, for the last few days, we’ve been getting inside and being surrounded by ice. I think the idea of non-local practice applies also to what I was mentioning, right? Because I have accompanied doctors on ER rounds for similar reasons, right? To become more comfortable with an environment that seems out of control or unpredictable.
Another option within the realm of, say, psychedelic harm reduction would be engaging or facilitating in large breathwork groups where you will have people, whether it’s holotropic, or something else, respond in really exaggerated, outwardly expressive ways in these groups and you have to keep them from, say, flailing and hurting themselves or hurting someone else. What types of practice have become more important to you? If you’re looking back at your, say, competitive career in chess or your practice of jiu-jitsu, what types of practice or thematic practice have become more important? Have you learned to value more or less? Does anything come to mind?
Josh Waitzkin: Conceptual practice, thematic practice. For example, building on what you just said, I would say that the tension one feels as a chess player, the buildup of tension both psychologically and technically on what’s happening between the chess pieces is very similar to—it might be difficult for people visualizing to people sitting on a chessboard and compared to dropping down big waves, but it’s very similar to the feeling one has dropping down big waves. You feel it’s the you feel the desperate urge to release the tension. And similar in cold water, right?
And so the path that I’ve worked with—so initially, it’s pain. It’s red alert, “Get me out of here.” Then it’s becoming a piece in that pain and it’s learning how to enjoy it. And so like the great chess players, like someone like Magnus Carlsen, one thing that’s fairly unique about him as he seems to really enjoy tension, right? I never got there as a chess player, but I have gotten there on other things. It’s just learning to just completely love chaos till the tension isn’t grinding on you. You’re not a tectonic plate moving toward eruption, you’re getting stronger as the tension builds, and that’s something that I think is beautiful to train at. Something like cold water is just something you can replicate every day to do it.
The eFoil opened that up and drops, foiling, right? So I think to answer your question, conceptual learning has been—when you learn a technique, you’re learning one thing, when you’re learning a principle that embodies a technique, you might be learning a thousand things. And so designing a learning process around the meta. This is part of the reason why I think my approach to surfing and foiling has looked so strange to somebody who are lifetime surfers because I’m not approaching it technically. I’m working on internalizing certain core concepts, principles. The techniques fall within the tree beneath the principle. So meta training, I think would be the most important answer to that question.
Tim Ferriss: You’re also coming into foiling with a huge disadvantage/advantage, which is you have not spent decades surfing, right?
Josh Waitzkin: Right.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re looking at things very differently. And just to give one example, as background, before we began recording this, you encouraged me to read through a Slack channel that you have with your team where you’re bouncing different ideas off of one another, and they’re stress-testing your ideas also, asking you to clarify things to find things. And you mentioned at one point frontside turns, not to get too deep in the weeds, but frontside turn, different from backside turn, and then realizing that you could practice that on an eFoil by just effectively, correct me if I’m wrong, but what I read is going in circles.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah. Spinning in super tight circles.
Tim Ferriss: And you’re doing just hundreds and thousands of repetitions that would be impossible to replicate except over an extremely long—I mean, weeks, months?
Josh Waitzkin: Oh, years.
Tim Ferriss: Years on a surfboard. So you were able to see that, where I think perhaps others might not. Certainly, some would, but that struck me as a huge advantage that you have. That you’re seeing things with beginner’s eyes and you’re already technologically enabled. So you have just a greater buffet of options.
Josh Waitzkin: I think it’s really important for me to be clear, I’m just a beginner in the surfing, foil world, right? I mean, most of the people who are foiling have been surfing for 20 or 30 years, their whole lives, because foiling is super hard. It’s surfing much faster with an extra, vertical dimension. The interesting thing about it is I’m learning how to surf and paddle surf through foiling. The lines that I can draw foiling are much better than lines I can draw paddle surfing. What’s fascinating is I went out surfing—I’m right now foiling six days a week maybe in surfing, paddle surfing one day week.
I went out paddle surfing yesterday because the swell dissipated a little bit, it wasn’t great foil conditions where we go, and I was amazed at the breakthroughs I’ve made surfing just from the foiling breakthroughs I’ve made over the past couple weeks. It’s really interesting. So I’m coming at this in every way backwards. I’m taking on the art of surfing and paddle surfing. I started in my late 30s, not as a six-year-old kid. And so that also speaks to some of the things that Dan and I, this relates to Dan as well, things we need to do. We haven’t gone sideways forward, being in surf stance moving forward at high speed sideways, a very simple idea, right?
If you’re skateboarding or you’re surfing or snowboarding, you’re in a sideways posture and going forward very fast. We haven’t done that a lot in our lives. So things like the onewheel, which Dan and I both did, and then the eFoil, that just gave us a huge amount of reps. Then the amount of waves we’ve been able to take eFoiling, we’ve been learning about surfing waves through those reps. And you’re right, I think it’s a disadvantage in a lot of ways that we’re coming in it so late. But it’s also a wonderful advantage because we’re not socialized by any of the assumptions that a lifetime surfer would make.
Similarly, in the Chinese martial arts, taking on the Chinese martial arts, there’s lots of things that Chinese martial artists who are lifetime aficionados will not consider that coming at it as an outsider from the chess world I could take advantage of. Similar in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world, we could have conversations about those—I think we actually have spoken about them over the years—but all of these arts have their blind spots. Let me just go back, just finish the circle one time, because we began speaking about this exploration I was doing with Maurice rolled up with the chess and the common root structure between false constructs, just to close that loop.
