Tag Archives: psychology

Book notes: The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin

When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognise that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale. We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.  loc. 659

A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.  loc. 1040

I rediscovered a relationship to ambition and art that has allowed me the freedom to create like a child under world championship pressure. This journey, from child back to child again, is at the very core of my understanding of success.  loc. 1042

If aggression meets empty space it tends to defeat itself.  loc. 1311

I recently finished reading ‘The Art of Learning’ by Josh Waitzkin. It was an incredibly inspiring book. Josh weaves together a number of threads to explain his method for getting to world class performance, both in Chess and in Tai Chi Push Hands. The book is a beautiful demonstration of the importance of self awareness and reflection. Fundamentally, the truths therein have been discovered by Josh, simply through observation of himself, and critical reflection.

Below is first a video summarising the book, then a mind map, then my book notes in full. It took me a while to tie together the pieces of Josh’s model in my mind. I hope that the following clearly conveys the book’s essence.



Numbers to leave numbers,  loc. 149., By ‘numbers to leave numbers’, Waitzkin is referring to how what, for the novice, begins as a formula, or steps to success, eventually becomes ingrained in the expert. This can occur to such an extent that it can be difficult for the expert to dissect their methods to then describe what they are actually doing. Waitzkin speaks of how the goal should be to move these fundamentals from procedural steps to instinct.

Part 1: The Foundation

1: Innocent Moves

Bruce had a fine line to tread. He had to teach me to be more disciplined without dampening my love for chess or suppressing my natural voice. Many teachers have no feel for this balance and try to force their students into cookie-cutter moulds. I have run into quite a few egomaniacal instructors like this over the years and have come to believe that their method is profoundly destructive for students in the long run—in any case, it certainly would not have worked with me.  loc. 260

Despite significant outside pressure, my parents and Bruce decided to keep me out of tournaments until I had been playing chess for a year or so, because they wanted my relationship to the game to be about learning and passion first, and competition a distant second.  loc. 285

2: Losing to Win

This quote highlights to me the importance of rest time, and even cross training, to help you to spark creativity and to remain inspired:

There have been many years when leaving my New York life felt like career suicide—my chess rivals were taking lessons and competing in every weekend tournament while I was on a boat crashing through big waves. But I would come back with new ideas and a full tank of energy and determination.  loc. 352

 3: Two Approaches to Learning

In this chapter, Waitzkin introduces readers to the importance of mindset.

This child was paralyzed by an ever-deepening cycle of entity indoctrination.  loc. 564

4: Loving the Game

This chapter is all about competition and dealing with the fallout, whether it be success or failure:

One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline—whether we are speaking about sports, business negotiations, or even presidential debates—is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.  loc. 607 

diverse fields take some version of the process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves. This issue of process vs. goal is very delicate, and I want to carefully define how I feel the question should be navigated.  loc. 635

How to speak to your child (or anyone for that matter!) post-loss:

She is aware of the entity/incremental dynamic and so when Danny loses, she wants to tell him it doesn’t matter. But obviously it does matter. He lost and is sad. To tell him it doesn’t matter is almost to insult his intelligence. What should she do?  loc. 648

When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale. We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.  loc. 659

When a few moments pass, in a quiet voice, she can ask Danny if he knows what happened in the game. Hopefully the language between parent and child will already be established so Danny knows his mom is asking about psychology, not chess moves (almost all mistakes have both technical and mental components—the chess lessons should be left for after the tournament, when Danny and his teacher study the games). loc. 667

Of course there were plateaus, periods when my results levelled off while I internalised the information necessary for my next growth spurt, but I didn’t mind.  loc. 703

On the normalcy after victory:

I’ll never forget walking out of the playing hall of the 1990 Elementary School National Championships after winning the title game. There were over 1,500 competitors at the event, all the strongest young players from around the country. I had just won the whole thing . . . and everything felt normal. I stood in the convention hall looking around. There was no euphoria, no opening of the heavens. The world was the same as it had been a few days before. I was Josh. I had a great mom and dad and a cute little sister Katya who was fun to play with. I loved chess and sports and girls and fishing. When I would go back to school on Monday, my friends would say “Awright!” like they did after hitting a jump shot, and then it would be in the past and we would go play football.  loc. 708

5: The Soft Zone “Lose Yourself”

When Waitzkin writes of ‘The Soft Zone’ he is talking about a psychological state. This is analogous to the concept of ‘flow’. In order to enter the soft zone, and to stay there, it is necessary to spend time learning to work with your emotions. 

The nature of your state of concentration will determine the first phase of your reaction—if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function.  loc. 759

Another way of envisioning the importance of the Soft Zone is through an ancient Indian parable that has been quite instructive in my life for many years: A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.  loc. 765

On the disruptive tactic of one of Josh’s chess opponents: when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process. This subtle tactic was highly effective and I later found out that it was an offspring of the Soviet study of hypnosis and mind control.  loc. 801

6: The Downward Spiral

7: Changing Voice

This chapter is vital to understand about being true to your own voice, and playing to your strengths.

