The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Josh Waitzkin — How to Cram 2 Months of Learning into 1 Day (#375)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Josh Waitzkin at the The Sohn Investment Conference. Josh is the author of The Art of Learning, an eight-time US National Chess Champion, a two-time World Champion in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands, and the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt under nine-time World Champion Marcelo Garcia.

For the past 12 years, Josh has been channeling his passion for the outer limits of the learning process toward training elite mental performers in business and finance, and to revolutionizing the education system through his nonprofit foundation, The Art of Learning Project. Josh is currently in the process of taking on his fourth and fifth disciplines, paddle surfing and foiling, and is an all-in father and husband.

Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

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Watch the interview on YouTube.

#375: Josh Waitzkin — How to Cram 2 Months of Learning into 1 Day


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Tim Ferriss: Thank you all for sitting around after a bio break to listen to a conversation I’m about to have with my good friend, Josh. Thank you, Graham, for having us. I’m going to jump into it. I usually use a much more embarrassing intro for Josh when we’re recording something in private, so I’ll use something a little less embarrassing.

Josh Waitzkin has perfected learning strategies that can be applied to anything, which I’ve seen him do many times. Including his loves of chess, Brazilian jiu jitsu. He’s a black belt, under a phenom and multiple time world champion Marcelo Garcia. Tai Chi Push Hands. He’s been a world champion, and now paddle surfing and foiling.

Josh spends his time coaching many of the world’s top performers in many different fields, and he is the author of The Art of Learning. Please welcome to the stage, Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin: All right! Hey, everybody.

Tim Ferriss: All right. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Josh Waitzkin: That song was my trigger song for the 2004 World Championship and Tai Chi Push Hands, and Graham thought it’ll be fun to jerk up my physiology walking out. It’s amazing how well it works. I just hear two bars of that song and I’m ready to fight like 10 dudes. So here we are.

Tim Ferriss: Pick ‘em out! Anybody volunteering?

Josh Waitzkin: I listened to that in the three months of training camp for the World’s during the competition. And then between the finals and the sudden death playoff of the World’s, which was the wildest state of my life maybe. It has a powerful triggering impact.

Tim Ferriss: You are really a master of triggers and cues and systems. You, more than perhaps anyone I know, has spent a high percentage of your life in what I think people here and in what I would consider the zone. You said something to me yesterday when we were catching up a bit, which was, you feel like you’ve been cramming two months of learning into each day recently. Which sounds incredible, sounds almost unbelievable, especially knowing you as well as I know you because it’s not like you just sit around watching paint dry all day. Why and how is that? How could that be?

Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, my training recently has been super exciting. I fell in love with surfing a few years ago, and really took it on, all in, but I was living in New York City, so it was difficult. I had to figure out how to take on surfing in a really intense way living here. The first thing I did is I hadn’t spent a life skateboarding or snowboarding or going sideways, forward at all.

The first thing I did is I got a Onewheel electronic skateboard with a big wheel in the middle. It’s an amazing invention. That’s how I started getting around New York City. I spent about a year and a half, maybe 2,300 miles of onewheeling 20, 25 miles an hour through New York traffic, which was a lot of fun. Had some amazing wipeouts. But that was how I just initially just got used to burning in the experience of being in surf stance and moving forward. It was really powerful.

A year and a half ago, my wife was game and moved my family down to my favorite place on Earth, beautiful place in Latin America where the jungle meets the Pacific Ocean. Took on stand up paddle surfing and foil training all in. Initially just stand up paddle surfing, and recently it’s been boiling. This past fall, so late August, September, I fell in love with foiling, and that’s when things really went to overdrive for me. I’ve been using this invention called the eFoil. So foiling, I want you to imagine a five-foot surfboard with a 29-and-a-half-inch mast going down, and there’s a wing.