So what I’m exploring now is what was the essence of that thing I was too tight about with Maurice? I was being a little bit too local and too tight in the early stages of the learning process of something which in that moment was a chess opening, a branch of the Najdorf Sicilian. I was —
Tim Ferriss: What is that word, just to spell for people? Najdorf?
Josh Waitzkin: Najdorf. Miguel Najdorf was a brilliant chess player. N-A-J-D-O-R-F. And the Sicilian defense is a chess opening. So it’s the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian defense.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like something from The Princess Bride. Continue.
Josh Waitzkin: Okay. Yes, chess openings have funny names, sometimes. Yeah. So the interesting question is: Is that tightness? Is there a shared root structure relative to that tightness in the learning process today?
Tim Ferriss: For you?
Josh Waitzkin: For me, right? And I mean, there was a moment where Dan and I were whipping into a big wave we call mobs here. Where it’s a left on foil. He was on a jet ski, I was behind it and he was whipping me into it, and there’s a big, bare rock that just gets sucked out and basically a big, dry rock on the whip in. And it was interesting, because this was in the first few days of us taking on toe foiling. And in that moment, there was a tightness in me, right? Now we come close to that rock all the time eFoiling. I think we’ll be very comfortable playing right there soon, toe foiling.
But in that moment, I was in the early stages of a learning process. And it was very similar because, in that moment, there was an improvisational nature to that moment, it was playful, it was actually not such a big risk relative to what we do all the time. But there was a tightness in me because we were learning something new technically. In that moment, I wanted to work on the deconstructive component parts of toe foiling, and then work on that kind of thing. So I do think that it’s interesting for me to explore, is there some identity in the idea that I need to deconstruct first? Similarly, questions like parallel learning, lateralization. I would say one of my biggest strengths as a learner has been the ability to translate from previous arts into current arts.
It’s interesting to invert that. Are there ways that might be holding me back? Is the idea of lateralizing or parallel learning impeding my learning process in any way? So these are assumptions that I might have, that I might hold tightly. I don’t know. It’s very interesting to take our assumptions and examine them, flip them upside down, rip them apart.
Tim Ferriss: May I ask you about one potentially backwards approach that I want to know more about?
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Just specific to your notes in the Slack channel. And that is a quote that also one of your team members asked you about. So: “The internal spirit is the teacher or myself 20 years from now,” I’m most interested in the last part of that. We can talk about the whole thing, but what does that mean? “Or myself 20 years from now?”
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, that came out of me a few months ago, when I was trying to explain to a buddy of mine in the surf world, this bizarre way that I’m approaching this stuff because it looks really strange to people sometimes. What I was saying was sort of in a thematic way. It’s as if myself 20 years from now is my teacher and what I mean—first, there’s two ways of looking at it. One is that I know myself decades into arts, I know myself decades into chess, and into the martial arts. So I have a feeling for what I am like when I’m in the realm of virtuosity within an art.
So in a sense, that person is like that’s a beacon that I’m moving toward, right? And I’m nowhere near that realm as a surfer and a foiler, but I’ve been there. So qualitatively, in terms of, something abstract, platonic realm of quality, there’s that beacon for me. And there’s the other part of it, which is that no one will know me better than myself 20 years from now. If my goal is unobstructed self-expression or self-actualization within an art, then the person who’s teaching me should be the person who knows me most deeply. And that’s my person 20 years from now.
The person 20 years from now is also a helpful visualization in being the person who would understand what my false constructs are today, and yesterday, and a year from now. It’s very easy to get stuck in the mindset, “I didn’t know before but I know it today.” It reminds me there was this funny moment years ago when I was first studying tai chi. I was in William C.C. Chen’s tai chi studio. This was back in, I think it was in 1998, 1999. And there was this guy who had been studying for decades, and he was telling a story. He was holding court within his knowledge of wisdom within this domain. He said, “When I studied tai chi for a year, I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was starting to understand it. But after two years, I realized everything I thought after a year was wrong. It was just wrong. But now I understood. And then after four years, I realized everything I thought after two years was wrong.”
And he went on with this story, in this pattern. “But now I understood. Then, when after eight years, the same thing, everything I thought before it was wrong. Now, I’ve been training for 16 years and everything I thought after eight years was wrong, but now I finally understand.” I remember thinking at the time, “Man, you got it, but you didn’t get it.” The point is, you don’t know now either, right? After 16 years, you’ve been going through the repetition? What about after 32 years? So far, that visualization is designed to help me know that I don’t know, right? Which is so important. It’s so easy to think that we were in the dark yesterday but we’re in the light today, but we’re fucking in the dark today, too.
Tim Ferriss: So I have a question about the self 20 years from now because—a follow-up question. Part of what I enjoy about these conversations with the mics is that we get to hopefully edge into some stuff that we haven’t talked about, because we talk all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about the piece of writing I lost that pained me the most. The piece of writing that I lost was the following. I was, for some reason, maybe feeling under the weather or had an injury, something like that. I was unable to join some friends skiing, and I was very upset about this. I love skiing.
I was sitting in a lodge. Love ski lodges, so that’s the upside. And there’s a beautiful fire, so I went and got some hot chocolate because that’s what I do when I’m feeling moody and want to stuff my emotions in a ski lodge. And I had paper and I wrote this long story about a guy, aka young Tim, wandering into a ski lodge, sitting down, and having this older gentleman, about 20 years older, sit across the table near the fire by him and striking up a conversation. I only realized later that this is very close to a story by, I think it’s Jorge Luis Borges, but ended up being this surreal interaction between my younger self and my older self, and asking my older self for advice on all these various topics over the course of a few hours of sitting there in the ski lodge.
