Sometimes our kids surprise us. We try and try and try to get them to do something, understand something, say something. They go for a long time, apparently ignoring (avoiding?) all of our best attempts. Then, all of a sudden, when we aren’t really looking (or when we’ve kind of given up), they do it, understand it, say it.
At those moments we feel good, not just for our kids and their accomplishments but for ourselves. Sometimes it is hard to put in the long hours, day after day, never quite knowing if it will pay off or not. This is especially true for the parents of autistic kids. But what can you do?
What we call “mastery” can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice. Most learning occurs while we are on the plateau, when it seems we are making no progress at all. The spurt upward towards mastery merely marks the moment when the results of your training “clicks in.”
To learn anything significant…you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau. [T]o join the path of mastery, it’s best to love the plateau, to take delight in regular practice not just for the extrinsic rewards it brings, but for its own sake.
Last night I attended my first kendo class. As a beginner, I felt clumsy and awkward as I tried to coordinate my footwork, proper holding of the shinai, and basic overhead strikes. And awed as I watched the senior members of the club do some free sparring toward the end of class. I am looking forward to continued training and learning this very cool art.
Kendo – the way of the sword – is a martial art based on kenjutsu, the traditional Japanese swordmanship practiced by the samurai. As a sport, kendo obviously has taken away the lethal aspects of the art, but the spirit of the art remains. Success in kendo competition requires much the same commitment as that required by the samurai. George Leonard describes this commitment in his book Way of Aikido, The: Life Lessons from an American Sensei:
Long and arduous training contributed to the samurai’s presence and clarity in combat, but there was also another key factor: The samurai had to be totally free of considerations. If, for example, he was to think, “Why didn’t I have my sword sharpened?” or “I should have settled my debt with Takeda-san,” the break in ki would be fatal. The ultimate consideration is one’s own death. For the thought “I might die” to creep into his consciousness would mean sure death. That’s why the samurai was trained from earliest childhood to go into battle with no thought of either life or death. Being ready to die, he was more likely to live.
Having just read Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I can’t help seeing many parallels between the training of the samurai and what Seth is urging us to do in our own lives. For example, to be “free of considerations” is to keep the “lizard brain” at bay. Focusing on doing our work, on sharing our art, without regards to any rewards – though far from “being ready to die” – allows us to perform at out best. As Seth says in Linchpin:
The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.
Are you “ready to die” as you set out to change the world?
The authors of these books each come from a different perspective: Gelb looks at what made the greatest learner of all time the, um, greatest learner of all time; Leonard tells his own personal story of learning and mastery after finding Aikido later in life; and Waitzkin distills the lessons he has learned from his early life and success in chess and Tai Chi Chuan. But they also have much in common.
All break down the process of learning. All stress the importance of your environment and surroundings, and taking advantage of the opportunities offered you as well as those you make for yourself. And even though they give some ideas on how to become a lifelong learner – for instance Gelb’s 7 da Vincian Principles – they all let you know that learning is anything but a cookie-cutter process.
Learning is a unique and individual process that requires constant attention and refinement. Something important for learning professionals to remember, so they don’t fall into the rut of one-size-fits-all.
Last summer I picked up Chessmaster The Art of Learning for the PSP to take with me on my frequent business trips. One of the things that adds extra value to this game is the involvement of Josh Waitzkin. (You may remember Josh as the subject of book, and film, Searching For Bobby Fischer.)
On my trip out to Arizona last week I read Josh’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance. It is a quick read, so I had finished by the end of the day, but soaking it all in will take a little longer. Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading sections, marking up the margins, jotting down notes to myself in my notebook about the many insights that Waitzkin provides. I have the feeling that this book will end up with a permanent slot on the bookshelf above my desk; this is where I keep those books I turn back to over and over.
For myself I found his insights valuable, if not obvious in the sense that all good ideas are obvious when someone else gives them voice. As the parent of two very talented and hard working teenagers, Waitzkin’s insights are invaluable.