When you’re in wave energy or you’re moving forward quickly, all that’s in the water is the wing. It’s frictionless, it’s way faster than surfing, it’s incredibly intense. Graham asked me to put together a little video. This was from a few days ago. Just so you can see what foiling is. You see that the board is above the water. This is in one of my favorite spots. You’re going 25, 30 miles an hour. The wing is all that’s touching the surface and it’s a crazy, intense feeling.

But this device I’m using, an eFoil is really incredible. It’s made with this company called Lift. The guy, Nick, who runs it is a real pioneer in the foil world. He’s built this thing called a folding prop. What I’m using is entering the wave under power as a propeller. But then once in wave energy, the propeller folds and I’m just foiling as if just purely wave energy. It opens up as the possibility of entering waves under power as if you’re being towed in by jet ski.

This moment is hairy, because if — after the entry — this wave catches you, when it’s near wipeout and then adjusting back up, if the white water catches you, it’s like getting shot out of a cannon and then you’re on top of a guillotine. You have to dial in the break falls, like with onewheeling.

What’s been interesting is opposed to having two to four minutes of wave time a session surfing, I’ll have 54 minutes or so of wave time at faster speeds. What’s interesting is it also opens up the ability to do deliberate practice in surfing. Similar to investing, you have to be really creative in how you create deliberate practice in the surf world because the ocean is so unpredictable. It’s really difficult to replicate sections, to hit the same thing 10, 15, 20 times. In martial arts, you can just say, “I’m going to drill this thing 30 times today,” or 100 times or 200 times. Whether it’s a throw, or a technique, a submission. And then you can try that in training.

In surfing, it’s very difficult to replicate the same condition once, even a couple of times in a few months. Foiling is really interesting is the eFoil allows me to enter the wave, and then the prop folds in and I’m just foiling the wave. I’m 20 to 30-Xing the amount of wave time per session. But it also allows me to do really interesting things with deliberate practice. Like for example, when you’re under speed on a foil and you go over a big boil and you’re in a big wave. A boil is like a huge upsurge of water pressure. If it hits the wing or hits one side of the wing, you get catapulted out of control.

Most people, if they’re foiling, you don’t have many chances to train at boils, and when they happen, it’s just catastrophic. It’s a massive wipeout. Now, I did two sessions where I went over 200 boils at top speed. It’s doing tons of reps of boils or tons of steep sections. The learning curve is incredible.

It feels physiologically like between one and two months of training per session. Afterwards, I feel like I have to lie in a dark room with my eyes closed for 10, 15 minutes, just to process. The brain feels like it was plugged into The Matrix; it’s really intense. The foiling is at the cutting edge of the surf world and the eFoiling with folding props is like the tip of the tip of the spear. It’s really powerful to feel what the brain feels like doing that and how fast learning curve can be. I love it.

Tim Ferriss: And how well the brain responds to intentional, well-structured practice. One thing I’ve observed with you since we met eons ago, in these different disciplines, is how well you think about, in a sense, the micro practice, like per session, let’s call it the mezzo practice maybe on a weekly basis, and then the macro practice. How that then can evolve and be programmed over many months. We’re going to get into how people can structure their days, how you structure your day. But what I’d love to ask you about is perhaps to reiterate a story that you’ve told me before that relates to deliberate practice and skiing. I don’t know if you know what I’m referring to. But the most important portion of a run, the most important run when skiing. Do you know what I’m referring to?

Josh Waitzkin: Yeah, way back in the day I had some fun days skiing with Billy Kidd, who was just a brilliant Olympic champion many decades ago. He asked me, “What were the three most important turns of the ski run?” It’s an interesting question to sit with. Because most people will think it’s the middle where it’s most intense, most speed or the beginning to get your rhythm. He talks about the last three turns before you get on the lift. Which is where most people are sloppy, most people lift up, their body mechanic relaxes.

But the thing is, the last returns are what you’re going to be internalizing unconsciously on the lift ride up. It’s true with martial arts training my whole life, always finishing strong, always executing a technique very well. Whether it’s reps drilling or a strong sparring session or foiling, surfing, always finishing strong so that the last thing you do is what’s going to probably burn into you most deeply overnight.