I looked at the advice after I had been writing all of this for five to 10 pages. And the advice made sense, a lot of the advice seemed very probably, it could be the advice that a 20-year-older self would give me with some detachment from the emotions of the current situation and somehow, some way, I ended up losing it. It bothers me to this day because I thought there was so much there that I felt was really insightful and actionable. And it’s wild that it came from the same head that had created so much confusion around the same situations.
Josh Waitzkin: So beautiful. So why don’t you rewrite it, man?
Tim Ferriss: So I have actually not rewritten it in exactly that same way. But I’ve asked myself, for instance, there are a bunch of decisions that I’m trying to make right now. What would my—I’m 42 right now—47-year-old or 50-year-old self tell me to do right now, as it relates to these decisions? There’s a lot less turbulence, right? Around a lot less cloud cover. When looking at it with a bit of detachment that way, I’m curious if you ever take it that literally or have tried to look at your current decisions or situations through the lens of an older self in that fashion.
Josh Waitzkin: Just a quick aside before I go there. I think it’s a really interesting question to ask people. How would your 20-year-older self guide you today? Because it gives you a window into somebody’s ability to perspective-take and to think conceptually. In other words, think about the old David Foster Wallace “This is Water” story of two fish are swimming in the water. Two young fish and an older fish comes by and says, “How’s the water, boys?” They look at one another as they swim by and they’re like, “What the hell is he talking about? Water?” Right?
Most people can’t see the water because they’re just used to the water. But it’s very different to actually be able to see our mental models, our frames, so people are usually looking at the world through their frames. We can also cultivate the ability to look through the frame but also see the frame. I spent a lot of my life working on examining the frame itself, right? I think that years ago we did one of these chats together and I described the drowning experience I had, where I made some errors in breath hold work.
Tim Ferriss: That’s one way to put it!
Josh Waitzkin: We’ve already gone there! We don’t have to do this all over again.
Tim Ferriss: Just give the 30-second version. You can do it, Josh.
Josh Waitzkin: The 30-second version is that I was doing some Wim Hof-inspired breath hold work. I made the mistake of doing it during lots of reps of underwater swims, 50-meter swims, at a pool in New York City. And on my eighth or 10th rep, I blacked out in a bliss state and I spent four minutes in the bottom of the pool after blacking out from oxygen deprivation. This old guy pulled me out and, which I’m eternally grateful for, and I basically drowned. All the doctors said after 45 to 60 seconds I should have been brain dead or dead, but it was four minutes on the bottom of the pool and that my training saved me. Also, you could say, put me there—but that’s a whole other conversation!
So we’ve discussed that whole experience at length, we don’t have to go there in depth. But I think that that inspired a version of this thinking and it led to a lot of the life decisions that I’ve made and our family has made, living life, we live today, which is very much off the grid. Because I emerged from that experience just with—I mean, I was someone who was filled with a lot of love and appreciation for doing what one loves. But that went into overdrive, and I just decided that I would devote my life to living as fully and deeply and beautifully as I possibly can, helping my loved ones live as fully and deeply and beautifully as they could and making as large and positive impact on the world as I could.
That was just all that mattered. We uprooted our life and changed everything. So I think that that mortality experience—I mean, that was the most powerful catalyst for that thinking.
Tim Ferriss: I should just note that, thankfully, I’ve not had that experience. But about a year ago at a retreat, group retreat, there were a number of writing exercises that we were instructed to do and one of them was to respond to a prompt and the prompt was: pretend as though or imagine that you are going to die exactly two years from today. You will die in perfect health, just the clock will run out two years from today—you will die. What will you do in the next two years? What are the things that you would do?
I realized that somewhat different from having a near death experience and then reprioritizing but it does apply a certain pressure and a certain sense of urgency that I think you would get from either situation. That prompt and what I wrote afterwards gave me a tremendous amount of clarity about certain things that I wanted to do. And another prompt was if you were going to die in two years in perfect health, left undone what would you most regret not doing? So similar question but slightly different wording, that also provided me with a tremendous amount of clarity about certain things that I followed through on. So it can be simulated in that way.
Josh Waitzkin: Absolutely. Yeah. We’ve, over the years, discussed this term firewalking that I use for physiologically embodying something we’re trying to learn. So for example, if you’re training in the martial arts and you overextend your arm and you get armbarred, and your elbow gets broken or your shoulder gets ripped up, for example, in a world championship, you’re less likely to overextend your arm next time, right? To say the least. But if you watch someone else do it on a video, it’s hard to learn that lesson. But if you learn how to physiologically embody the experience that you’re watching someone else go through or that you’re thinking about the abstract, right? Then we can save ourselves a huge amount of pain.
Tim Ferriss: How does one do that? Or how might one do that? Or how have you coached someone to do that effectively, whether it’s chess, jiu-jitsu, investing, otherwise?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, I think intense visualization. It’s really training at visualization, which one can do through meditative experience. I think biofeedback training is really useful to help learn how to put yourself in a different physiological states at will because you can actually use biofeedback to observe what state you’re in. If you just don’t sense it so quickly, introspectively. Harnessing triggers for—I was with my wife and a bunch of friends the other day and I haven’t watched the Oscars in years, but the Oscars was on and Eminem’s performance of Lose Yourself came on.
