Recurring Problems Have Both Technical and Psychological Roots

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, skmurphy

I got an e-mailed question from someone who had watched my “The Limits of I’ll Know It When I See It” video.

Q:  In your talk you say “Most recurring problems are a combination of an unsolved technical problem and an unresolved emotional component to that problem.” Is there more about this in Ericsson’s “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” or in the Gary Klein’s “Sources of Power“?

A:  It’s actually from another great book: “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.  I found this quote on page 108:

“The aim is to minimize repetition as much as possible, by having an eye for consistent psychological and technical themes of error.”

but he is a little clearer in two other interviews, the first is  Scott Barry Kaufman’s “Learning About Learning: An Interview With Josh Waitkzkin“  (yellow highlight added)

S. In reading your book, it seems as though your major strength in Tai Chi Chuan is the way you put your mind into the game. You were able to beat players much stronger than you by “getting into their mind.” I find this fascinating. Why do you think you were so good at psyching people out? Was it because of your early chess experiences?

J. Sure, my chess experience taught me a lot about the psychology of competition. World-class chess players are incredibly brilliant people who have spent their lives figuring out ways to get it your head, to break you down. Usually every high level chess error is accompanied by a psychological break of sorts-to survive, you have to understand the inner game. I am always looking for where the psychological and the technical collide–that surely comes from my chess study. But frankly, I think I really got good at the psychological game after chess. Chess taught me how to be relentlessly introspective, how to unearth tells in myself and in opponents, but then I really took that foundation and put it into dynamic action in the martial arts. I work on being a heat seeking missile for dogma. If you unearth or instill a false assumption in an opponent, they are in a lot of trouble unless they feel you getting into their head and kick you out fast. Of course this eye for false constructs is an important tool in the learning process as well.

The second is Thomas Huynh‘s “Interview with Josh Waitzkin” (yellow highlight added)

Q:  Did you find the skills or outlook you gained from first learning chess on the streets of New York City (Washington Square Park) helped you to outmaneuver those who only had classical training?

A:  [...] To survive in the park you have to be a fighter. You have to be able to handle any kind of distraction. Honestly, I think those early lessons lay the foundation for my most intense world championship fights years later. I learned early that just about every error has a technical and psychological component, and if you get good at discovering those connections, you’ll be a step ahead of the competition. And of course as a kid, facing other 7, 8 and 9 year olds in National Championships felt like a piece of cake compared to what I dealt with every day in Washington Square.

Here the implications for the roots of a recurring error or  consistent mistake in play coming from both a technical and a psychological blind spot are clearest. Robert Pirsig wrote something along the same lines in “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which also applies to entrepreneurs building companies:

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”


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