So harnessing unconscious learning is a huge part of what I do and what I train people to do. That’s something I think it’s really important to be deliberate about.

Tim Ferriss: Another thing you’re really good at is making the subconscious the unconscious or just the hidden, conscious. A big part of your learning, as I observe it, is mastering feedback and measurement. Before we get to how people can structure things, because this informs it, what types of biomarkers do you track in your coaching clients? Because I think it’s very common for people to think of say chess as a mental pursuit. To think of something like foiling as predominantly or jiu jitsu, especially as a physical pursuit. But that’s really a false separation. What type of biomarkers do you track on your coaching clients? Whether they’re in the investment world or elsewhere?

Josh Waitzkin: I have experimented with a lot over the past decade. What I’ve come to focus on most deeply is heart rate variability. I have a brilliant HRV specialist, Dr. Leah Lagos on my team who works really closely with all of my teams. She does HRV training — if I’m working with a team of top decision makers, for example — with everyone on the team, ideally.

HRV is a really powerful way of training someone to get into a state of deep concentration, relax, deep concentration away from stress very quickly. And then tracking people’s HRV, tracking people’s sleep patterns. We, of course, also track nutritional patterns, physical training patterns.

For me, it’s really interesting to just — I don’t like bringing technology out into the water very much, but from time to time I do and just track wave time, heart rate in different situations. I had a really interesting period a month and a half ago where I was foiling this big wave that I’ve discovered an offshore reef break. It’s sort of like a non-stop drop. It just keeps on going. It mounts up and then you’re just accelerating for 30 seconds straight.

Your body has this innate physiological…it feels like an evolutionary response to bail out, because you’re going so fast, you’re accelerating and your body wants to jump out. I started doing HRV breathing to my resonant frequency while accelerating down this wave.

Tim Ferriss: Can you just explain what that means to your resonant frequency, what does that mean?

Josh Waitzkin: Everyone has a unique resonant frequency. If you’re doing heart rate variability breathing, and you’re breathing to your resonant frequency, it’ll maximum to your unique frequency in your physiology. It will have the biggest impact in raising alpha waves, relaxing your body, moving you from a stress state to a deep state of relaxation.

The ideal way to train HRV is to work with a brilliant specialist and find out what your frequency is and then do breath work 20 minutes twice a day at that rhythm. Over time, it’s incredible what it can do. You get to a place where you can just take a breath and be in resonance. I did a lot of meditation work for years before this, and lot of trigger work before this. With HRV, I found that —

Tim Ferriss: What was that?

Josh Waitzkin: Trigger work.

Tim Ferriss: Trigger work, what’s that?

Josh Waitzkin: Trigger work would be essentially using something like a song, like Lose Yourself, Eminem song. One thing I started doing decades ago would be getting myself into a peak performance state and then attaching a trigger to it, like a song or a scent. So then ultimately, I could, as I was doing a 30-minute or 40-minute routine, which I might have had to do back in the chess days, being able to listen to a couple of beats of a song or smell something or take a breath and enter into a peak performance state.

I learned this lesson from a lot of years in competition where you can’t predict when you’re actually going to have to fight. I remember going to a world championship in 2000 when I knew I was going to — long story we have not discussed before. But long story short, I thought I would have a 30-minute warning before I competed, and then — this is in a world championship in Taiwan — everything changed. I was eating lunch and then they changed the rhythm and I had to compete like one minute later.

It really taught me I had to learn how to enter a peak performance state with a breath, instantly. HRV is really powerful. I’ve been playing with it in this steep wave. It’s fascinating how quickly it takes me from the state of needing to bail to just complete calm while making that steep drop. Then your baseline rises and then you can keep on just getting acclimatized in more intense conditions.