It’s funny, Lose Yourself was the song that I used in my training camp for the 2004 World Championships. So for three months of every day of training, I listened to it before every fight of the World Championship in 2004. In between the semis and the finals and in between the finals and the sudden death playoff when I’ve been in the wildest state of my life. That song is such a deeply fucking burned in trigger. I had my eight-year-old son in my lap, we were watching the Oscars. My three-year-old was sleeping on my other shoulder and Lose Yourself came on and my body was ready to fight 15 dudes. It was unbelievable what happened to me. I had to just leave and I took a walk for 10 minutes.
Unbelievable how powerful triggers are. Whether it’s olfactory triggers with smell or music, connecting triggers, different physiological—I’m not suggesting that one should have something that—that’s a pretty intense one—
Tim Ferriss: Manchurian Candidate stuff.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it was amazing to feel how powerful that was so many years later, just right there. So I think that learning how to put—I mean, learning how to put yourself into an intense physiological state through visualization. For example, cold plunging, your body will go into an intense physiological state, you can attach a trigger to that, then you can go into that fight-or-flight state if you choose to. So for example, one of the things you do cold plunging, is you get into, say, freezing water, and then you learn to breathe yourself—it takes a while initially, but then pretty quickly—into a state of calm. Your heart rate goes very fast, you’re hyperventilating a little, and you just chill it out and you’re in a calm state. You can also choose not to go there. You can choose to get in the water and not breathe to that state of calm, and then you can sit in that state of alarm and that can become a state that you could use as a trigger for certain visualizations. So there’s lots of things that you can do if you’re creative about firewalking.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the ways that you build outside of foiling because I know that’s a main focus so I have to grab you by the hair to pull you out of foiling—and you do foil a lot. What are other ways that you’ve built feedback loops into your life?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, feedback loops are everything. It’s funny. One of the funny things about my conversation with Maurice because I really left the chess world behind. It was fascinating just talking to him about how it’s evolved so much. One of the questions that I was asking him is, how present are world-class chess players today to the networks of cognitive biases? And he said that what’s interesting is that many of the great chess players today actually don’t even know what cognitive biases are.
One of the reasons that they’re able to do that is because chess today, you just have such unlimited, accurate feedback loops, because you’ve got computers that are much stronger than humans analyzing the position by your side. So any decisions you make, you can look over and see if it’s right or wrong. The computers are so strong that they’re going to be right. So you can basically have a feedback loop whenever you want. If you have unlimited feedback loops, and you’re training six, eight hours a day, you just learn to feel when your thinking is good and when it’s bad.
Tim Ferriss: So just to clarify, in other words, cognitive biases, right? We won’t go too broad, but an example of that would be something like sunk cost fallacy, right? So players back in the day would have some conceptual understanding of how to define sunk cost fallacy and what that means, but today, it’s more an intuition built upon thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of near-immediate feedback loops.
Josh Waitzkin: Right. So the way sunk cost fallacy could operate consciously for a chess player is that you were studying a chess position, you’ve been rested 20 minutes into it, and you’re starting to sense you might be barking up the wrong tree but you put so much time into it you want to keep on going, right? Or that could just manifest without any consciousness of the bias in just that you’re thinking doesn’t feel good. Or in the moment your thinking starts to feel a little bit less present or less on it, then you just go the other way, right?
Or you can have a confirmation bias where you can think, “Okay, right now, am I or am I not searching for proof for a decision I’ve already reached?” Right? Or you can just not be subject to confirmation bias because you’ve had it burned out of you by so many reps of feedback loops, just beating the shit out of you whenever you get it wrong, right? So in arts, where you have massive amounts of natural, accurate feedback loops, you don’t have to be as conscious about these things. On the other end of the spectrum with something like investing, it’s very, very hard to have accurate feedback loops. Because the decisions you make today, if you’re a long term investor, the decisions you make today, you might not actually see the result of that decision for many years.
You could have had good process and still have bad outcome or you could have bad process still have good outcome. So it might not be an accurate feedback loop, even if you do have the feedback loop. So in realms like that, you have to be really creative. I would argue that a lot of what defines the learning curve of someone in a field like investing where accurate feedback loops are few and far between, it’s how creative you are in manifesting them. For example, you can have somatic feedback loops, you can use biofeedback to understand when your performance state is at a high level of quality or lower level of quality.
Tim Ferriss: What does it correlate to physiologically?
Josh Waitzkin: Exactly. So when you’re thinking, “Well, what is the biofeedback saying?”
Tim Ferriss: What’s the physical signature? What’s the signature of those good decisions?
Josh Waitzkin: Right. Which we used biofeedback for initially, but then we learned from the biofeedback how to sense, how to feel it, right? So when I’m training people like elite mental performers, a lot of what we’re doing is being extremely creative in designing accurate feedback loops in places where it’s not so—so you asked me about myself. I mean, you told me not to speak about foiling, but it’s difficult because that’s what I’m all in on now. So I’m training in paddle surfing and foiling. I mean, I’m going to swat that deflection aside. I mean, because that’s what I’m all in on now, right?
So I’ve learned that feedback works for me sometimes, and other times, I don’t want it. So for example, I have a buddy who does drone footage of us once or twice a week on a cadence relative to the swell, but also relative to where we are in the learning process. Usually, I’ll study video very closely, and then I’ll spend four or five days training without video feedback at the thing that I’m working on, and then I’ll have drone footage again. So I will have video feedback at a pace that feels appropriate to my learning process. There’s sometimes, I find, that you want to work on what you’re feeling internally without an external eye.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally.
Josh Waitzkin: Then sometimes you want the external eye and I honor that. I really trust that. For example, let’s just say you’re training Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and you’ve got a tournament coming up. Your repertoire tightens, right? It condenses down to what you’re best at. But then you have a period of time after the tournament where they say, “You’re not going to compete for two months.” You might have an experimental repertory that you’re playing with.
