Notes on Waitzkin at Sohn

Oct, 25 2020
5 Minutes

I watched a video today that dispensed some great wisdom on learning. It was of Josh Waitzkin being interviewed by Tim Ferriss at the Sohn Conference in 2019:

Here are my takeaways

Finish Strong

Waitzkin shares that he was once skiing with Olympic gold medalist Billy Kidd when Kidd turned to him and asked  "Do you know what the three most important turns of the ski run are?".

Most skiiers might say the middle turns. These are often done at the highest speed and greatest intensity.

But that's not it. Kidd said the most important turns are the last three before you get on the lift.

People tend to get sloppy towards the end, but those three turns are what your body is subconsciously internalizing as you ride the ski lift back up.

It's true in martial arts - when Josh was practicing Taichi push hands (he became a world champion), he would always finish strong and making sure to execute the technique as well as he could before signing off for the day

The last thing you do is what is going to burn most deeply over night. Harnessing unconscious learning is a huge part of what I do

This story is fascinating because it reminds me of a video I watched of why Steph Curry is successful. The narrator was a coach at Kobe's Nike Skills Academy and Steph was a camper. He mentioned that Steph was the most impressive kid there, because he was "meticulous" with everything he did. But here's a gem:

Probably the most impressive thing that he did - as soon as the workout was over, he would not leave the court until he swished - SWISHED - five free throws in a row. Do you know how hard that is?

There's great wisdom in making your subconscious work for you. Steph - whether he knew it it or not- had found a way to channel it.

Your MIQ and Your Subconscious

Waitzkin introduces the concept of a MIQ or Most Important Question. He says you want to end your day thinking about your MIQ, then you want to relax, and in the morning, brainstorm on the MIQ as the first thing you do. Absolutely no Twitter, no phone use - you want to be "preinput" as Waitzkin mentions.

The key is to leverage your subconscious - you want your subconscious to be working on the problem as you sleep.

He cites how Earnest Hemingway would leave his work with something "left to write" - whether that was midsentence, midparagraph, or something unfinished.

So what does this look like? It might be something like this:

  • MIQ: Do I intuitively feel like the VP of Sales candidate is an ethical person?
  • Relax: Stop thinking about the MIQ and go grab a glass of wine with your partner. (The art of letting go is important he says)
  • Morning: Before your mind gets influenced by any other source, start writing/brainstorming about the MIQ

The idea of priming your subconscious is what I think Paul Graham was talking about in his essay "The Top Idea in Your Mind"

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time.  That's the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they're allowed to drift freely.  And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it.

So finishing your day with your MIQ primed is just another way of feeding your top idea to your subconscious for processing. Jumping on it as the first thing you do in the morning is a great way to see if your subconscious has generated any insights. Maybe not, but you need to give it a chance.

And to pick your MIQ - Waitzkin has this little gem of a quote:

Most great thinkers are like a knife through butter, and then they get stuck

That "stuck" is your MIQ.

Extreme Relaxation and then Extreme Focus

I'll let these quotes mostly speak for themselves.

Imagine watching a boxer in slow motion:

If you watch a great boxer, the relaxation before a strike is delivered is incredible

How do you apply this idea of extreme relaxation combined with extreme focus?

Most people in high stress decision making industries are always operating at this simmering six or four. As opposed to the unduluation between just deep relaxation and being at a ten. And being at a ten is millions times better than just being at a six

The idea is if you feel "always on", you're capping your energy such that your maximum is a "simmering six". Waitzkin mentions the importance of being able to operate at a "ten" - and that can make all the difference.

In my own life, I really think this is true - especially in times of judgement. When you are designing a system or deciding what kind of project to create, you want to make the decision when you're at a "ten". If you're in execution mode, just pure labor, you can probably hang out at that "simmering six".

Self Expression

Just read these quotes and soak in the wisdom. May they inspire you

"It's very easy to follow the mental models of others, or follow the paths of others. And it's usually disastrous"
"From my perspective the goal is unobstructed self expression. So first we have to understand what self expression is and who we are as a learner. We have to embrace every element of our funk and build around it."
"It's such a beautiful thing that happens"
"And I think a big part of being all in on something, and falling in love with something so deeply that you're just eating it, 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. It's this feeling that you're expressing yourself through what you're doing."
"If you're a writer, or a chess player, or writing books and doing brilliant podcasts. If you feel like you're expressing the core of your being, then it's beautiful."
"If I'm doing it in a way that someone tells me 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"


I believe we are not getting enough out of subconscious minds.

I like to say that when I am solving a problem, my strategy is mostly to "prime my brain" with all of the facts and algorithms/strategies and just sit there until I have an insight. Of course, I might be doing work like writing down facts or rearranging facts, but what I'm really doing is I'm just playing with the details such that my subconscious can find the solution.

What I love about what Waitzkin talks about is this deep respect for the subconscious, as well as the deep sense of self expression. Some things cannot be "logicked". I do not believe you can truly rationalize your way to insights, no matter how logical they appear after the fact. And I know you cannot rationalize your way to discovering what you love in life.

Learn to work with your subconscious. Learn to love the