Tim Ferriss: What type of tools do you use for tracking these days — HRV, that is? Do you have a preferred tool for —

Josh Waitzkin: Dr. Lagos has experimented with a lot of things. That’s her terrain. I’ve played with a lot of different tools. I haven’t actually found it to be perfectly frank, the software that I think is A++. I’m thinking about building some of my own. But I don’t at this point feel like there’s the ideal peak performance training HRV software out there, for a bunch of reasons. Nothing has exactly what I want.

Tim Ferriss: So people can DIY the search for a tool as a stopgap measure might help. But let’s translate it to say the world of investing. How would someone use their HRV to inform how they plan their day, for instance? Might they, like an athlete, wake up and look at their HRV and their sleep patterns and say, “Wow, I am not recovered (whatever that means); I’m going to defer — to the extent possible — important decisions for today.” Or would they use it to, like you said, track if they are in a sympathetic fight or flight state, and then moderate that before taking a particular phone call or whatever it might be? How do you take that data and translate it into the world of say, investing?

Josh Waitzkin: The way I personally relate to biofeedback or any kind of technological tool is to use it to train my own somatic ability to feel where I am. I don’t personally want people to become dependent on technology. I want them to use technology to develop the ability to feel. I started meditating when I was 18 years old. It’s very difficult to have feedback than in the meditation process. Someone might start thinking for eight or 10 minutes whether they realize they’re thinking.

One thing that’s really great about using biofeedback is that you’ll have something tell you that you’re starting to slip in your focus. But ultimately, from my perspective, the idea is to train your intuition, your somatic introspection, to feel when your quality of presence, your quality of energy is slipping from like a 10 to a nine. When I start working with people with top mental performers, very often, it can go from a 10 to a two before they even feel the slip.

Really, I like to use these tools to train someone to sharpen their intuition, to sharpen their somatic sense, for where they really are. And then, for me personally, in my training, that’s what I go with. I go with how I feel. Chess for example, you have to make so many decisions, and your physiological state is always changing. You can’t take a break and take a look at what the machine tells you how you’re doing. But you can use the machine to train your ability to feel where you are.

For investors or programmed decision makers, chess players, poker players, anyone who’s in a really high stakes, intense, time sensitive discipline, you want to have the ability to feel where your performance data is, and adjust it on your own independently.

Tim Ferriss: This is so important. I’m glad we ended up exploring this because it applies to a lot. It really applies to a lot. I’ve seen this in, for instance, the exploration of dietary ketosis, and using devices like the Precision Xtra during times when it doesn’t matter. Let’s just say on weekends or during vacations so you’re able to see that — I won’t get into ketosis right now; you guys can look it up — but it’s very interesting for a number of reasons. You realize, “Oh, at 0.5 millimolars on this device, I feel like this. And then at 1.5 millimolars, I feel like this.”

You get to a point where you’re no longer dependent on the device, and you have that sensitivity, so that you can say, “You know what? I’m feeling cranky. I’m probably not yet working off of fat, and I’m a low blood sugar. Probably shouldn’t send that really sensitive email right now because I’ll be doing damage control for the next week.” How do you think about structuring a performer’s day? You could give examples from any field, but how should someone think about that? Because you are, to me, and as a job, I guess, interview top performers in different fields. You are so exceptional at focusing and crafting your days and weeks and months in a way that you can focus. What suggestions or examples might you describe for people who are looking to better structure their days?

Josh Waitzkin: Yes, it’s a really important question. First thing I’ll say is that everything that I do in a coaching capacity is individualized. The essence of what I — If I’m working with someone who is a world class decision-maker in some realm, by definition, I have to know them so intimately before I start making suggestions to what they do. Because I think that the entanglement of genius and eccentricity or brilliance and badness is so complex and so critical for people who are in the top 0.1 percent or so of what they’re doing.

There are so many dysfunctional habits that I’ve seen drive brilliant creations, and then there are so many people who are doing things by the book who are just mediocre. That’s one initial caveat that I’ll say is that if I’m training somebody one on one, I will understand them with tremendous nuance before I’ll start tweaking what they’re doing.