Things that by definition, you’re not as good at, but that you’re expanding, you’re investing in loss a little bit, you’re getting beaten up by some people who you couldn’t beat up with your best repertoire, but you’re working on things. So in that moment, if you’re studying video in that period, you might reject what you’re doing because it’s not as good as you can be. So that’s an interesting period to just work on somatically dialing in something and feeling your way into something.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to underscore that because I think it’s really important, and that is: it’s not always true that more feedback is better.
Josh Waitzkin: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: If I look at a lot of the best teachers in gymnastics, in skiing, for instance, they’re very, one of the terms or the phrases that I heard a lot in gymnastics was: “The first three reps don’t count.” Right? Because if someone’s trying something brand new, their first few reps are going to suck, they’re going to be terrible, right? If they have a bit of awareness and other techniques or other practices, they’re going to be getting a feel for it over those first few repetitions. And if you’re just hitting them with 20 different sets of instructions, every rep, it’s going to be counterproductive.
Josh Waitzkin: Right. I think that there’s feedback that you’re internally generating based on how you feel and how you observe you look on video or something. Then there’s feedback that a coach or a trainer might be giving you. For a coach or a trainer to give you feedback, for you to let that feedback in, in my view, they have to know you very deeply. So there’s a lot of trainers, for example, who can’t get outside of their own conceptual scheme. So they tell you what you should do based on what they would do, or what would work for them, or what they would want to do if they were in your shoes in that moment.
But that’s very different voice you need to do in your learning process, or you’re ready to stretch for in your learning process. When I’m working with people in a training capacity, I have ways of observing my core partners in training professionally through their journals, through their brainstorms, through their biometrics, through lots of different things. It’s 99.9 percent of observation, and I might see something that I would like to give feedback on or that I think I might give some feedback on and then I’ll observe it sometimes for weeks or months or even years until the moment is right. Or I will have a hypothesis that I’ll test and then I’ll think about what would be the way to explore this that would be most helpful and not lock somebody else up? Right?
So much of what most coaches that I observe live with is their own ego pattern—their ego pattern and they’re stuck in their conceptual schemes—but also, they want to have the egoic satisfaction of telling you you’re doing something wrong or making you better. But the great coaches will actually coach without someone even being aware that they’ve been coached.
Tim Ferriss: Question for you on stress-testing your own thinking. So I read the Slack channel, which is comprised of interactions, mostly your sharing of ideas and thoughts, and then the asking for clarification by your teammates, who are employees. How else do you stress-test your thinking or positions on things? Do you have a proactive way of doing that? Does it just happen naturally in your interaction with various friends? Because you have physically somewhat isolated yourself, right? How do you think about stress-testing the integrity of your thinking and positions?
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, great question. So I mean, I’ve physically isolated myself, as you point out, but I’m also somewhat technologically isolated. I mean, I’m not on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or any of those things.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, stay off.
Josh Waitzkin: What?
Tim Ferriss: I said stay off.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, that’s the game plan. But I have a really wonderful network of close friends and thought partners, yourself included, who I am in dialogue with, and who I really trust. I don’t have a lot of dialogue with people who I don’t think highly of. And so, I mean, for example, around what I’m working on actively in my training process, Dan Caulfield, we’re out there on the water four, five hours a day together. He knows me as intimately—I mean, our friendship was born in fighting one another for thousands of hours, literally, that’s a hell of a way to begin a friendship—as sparring partners. And then we still spar quite a bit out there on the water.
I mean, we’re always stress-testing things together. Emily Kwok, who is just an awesome woman, who’s been my right-hand human for about a decade, she’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu, black belt, Women’s World Champion two times over. She’s my Chief of Staff and runs our whole operation. She’s the boss of our whole thing. One thing that Emily’s really brilliant at is—I mean, we have a shared consciousness, she understands me very deeply, and she is very good at pointing out to me when I’m speaking in a shorthand that other people aren’t understanding. So she pushes me to deconstruct quite a bit, for our dialogue within the team and more broadly.
Tim Ferriss: Is there a risk that if you are of the hive mind together, that you have the same blind spots and therefore are at risk of missing flaws and thinking?
Josh Waitzkin: Of course. I mean, I’m not sure how many different channels of dialogue open with—I have clients who I work with, who are, I think some of the best thinkers in the world who I’m talking about ideas with. But I think just to dig into your point, I think that absolutely, yes. And so you need to have people in your ecosystem who push against you. And in our surfing and foiling ecosystem, I mean, it’s Dan and I have this abstract, bizarre way of going about things and almost everybody else who we’re in dialogue with, we have a group of six of us who are doing this together, I mean, three of them think we’re just completely crazy.
Tim Ferriss: The Jackson Pollocks of the foiling world.
Josh Waitzkin: Pushing back on everything we’re doing relentlessly, which is awesome. I’m sure some things they’re absolutely right about. I think that we need to build pushback against us. Resistance is a huge part of everything we do. Now, the one thing that makes it a lot easier in a competitive discipline, like jiu-jitsu, for example, or chess, is that if you get something wrong, you get your ass kicked.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right.
Josh Waitzkin: And the wave can kick your ass, but in terms of other things, it’s much more abstract. So there’s a lot more room for people to bullshit themselves.
