154 - Two stories about humility training

09-02-2024

personal development

On Wednesday, I met a friend who was visiting town. Over breakfast, he shared a story with me.

My friend who identifies as a numbers guy said that at the apex of his career he found himself coveting the company of others like him, and avoiding the company of those different.

It was easier for him in the company of those who sported similar stripes. He felt valued, valuable. When it dawned on him that he had started staying away from situations where he wouldn’t be among the smartest in the room, he conceived of a drastic step.

He did the opposite of what everything in his body wanted him to do. He stepped out. Out of his comfort zone, out of territory that was familiar to him.

In due time, one such leap he made was into the world of design and esthetics. From his childhood when he had won national scholarships and been in the top percentiles of his peers, he had built an identity as someone analytical—a left-brained success.

He challenged this identity that he had worn for as long as he could remember. He sought the company of those with expertise in design. He read up, mustered the courage to share his ideas about design, and signed off his reach-outs with an explicit ask: Tell me if I’m talking crap.

And his right-brained friends did. In the process, he started losing his urge to protect his turf. Today, my friend prides himself on his breadth, of wearing any identity loosely.

My friend’s story resonated with me. It reminded me of someone I have grown to admire.

Josh Waitzkin was a chess prodigy in the 1990s. He was hailed as America’s next Bobby Fischer for his precocious ability to solve problems on the chessboard. In his early twenties, after he had given up chess, he began to pursue Tai Chi Push Hands as a martial art form.

As someone who had spent a lifetime hunched over a wooden board, he was at sea using his body. In his Push Hands class he became easy meat. He was thrown around. The experience could have been humiliating, and it probably was. Waitzkin saw it differently.

The timing of my life was perfect for this type of process. I was wide open to the idea of getting tossed around—Push Hands class was humility training.

Then, slowly, things began to change.

Working with Chen’s advanced students [Waitzkin trained under the acclaimed William CC Chen], I was thrown all over the place. They were too fast for me, and their attacks felt like heat-seeking missiles. When I neutralized one foray, the next came from out of nowhere and I went flying. Chen watched these sessions, and made subtle corrections. Every day, he taught me new Tai Chi principles and refined my body mechanics and technical understanding. I felt like a soft piece of clay being molded into shape.

As the weeks and months passed by, I devoted myself to training and made rapid progress. Working with other beginners, I could quickly find and exploit the tension in their bodies and at times I was able to stay completely relaxed while their attacks slipped by me. While I learned with open pores—no ego in the way—it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits.

Waitzkin improved swiftly. What about those “advanced students” with gilt-edged reputations to protect who used to beat the shit out of him? They practiced with a desperate need to win. They froze in their path to mastery, they didn’t go much further.

American comedian Groucho Marx once said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that wants me as a member.” I don’t know much else about Marx and my basic Googling couldn’t settle if this quote is Internet apocrypha or true. No matter the provenance, I think, though, that the comment captures the investing-in-loss credo.

Marx believed he shouldn’t join up any group that wanted him more than he needed it. An exchange where he would gain less from others than others would from him didn’t appeal to him. He wanted to learn, to get better and the best way he figured—much like my left-brained friend and like Josh Waitzkin—was to throw himself onto the path of those better than him.

That is humility training. That is, dear friends, investing in loss.

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