That said, there are some core principles around their architecture that I think are really important and that are really challenging to embody in this technological age where everyone is distracted, everyone is just constant inputs. Everyone’s so busy, everyone feels that they should be so busy, everyone’s pulled into the external all the time. People find it very challenging to structure the days or do what they want to do, because of an internal relationship to their creative process, as opposed to how it will look from the outside.

I think that a proactive day architecture versus a reactive one is hugely important. I think most people will have lots of meetings scheduled and then maybe they’ll try to jam thinking in between the meetings. So they’ll have like two minutes of thinking time in between, which is, from my perspective, disastrous because people, their brilliance comes from thinking.

I’ll block out thinking time in someone’s calendar, and then meetings we’ll put in between this. And alignment of peak energy periods with the creativity work, thinking time is hugely important. Usually, it’s the reverse, people will do their thinking on the walk back from lunch when they’re a little bit lethargic as opposed to doing their thing first, when they wake up in the morning when their energy and their creativity is most intense.

Tim Ferriss: How do people identify their peak energy?

Josh Waitzkin: They can feel it. In my diagnostic process, I find pretty consistently people are right. I ask people to rate one through 10 how their energy levels and creative state is in different parts of the day. And then of course, I examine it. But people tend to have a pretty good sense for this. I think it’s really important. One of the things that I have every one do — and that I’ve been doing my whole life — is ending my day thinking about the most important question in what I do. Then waking up in the morning, first thing, pre-input, and brainstorming on it.

This is an incredibly powerful tool that I learned from my dad — who’s a great writer — in his creative process when I was seven or eight years old. Hemingway wrote about it in his writing process. It’s been a huge part of my life for decades. Ending the day strong, like I mentioned before, and focusing on what matters most and building the musculature of focusing your being on not all this ancillary stuff that just comes at you, but what really matters the most. Releasing it, not stressing out a little about it all night, sleeping well. And then first in the morning pre-input, not after checking the news or checking Bloomberg or checking Twitter or checking stock prices. Pre-input, brainstorming on it. Because what you’re doing that way is you’re systematically opening the channel between the conscious and the unconscious mind. That’s something that is something you can do it systematically, day in and day out rhythmically.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s give a specific example. It could be a real world example from your life, it could be a hypothetical, it could be a composite. What time — give the example and when you would write it down. You put it at the top of a page in a notebook before dinner and then put it away? What does it concretely look like?

Josh Waitzkin: Again, I think that the expression of it is individualized. Some people will write it down on a piece of paper and write it down. Some people will write it in their Evernote and return to it. I wake up usually around 4:30. I journaled for many years physically, but then I had so many journals and it was so difficult to get through them. I actually now use Evernote myself, and I just pop it open and start riffing on it.

This is something that you can — I use this term: making smaller circles, that initially when we do something, we do it in this big way, and then we can refine it and make the circles tighter and tighter and tighter in reference to in the martial arts, you learned about body mechanic and a big motion, and you learn to condense it and make it more and more potent.

This is the kind of thing that you can do at night, and then in the morning. But then ultimately, I think throughout the day, it’s very important to do this. Before you go to the bathroom, pose yourself a question. And then don’t check your phone while walking to the bathroom; release your mind, and then come back from it. And then think about returning your mind to the question. Because what you’re doing this way is you’re training your ability to focus on what matters most. This Is what I call the MIQ, Most Important Question.

I think that MIQ training is one of the most important things that a decision-maker can do because the best way to train an analyst in a discipline is to train them in knowing where to look, what matters the most. There’s a system that emerges from this day architecture, imagine the evening morning rhythm, and then three or four reps of it throughout the day. Then imagine you have a team where you’ve got a leader who stays at a higher level in a certain discipline, and you’ve got a group of analysts beneath. If you have the system I call MIQ Gap Analysis — where everybody is doing this most important question training, initially one rep, but then multiple reps of the day — there’s transparency throughout the team.