Tim Ferriss: But to give a current example for myself and some of the conversations we had and are having, we don’t have to get into super specifics of positions and stuff. But as it relates to investing, right? I would say something to you, as I did yesterday. I want to give you a statement, and I want you to try to tear it apart, right? I find that extremely helpful, right? Even if you happen to agree with it, right? Just a sec. I’m going to share my current approach or what I’m thinking and I want you to really try to tear it apart as someone with a very powerful CPU within your head. I find that to be really valuable for me to proactively solicit that kind of feedback.
Josh Waitzkin: I think cultivating a close ecosystem of people who you can trust to be honest with you in their pushback is really important. Because a lot of people are surrounded by yes men and yes women who will not do that.
Tim Ferriss: Do you find—I mean, this is such a maybe cliched example, but it’s a good example nonetheless. I mean, if you look at the partnership between Buffett and Munger, right? A lot of the discussion I’ve seen about their partnership is how complementary and different their thought processes are in some respects. In the investing world do you find, as an example, that people who might self-identify as value investors tend to just hang out with other value investors? Or are there people who are some of the better performers you meet, do they deliberately expose themselves to people who have a different playbook to push at the edges of their assumptions?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, first of all, it’s important to note that I don’t spend time with a lot of investors, I spend time with a very small group of investors who I think are awesome people and who I think approach things in a very unusual way. So I can talk about how these people who I know very deeply operate around this question, but I think it’s pretty unusual. I mean, in my observation, the people who are really operating at a world-class level, who I’m aware of in the investment world, are engaging surprisingly little with other investors. They’re separating themselves.
So they’re not susceptible to groupthink. I mean, often, their interactions with other investors will be mostly as contra-indicators as opposed to indicators. Just to push back a little bit or to speak to the other side of what you just said. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s really important to stress-test what we’re doing. But I think that is also something a little bit crazy and messianic about certain people who become really, really great at things.
I think about Marcelo Garcia, for example, who we’ve talked about a lot over the years, who’s my partner in the school we own together in New York, the Marcelo Garcia Jiu-Jitsu Academy. He’s a nine-time BJJ World Champion and Abu Dhabi World Champ. I would argue maybe, I mean, pound for pound, probably the greatest grappler to ever live.
Tim Ferriss: Which is an opinion a lot of people hold.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, for sure. If you just like YouTube or whatever, look at Marcelo Garcia.
Tim Ferriss: Check out The Marcelotine.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, he does a lot of amazing shit. What’s interesting is when Marcelo was competing, if you went with him to competition, you felt him in training camps, I’ve been in a lot of training camps with him, and we’ve sparred a lot in training camps, and I felt him in that physiological state, which is like you’re fighting an ape. It’s a really simian, physical, intelligent, just wild. I mean, his lats are like hands in the precision of how they close around your neck. It’s pretty amazing.
But there’s a confidence that he goes into things. And it’s the thing where you can walk into a room where no one believes in you but yourself. But your self-belief is so profound that you’re unstoppable. The way I relate to that, if you try to deconstruct it, is that that sense of inevitability of success comes from self-expression, from knowing that you’re playing your game and you’re playing your game better than anyone else in the world could. And you build everything around the uniqueness of who you are. I remember when Marcelo was in mundials and he was fighting this guy Calasans, who’s just a brilliant, brilliant fighter in his own right.
And Calasans went for a wristlock and Marcelo pulled out, and Marcelo put his hand right back into a wristlock, looked Calasans right in the eye and let him try and just stared him in the eye while Calasans tried to close—so he didn’t avoid the technique, he just tried to break this man by putting himself into the thing and saying, “You can’t break me.” You can break someone by being unbreakable. There’s something about that self-belief that is really powerful, and there’s something about approaching things in really unorthodox ways that you don’t really know if it’s going to work until it plays out.
I mean, I’ll give you a very basic, much more simplistic example of that. The idea that Dan and me training in the eFoil stuff was going to translate over to the foil stuff was something I had tremendous confidence in. But I mean, pretty much everyone who I spoke to in the surf and foil world thought we were dead wrong and thought we were just barking up the wrong tree.
Tim Ferriss: If you look at the footage side by side of those two different tools, I could see why someone would conclude that.
Josh Waitzkin: For sure. Because eFoil’s way heavier, you’re on a 70-pound instrument and it’s got a different dynamics, but you’re foiling and you’re foiling fast and you’re getting tons of reps. The eFoil, I would argue, is much harder to learn than a lighter foil in that it’s more high-consequence. If you get hit by it, it’s bad; you’re dealing with a machine. You can die. Lots of things. But it’s an amazing creation and you get so many more reps. So learning on the thing, you just get—I’m not sure if it would be early on 100x, 500x the reps.
So it might be harder to learn on some level; it’s actually much easier to learn because you can dial it in, but the belief that it will translate over comes from a deeply intuitive thing. So if I stress-tested that by talking to other people in the foil world, I would have rejected it. What’s interesting is that when we translated it over to being whipped in on the lightest, most high-performance board possible, on foil, it all translated right over.
Tim Ferriss: Now I want to push back on one thing.
Josh Waitzkin: Do it.
Tim Ferriss: That is if you had stress-tested it, you would have rejected it. I’m going to offer that it’s entirely possible for you to get a lot of contra-indicating feedback and still hold your position.
Josh Waitzkin: For sure. You’re right. And I did.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Josh Waitzkin: I was getting a lot of that. So I think you’re right, you just have to handle the stress-testing correctly.
Tim Ferriss: Now, those, as I’ve read, you put it in your private journal. Those were reps hidden in plain sight, right? There are reps hidden in plain sight like the frontside turns just by going in circles. As opposed to being on a wave at all, right?
