Quod natura non dat...

...Salmantica non prestat, says the old Latin proverb. If you have been born without talent or skill, don’t hold any hope that training and education (in reference to famous Salamanca’s university) will turn it around. I’ve only used the famous expression in a sarcastic way, to make fun of someone. I don’t even think it is true… sort of.

Josh Waitzkin was a child chess prodigy. His early years are reflected in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. What is less known is that Josh, overwhelmed and tired of the environment created around him, broke out with chess, retired, and started practicing Tai Chi as a way to evade from the storm. Soon he moved from the meditative practice we all know from seeing people at parks to the lesser known martial art: Tai Chi Chuan. The interesting turn of the story comes when Josh, devoted to the practice of the martial art, ends up winning the World Championship! (And this is a huge thing in Taiwan.) What a life! And bear with me… he did all this by the age of 26!

He wrote a book at that age. He argues that he’s no chess or martial arts prodigy. He claims that he’s mastered the art of learning (hence the name of his book, that you should buy immediately.) In the deconstruction of his method he elaborates his thoughts on the genetics vs development debate, which I’ll synthesize next.

Developmental psychologist Carol Dweck introduced two theories of intelligence: entity and incremental. Entity means you are born with an intellectual capacity; incremental means your capacity is developed over time. I know you will be tempted immediately to blend the two and come up with a perfect balance, but bear with me because even if intellectually that makes sense, our behaviors and reactions end up signaling messages around us that we, in reality, are more inclined to one of the two. Josh reflects in the book on the influence of parents in relation to the young chess players. Some parents will play hard the game of: ”you are a natural!”, “wow, this kid is gifted, what a talent! We’ve heard this a thousand times. Josh claims that children educated under that perspective (that they are gifted) are among the best players he’s ever had to play with, but, when defeated, will either collapse of take an enormous time to rebound. Makes sense, the kid will think he’s reached his limit. That was it, I’m gifted but this other kid is more gifted than me.

On the other hand, some parents will overplay the incremental approach. This is the famous: ”No worries kid, the most important is that you participated. You’ll do better next time. Bullshit (Josh claims.) Winning is what matters, even if participating is great, we play to win. Parents that overplay this card kill competitiveness from children and that prevents further development. Josh shares how their parents balanced the two messages very effectively, always making clear that losing sucks, but embracing the idea that, precisely because it sucks, every defeat must be analyzed to prevent the same mistakes again.

Josh writes in his book: ”The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” I find this inspiring and true according to my own personal experience. If you are not uncomfortable, if you are not struggling, if you are not in pain, you are not growing. Isn’t it a terrible prospect? Not at all. There’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of overcoming, even if it means that 80% of your time you are suffering.

So Salamanca, I won’t give up that easily.