Then there’s a periodic review, you talked about feedback as a really powerful way to bring in the healthy feedback in an organization or in your own internal structure. There’s a review of what you — if you’re doing it on your own — what did you think MIQ was now and then a week later, two weeks later from this elevated perspective after you’ve done much more work, what do you think the MIQ was? And then the gap is often where you’ll devote your work.

In the team structure, you can have somebody overseeing the MIQs of a group of analysts, and then sometimes tweaking it, sometimes making suggestions. And then team training, deliberate practice, can be focused on the gaps that emerge, where they become clear between what seemed like the most important question then and what later on it became apparent was the most important question.

Tim Ferriss: If we’re looking at the most important questions, MIQ, does it tend to be something very specific? “How do we mitigate risk?” or “How can I mitigate risk in position X?” or whatever it might be? Or are there when in doubt, or when unsure, are there other types of most important questions that people can ask? Such as — I’m not really even sure, “Where might I be neglecting risk?” or something like that? Are there broader questions that you find are very useful when someone isn’t sure on a very specific level where to focus for a most important question? If someone’s, say, struggling to come up with the MIQ?

Josh Waitzkin: I use this tool for big, thematic meta questions. I sometimes will use it for tactical questions. I’ll use it sometimes to get a clear read on how I intuitively feel about somebody. I can ask myself, “Do I intuitively feel that this is an ethical person?” Or if someone is interviewing a leader of a company, “What’s my intuition about the quality of his or her thinking?” Or it can be a much more tactical question. It can be I study video of a surf or a foil session I had, then it might leave the whole question in my mind and just sleep on it and then emerge, “What’s the biggest lesson to be taken out of this?” Or I might look at one thing and drill in a very specific, technical idea and try to refine it.

I used to do this with theoretical opening questions in the chess world. Where often, I would be stuck. Most great thinkers, I find, are like a knife through butter through most things. But then there’s one or two places they’re stuck. Those areas of stuckness are a really powerful place to focus this tool.

It’s really breathtaking what happens. You just get into the rhythm of waking up with the solution and you get used to it. After you do this, you might have three or four times a day, the kind of crystallization, miraculous realizations in your creative process that you might have had once every two, three months, otherwise.

Tim Ferriss: You said letting go as part of this process. Does that mean that in your case, I know it’s individualized, but that you’re not doing it right before bed, you’re doing it earlier in the day? How do you do that?

Josh Waitzkin: It’s not right before bed. That’s a great point. Hemingway used to end his writing session leaving something left to write. It was his version of it.

Tim Ferriss: Like mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

Josh Waitzkin: Mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-theme, mid-story, mid-something. Not being a writer who just writes everything, it’s interesting to look at that idea through the internal versus external framing. Sometimes people feel, because they feel guilty if they don’t do everything they could possibly do, they finish, they blow it out, as opposed to Hemingway always leaving something left. To go leaving a sense of direction activated and then he would drink wine, he would release, he would relax. Maybe I would recommend meditating, working out, having a great night’s sleep, listen to music, enjoy. Don’t stress out about the question all night; don’t think about it in bed. Then waking up first in the morning and then returning your mind to it.

You really are releasing your conscious mind from it. The art of letting go is a big one. I think it’s one that people in this industry have not taken on as intensely as they should. This is an industry which people are on all the time, the constant inputs. People are on their phones all the time, people are listening to you while looking at their phones. It’s learning to release that, to focus extremely deeply on what you’re doing.

One more point. If you look at the greatest competitors in the world, the greatest physical like athletes, Marcelo Garcia, who I trained with for many years, who I own a jiu jitsu school with in the city, he’s probably the greatest grappler to ever live. If you watch Marcelo in a world championship, he would be sleeping literally minutes before a Mundials semi-final or final, sleeping. But you’ve never seen anyone turn on more intensely.