Josh Waitzkin: Just think about that actually, just like that frontside turn thing, it’s such a funny idea. A frontside turn, let’s just say you’re riding a wave, if you dropped in the face of a wave and then you do a bottom turn. So it means turning on the bottom of a wave, you go into the flats in front of a wave and your bottom turning back up, to back up into the wave, that’ll be like a frontside turn, you’re turning on the side, you’re facing on the board, right?
Tim Ferriss: Meaning your belly button is facing away from the wave when you turn, right?
Josh Waitzkin: No, your belly button is facing toward the wave.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it is. That’s a frontside turn.
Josh Waitzkin: That’s a frontside turn.
Tim Ferriss: That’s confusing.
Josh Waitzkin: So I realized that my cutbacks, my backside turns on, going on a right on a frontside wave. It was a little—anyway. My frontside turns were lacking. So what I was able to do on the eFoil, it’s so ridiculous. I put on a big front wing and a very, very small tail wing, which allows you to—the small tail wing allows you to maximize turn ability. I just started to spin in circles under power. I was using the folding props. If a wave came, I could enter the wave, the prop would fold in into the wave. So in between sets, I was spinning in circles.
So I would be spinning in these tight circles for two minutes at a time. Just countless. I mean, if you would add up the amount of turn time that I got in that one session to how many frontside turns you’d have to make, I mean, I don’t know. Thousands and thousands and thousands of waves of frontside turns, right? Then whenever a wave would come, I would just drop into it and work on that same body mechanic, and then I’d go back to spinning in circles. I looked like a total madman! If anyone would have been watching me, it was the ultimate like, “What the hell is this?”
Tim Ferriss: Looney Toons.
Josh Waitzkin: But I made such huge growth in that moment.
Tim Ferriss: Can you think of other places, in other arts, whether it’s chess, BJJ, push hands, investing, anywhere where you might find reps hidden in plain sight or a way to do that type of deliberate practice that is uncommon?
Josh Waitzkin: Well, I think yes, everywhere. So we could get into a technical discussion of reps hidden in plain sight, like the frontside turn, which is technical, right? Which is, I think, a fairly obvious one. I think that where the really potent, low-hanging fruit hanging in plain sight lie are in the thematic, are in breaking down the learning process into the core principles or themes you want to work on and doing reps of those. Those are just invisible to people in plain sight.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So you mean this is an example, maybe I’m pulling out the wrong example, but the learning the macro from the micro say with the practicing of the end game in chess with just a handful of pieces on the board? Would that be an example? Or is that not —
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah. So that’s a great example of reps hidden in plain sight where you’re basically setting king and pawn against king to get a feel for the essence of the king and the essence of the pawn. Then you’re setting rook and pawn against king and learning about the essence of the rook. So you’re getting tons of reps of the rook, of the pawn. Then you study chess tactics with rook and pawn tactics, and you get in tons of reps of those things. So that’s an example of ways that you can get reps of individual pieces, right? So that’s a great example of the way I would say of reps hidden in plain sight.
When I’m thinking about conceptual or thematic reps hidden in plain sight, it’s more around—I mean, for example, when we took on surfing and foiling, one of the things that we did that was strange was I was much more comfortable in big waves than small waves initially because I was comfortable with breath holds and I was comfortable with intensity. And small waves, in some ways, are much more technical. So I made the decision early on to surf and foil bigger waves before I really took on smaller waves. It might be a strange idea. But the rep that I had to get was glide. Getting used to moving fast, forward, sideways, right? So for example, the onewheel, the eFoil, these were getting tons of reps in the idea of glide. Learn to feel what glide was like, right?
Tim Ferriss: Just as an example that might be parallel and please tell me if I’m not getting this right but, in terms of, deconstructing and taking one theme like that. So I am visiting you with my girlfriend, and she’s new to water in the capacity of surfing, paddling et cetera. And rather than take a bunch of surf lessons, which was the knee-jerk idea that both of us had. Like, “Oh, that’s what you do, take some surf lessons.” Your recommendation was to consider taking out a boogie board and just getting used to the force and dynamics of the wave movement.
Josh Waitzkin: When I watch how people approach surf teaching, I think for the most part, it’s crazy. Surf teachers mostly teach people to surf by just going out and surfing. Like, “Let’s go out and surf.” And they get their ass kicked because you have to learn to read the water, how to pop up on the board, where to enter a wave, then how to turn, where to stand on the board, how to shift your weight, and all this stuff. I mean, in my opinion, what we did with your girlfriend is we went out and pushed her into a bunch of waves boogie boarding, just learned to feel what glide was like on the water. Also, not traumatize her.
And then learn to feel what different parts of the wave, the energy in different parts of the wave and the last wave she got in the first day was actually in the pocket of a wave. I pushed her in right where it was breaking, right where she’d surf it and she was so stoked. And she had a great positive first experience and she felt glide and it was awesome. As opposed to just getting super frustrated in the beginning, and I think that deconstructing it is really important. An interesting example of thematic deconstruction relative to reps hidden in plain sight would be, for example, this idea around being at peace in chaos, or learning to be okay internally, or even to thrive internally when your body is in alarm, right?
Because if you don’t train at that, then when your body goes into alarm, you’re just alarmed. But if you do train at that, for example, you can train at it, like we discussed through cold plunging or different things that control the ways of putting your body into that state and breathing through it. Then you’ve trained at that meta theme, right? Of being at peace in physiological alarm, and then working through it. And then when you’re in a, for example, a surf moment where you’re in a total shit show, then you’ve trained at that most important part of it, how to breathe through it, right? You’ve learned how to literally, technically breathe through the alarm, right?
