On making progress

Some time ago, in an Aikido class, my sensei at the time Eytan Ben Meir explained how to approach learning in Aikido.

“Consider a person in front of a very long wall, let’s say 1000 kilometers in each direction”, he said. “Somewhere in that wall there’s a very thin slit through which you may enter, but the slit is invisible to the human eye. Therefore, to find the slit, you move forward towards the wall. If you are just in front of the slit — congratulations you go through. If you hit the wall — retreat back, move a few steps sideways and try again.”

“This”, Eytan said, “is a powerful way to learn the techniques of Aikido. Do it over and over again, try different things, until you find the right path. You will know when you find it.”

“One more thing”, Eytan added: “You can learn Aikido your entire life. Every time you pass through a thin slit in the wall, you find yourself right in front of a new wall, and start over one level deeper. ”

This story has helped me through a lot of learning challenges over the year. It works very well for Aikido as well as many other areas.

In chess, people sometimes get stuck in a “plateau” around a certain level of play. It is common in this case to feel frustrated and that something is missing in your chess game and you can’t figure out what it is. Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind addresses this problem directly.

Consider applying the thin slit approach here. What you need to make progress is usually something that only you can discover, but friends, parents and coaches can help. Try this: play and analyze many games, and do this with a diverse group of people so you get a lot of different ideas and perspectives.

Eventually you will find the thin slit you are looking for.



I’ve recently got introduced to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. In this book, Carol describes the difference between what she calls a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset”.

People with a fixed mindset consider their abilities a gift. A certain ability level they have been given, which cannot change. Consequently, they typically spend all their time trying to prove to the world, and themselves, that they do in fact have the level of ability expected of them. This in turn results in avoidance of risk, for fear of failure (which for fixed-mindset is proof they are not good enough).

People with a growth mindset believe that effort leads to growth. Every challenge is an opportunity to learn (not a test of one’s skill level). Yes, talent is important, but effort is the real driver of success.

Boris Gelfand, who challenged Anand last year for the world championship, is well known for his approach to chess matches based on hard work and deep preparation. Laszlo Polgar, the father of Susan and Judith, famously said: “Geniuses are made, not born”.

So when your child wins, praise the effort not the achievement.