If you look at great fighters, people think fighters are like jacked, intense, but they’re not. They’re actually very relaxed. The greatest fighters are super relaxed when they’re not fighting. But when they’re in the battle, you wouldn’t believe the intensity. Even to deconstruct that further, if you watch a great, for example, boxer, the relaxation before a strike is delivered is incredible. There’s the undulation, most people in high-stress, decision-making industries are always operating at this kind of simmering six, or four, as opposed to the undulation between just deep relaxation and being at a 10.

Being at a 10 is like millions of times better than being at a six. It’s just in a different universe. Same as being all-in on a discipline is millions of times more intense than being 98 percent or 99 percent, let alone “I can take it or leave it.”

Tim Ferriss: Just having observed you, observed Marcelo, certainly heard stories about say, Floyd Mayweather before gigantic fights, I heard a friend of mine who knows him said he walked into his dressing room after Floyd. He was like, “Yeah, sure, come on.” He’s like, “I don’t want to interrupt you. You must be prepping.” He’s like, “No, I’m either ready or I’m not.” He was just sitting down watching some TV. It’s, in a way, your ability to avoid the simmering six directly affects your ability to then ratchet up to turn on to the 99 percent or the 100 percent. If you’re always at a simmering six, you’re just at 50 percent battery all the time.

Josh Waitzkin: 100 percent. And at 50 percent intensity, you have no idea what your 10 is.

Tim Ferriss: You have, as you mentioned earlier, moved to Latin America. I was convinced, as someone born and bred here, I thought the Waitzkin clan, like a group of Hobbits, was just going to live in this little corner of Manhattan forever — as long as the human race would survive. Yet you’ve moved to a very remote location, and you have in many areas, now in a very clear way, created a lot of slack and white space for deep work.

How would you sell that? Not necessarily moving to the jungle, but how would you train or how do you train some of your performers to stay away from the siren song of FOMO, fear of missing out? The temptation to distraction? Because you’re very good at deliberately blocking it out. What do you say to people who are tethered to phones, locked in front of a Bloomberg, who have trouble creating those broader blocks of time?

Josh Waitzkin: Well, the art of saying no, which you and I have spoken about a lot, is a really important one to take on. In my life today, I’m training as intensely as I’ve ever trained. The goal is virtuosity, not a world championship, but I’m training as intensely as if I was training for a world championship. My ocean training is maxed-out intensity, four, five hours a day. I love the work that I do with my core partnerships in the decision-making space.

It’s really beautiful to feel how my game in all of it has risen as I’ve moved away from everything. I think I was pretty good at saying no before living in New York, but New York is just so much incoming. Now, I’m so far away. This has been a principle that I’ve cultivated for many years, that I feel like I’ve only begun to see the potency of in the past couple of years, since I’ve experienced the power of the empty space.

So much of what we’re trying to do as idea generators is get away from the thought constructs, the group think, the group biases where everyone is clustered. It’s really interesting to get away from it all. For me, coming into New York City, I’ve lived much of my life in New York. But now coming into New York City after not having been here for three, four months, and living in a place which is just so different — I’m listening to monkeys and ocean sounds and rain falling — it’s amazing how much I feel here that I didn’t feel before. Because living in the city, you have to close down a lot of your pores because of the ambulance sounds, the technology, just the constant noise.

So, living here, you have to shut a lot down. It’s very interesting if you open your pores getting away from it, and coming in, how much more receptive you are. I think it’s true mentally with ideas. I think that if you get away from a lot of the noise, it’s much easier to take that 30,000 foot view and see what really matters, and see the core patterns that are operating. It’s like that idea, that great David Foster Wallace discussion around, This is Water, built around the metaphor of a fish swimming in water doesn’t know what water is. It’s very important to see what our water is. I think getting away — or structuring a day — meditation is an incredible powerful internal tool for cultivating this if you’re meditating 30 minutes or an hour in the morning and then again later on. I have some dear friends in this industry who are. It’s like that, it’s like moving to the jungle in some sense. You have the ability to just see through so much of the crap and focus on what matters most.