As opposed to trying to do that when you’re also trying to read the water and figure out if you’re ready to hit a rock, and you’re in the middle of a hold down and you’ve got one breath you could take between the next set, and everything’s freaked out, you don’t know what the hell’s going on, right? So I think that that’s an example of how to deconstruct things down to component parts and work on them. And I think it simplifies the learning process in a lot of ways because then when you put it all together, you’ve learned the critical component parts, the thematic component parts, like reading the water. I mean, that’s something that I think should be done independently just going out to learn how to surf.
But very few—some do—but very few surf teachers actually work with people on reading the water when they’re not surfing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, and the best teachers I’ve run into on water for instance a good friend of mine, Kelly Starrett, incredible performance coach, physical therapist, all-around hilarious guy, also former World Class kayaker, and we spent time on the Grand Canyon together with his family. And that’s exactly what he did before attempting anything technical, before learning any new skills. He’s like, “I just want you to move with me and I want you to watch the water.” He would explain it once and when we get to the next set of rapids and he’d go, “Okay, what do you see? Where’s the tongue? Where would you go? Right?” It’s hypothetical before just throwing me in with 20 new skills to try to juggle simultaneously.
Josh Waitzkin: But that takes empathy as a coach.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he is an exceptional, exceptional coach. He’s very good at it.
Josh Waitzkin: The Buddhist technique of expedient means or deliberative technique, depending on how its translated, of being aware of what the student is ready to stretch for, and going there. That’s taking yourself outside of your own conceptual scheme as a teacher and understanding what the student needs, right? I mean, I think that’s like principle 101 as a teacher. Very few people really internalize it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Kelly and you are both very good also at ensuring that the first few experiences are at the very least non-threatening, right? So they may not be orgiastic celebrations of joy but at the very least they’re not going to be traumatizing, right? He’s very good at that. Whether it’s Olympic weightlifting or kayaking on what can be very, very scary rapids at different points, ensuring that the first few experiences as you’re just getting a toehold on the basic sensations of a new skill are non-traumatizing.
Josh Waitzkin: I’ve learned that. I think some people in my past might not say that was a good strength. But we can let that one go for now.
Tim Ferriss: Well, we’re coming up on a very exciting afternoon here. So I know we don’t have too much time left but I’d love to ask you, maybe in closing, about Robert Kegan, am I getting the pronunciation of that name correct?
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Who is Robert Kegan? Why is he interesting to you?
Josh Waitzkin: So our friend Graham Duncan first turned me on to Kegan many years ago. And I’ve read his work. But I’ve been, in the last couple years, just becoming increasingly impressed with certain core points that he’s honed in on it. He’s just a brilliant adult developmental psychologist. And a lot of his work is around that the transitions in the human mind from an opportunistic to a socialist to a self-authoring to a self-transformative mindset. If we just zone in mostly around the transition between the socialized mind and the self-authored mind, which is —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, hold that thought. May I ask? Is Graham focused on this mostly in the context of talent acquisition or finding good talent? Is this part of his filter in doing that?
Josh Waitzkin: Yes. I think that that was how he initially was drawn into it. And I think now it’s just part of his world view.
Tim Ferriss: Just a lens.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, it’s a lens. It’s one of many very interesting lenses. I don’t tend to have, like, think that one lens has got it all. But one thing that I’m intrigued with Kegan’s work, which I have a huge amount of respect for, is the exploration of the limitations of the socialized mind. Sometimes we can just will somebody to be able to perspective-take, to release their perspective and take on someone else’s perspective, or the ability to hold multiple mental models that are competing with one another and be at peace with that tension between them, right? We can just want people to do that. But there are certain developmental hurdles to that. And I think that that’s an area that Kegan has really explored brilliantly, and I do encourage people to read Kegan’s work.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell his last name?
Josh Waitzkin: K-E-G-A-N. I think it’s important to be empathically present to the developmental obstacles that we all might have around what we can and cannot do, conceptually.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, it strikes me that we’re all blind. It’s just a matter of accepting that we’re blind and trying to figure out how we might be blind, or what we might be blind to, perhaps is a better way to put it. Kegan.
Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, I agree.
Tim Ferriss: For those interested Graham and I had a really fun conversation on the podcast as well. So I will create a short link to that.
Josh Waitzkin: Graham is a brilliant dude, a dear friend, I love him. He’s the best mind I’ve ever run into in the world around the hunt for talent and the deconstruction of potential world-class talent out there in the early stages.
Tim Ferriss: Best hair in the business also.
Josh Waitzkin: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Severe follicle envy of Graham. So for those people interested, I’ll create a short link to that interview, that conversation at tim.blog/graham. G-R-A-H-A-M. Joshua, anything else you would like to mention, discuss, disabuse me of before we wrap up?
Josh Waitzkin: Nope! A woodpecker is right now trying to put a hole in my office.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s a great place to close.
Josh Waitzkin: All right.
Tim Ferriss: So Josh, where can people find you? I feel like your answer is the same as Laird Hamilton: “In the Pacific Ocean.”
Josh Waitzkin: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Well, until next time, thanks for hanging, man.
Josh Waitzkin: Thanks, brother.
Tim Ferriss: And recording something for posterity to be continued.
Josh Waitzkin: Amen. This was fun.
Tim Ferriss: And everybody listening for show notes, for links to everything, Robert Kegan, et cetera, that we’ve discussed. There’s also an incredible video that I’ll try to track down of Maurice Ashley with me playing chess hustlers, which is just fantastic entertainment in New York City. So I will link to that in the show notes just go to tim.blog/podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.
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