Tim Ferriss: What matters most — we don’t have a whole lot of time left, but your ability to determine what matters most is affected by your ability to identify your zone of genius in a way, right?

Josh Waitzkin: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: That also your excitement about or predilection to go from zero to 100 is also dependent on operating in your zone of genius. You’ve been very, very good at that. How do you suggest, or do you have any words of wisdom for people who are trying to determine in their world — whether that’s sports, investment, you can pick one, or to be general — how they determine where that zone of genius is?

Josh Waitzkin: Yeah. It’s a great question. I wrote The Art of Learning 15 years ago, and I just started writing again recently. It’s been beautiful to re-enter that terrain. A lot of what I’ve been starting is this question of “Why self-expression?” Because a lot of what I’m writing about is a life of how to live a life of self-expression, which is what you’re asking about. And then, “Why self-expression?” and then, “How do we get there?”

I think that learning who you are as a learner is incredibly difficult. I think, obviously, it’s great to have an ecosystem around you that can help you understand it. If you’ve got people who can really take you for who you are, as opposed to putting their own constructs on you, which is very difficult. because people are trying to justify their own decisions. So they’re trying to box you into those.

There’s so many frames in order to understand who we are. Are we a visual kinesthetic or auditory processor? Most people don’t even ask this question. Do you love mountains or ocean or city? Do you like the rain? Do you like to control things or let things rip in a more relaxed way? What are the patterns behind your greatest successes, and what are the patterns behind you biggest errors?

I like to look at that personally, professionally, technically, and psychologically. In other words, breaking down the boundaries between your personal life and your professional life, and looking at things both in terms of technical specific errors and brilliant creations and more thematic and psychological kind of meta manifestations of that tactical example.

What are the things that have driven our greatest insights, and what are the things that have locked us up most in life? And understand those, and look at the seeds of each one. This is a big part of what I do in my work. I think it’s so important to be patient with this process. I think it’s very easy for people to follow the mental models of others or follow the paths of others. That’s usually disastrous. From my perspective, the goal is unobstructed self-expression. First, we have to understand what self-expression is and who we are as a learner. We have to embrace every little element of our funk and build around it.

I tell you, it’s such a beautiful thing that happens. I think that a big part of being all in on something and falling in love with something so deeply that you’re eating it, you’re breathing it, you’re sleeping it, you wake up in the morning wanting to do it, you want to train at it, being just on fire, stoked out of your mind on the thing, is feeling like you’re expressing yourself through what you’re doing.

If you were a writer, or a chess player, or you’re writing books and doing brilliant podcasts like yourself, if you feel like you’re expressing the core of your being through what you’re doing, then it’s beautiful. If you feel like you’re living in someone else’s model, or even if I’m taking on an art like surfing and I’m doing it in a way that someone else tells me to do it versus a way that expresses the core of my being, it’s a different world.

It’s not so easy to get to know ourselves. But I think the art of introspection, psychologically, somatically is one of the most important that we can take on.

Tim Ferriss: I just want to thank you personally. We’re out of time, but for helping me to take the snow globe of life and death to put it down long enough to let it settle so that you can see more. I think that’s one, I wouldn’t say a gift that you have mean. It is a gift in a sense, but it’s a talent and a skill you’ve developed. It’s like putting the snow globe down long enough so that you can see through it. Thank you for making the time, coming out of your reclusive jungle habitat, and sharing with us today.

Josh Waitzkin: Thank you man. I want to thank Graham Duncan, who’s co-chairing this with a dear friend of mine. I’ve been observing this event for so many years. It’s just an important cause. I think it’s awesome what you guys are doing. Graham, much love, man.

Tim Ferriss: All right. Thanks, everyone!

Josh Waitzkin: Thank you, guys!

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Josh Waitzkin — How to Cram 2 Months of Learning into 1 Day (#375)”

  1. This is one of the best interviews I’ve listened to so far. I’ve actually been re listening and trying to figure out how to take action based on it, which is proving difficult. Maybe couple more times and it will become clearer.