My whole chess psychology was about holding on to what was, because I was fundamentally homesick. When I finally noticed this connection, I tackled transitions in both chess and life. loc. 1001

Once I recognized that deeply buried secrets in a competitor tend to surface under intense pressure, my study of chess became a form of psychoanalysis.  loc. 1004

8: Breaking Stallions

A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.  loc. 1040

I rediscovered a relationship to ambition and art that has allowed me the freedom to create like a child under world championship pressure. This journey, from child back to child again, is at the very core of my understanding of success.  loc. 1042

one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.  loc. 1044

In the following, Dvoretsky is a famous chess player who had a very rigid style, in contrast to the more improvisational style of Waitzkin: As it was, perhaps because of his own playing style, my full-time coach was drawn to Dvoretsky’s conclusions—and so from the age of sixteen a large part of my chess education involved distancing myself from my natural talents and integrating this Karpovian brand of chess. As a result, I lost my center of gravity as a competitor.  loc. 1138

Part II: My Second Art

9: Beginner’s Mind

This chapter is about the importance of patience

I’ve seen many emerge bored from Chen’s most inspiring classes, because they wanted to be spoonfed and did not open their receptors to his subtleties.  loc. 1244

10: Investment in Loss

If aggression meets empty space it tends to defeat itself.  loc. 1311

Thinking back on my competitive life, I realise how defining these themes of Beginner’s Mind and Investment in Loss have been.  loc. 1392

11: Making Smaller Circles

I believe this little anecdote has the potential to distinguish success from failure in the pursuit of excellence. The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.  loc. 1423

My understanding of this process, in the spirit of my numbers to leave numbers method of chess study, is to touch the essence (for example, highly refined and deeply internalized body mechanics or feeling) of a technique, and then to incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping true to its essence. Over time expansiveness decreases while potency increases. I call this method “Making Smaller Circles.”  loc. 1472

This is where Making Smaller Circles comes into play. By now the body mechanics of the punch have been condensed in my mind to a feeling. I don’t need to hear or see any effect—my body knows when it is operating correctly by an internal sense of harmony.  loc. 1497

Now I begin to slowly, incrementally, condense my movements while maintaining that feeling. Instead of a big wind-up in the hips, I coil a little less, and then I release the punch.  loc. 1503

If you’ve ever watched some of the most explosive hitters in the boxing world, for instance Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali, you’ve seen fights where knockouts look completely unrealistic. Sometimes you have to watch in slow motion, over and over, to see any punch at all. They have condensed large circles into very small ones, and made their skills virtually invisible to the untrained eye.  loc. 1509

The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest. It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.  loc. 1523

12: Using Adversity

How can we turn our seeming disadvantages into advantages?

there are three critical steps in a resilient performer’s evolving relationship to chaotic situations.  loc. 1552. 1: Learn to be at peace with imperfection, 2: Use imperfection to your advantage, 3: Learn to create ripples in your consciousness, ‘little jolts that spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring’.

The importance of undulating between external and internal (or concrete and abstract; technical and intuitive) training applies to all disciplines, and unfortunately the internal tends to be neglected.  loc. 1582

In all athletic disciplines, it is the internal work that makes the physical mat time click,  loc. 1587

On a deeper level, this principle can be applied psychologically whenever opposing forces clash. Whether speaking of a corporate negotiation, a legal battle, or even war itself, if the opponent is temporarily tied down qualitatively or energetically more than you are expending to tie it down, you have a large advantage.  loc. 1604

The following refers to when Josh significantly damaged his shoulder, and had his arm in a cast. 

There was also an intriguing physical component of my recovery. I wanted to compete in the Nationals, so bizarre though it may sound I resolved not to atrophy. At this point in my life I was very involved in the subtle internal dynamics of the body through Tai Chi meditation. I had an idea that I might be able to keep my right side strong by intense visualization practice. My method was as follows: I did a daily resistance workout routine on my left side, and after every set I visualized the workout passing to the muscles on the right. My arm was in a cast, so there was no actual motion possible—but I could feel the energy flowing into the unused muscles. I admit it was a shot in the dark, but it worked. My whole body felt strong, and when the doctor finally took off my cast he was stunned.  loc. 1611

13: Slowing Down Time

As a child I had a fear that I could never be a chess master because I wouldn’t be able to fit all the information into my mind.  loc. 1644

Once my hand healed and the Nationals were over, the question on my mind was: how can I make time slow down without breaking a limb? Everyone has heard stories of women lifting cars off their children or of time seeming to slow down during a car accident or a fall down the stairs. Clearly, there is a survival mechanism that allows human beings to channel their physical and mental capacities to an astonishing degree of intensity in life-or-death moments. But can we do this at will?  loc. 1655

Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline. The initial studies on this topic were, conveniently, performed on chess players who were considered to be the clearest example of sophisticated unconscious pattern integration. The Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1965) and years later the team of William Simon and Herbert Chase (1973) put chess players of varying skill levels in front of chess positions and then asked them to re-create those positions on an adjacent empty board. The psychologists taped and studied the eye patterns and timing of the players while they performed the tasks.  loc. 1681

This is where things get interesting.  loc. 1733

This next paragraph really highlights what the book is trying to help readers achieve.

We are at the moment when psychology begins to transcend technique. Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.  loc. 1733

The idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide.  loc. 1737

The brilliant neurologist Oliver Sacks has explored the imagery of shutter speed in an article for The New Yorker and in other writings about the different perceptual patterns of his patients with neurological diseases.  loc. 1816

14: The Illusion of the Mystical

A Chinese saying…

If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.  loc. 1825

In time, I have come to understand those words, At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first, as pertaining to intention—reading and ultimately controlling intention.  loc. 1837

Great players are all, by definition, very clever about what they show over the chessboard, but, in life’s more mundane moments, even the most cunning chess psychologists can reveal certain essential nuances of character. If, over dinner, a Grandmaster tastes something bitter and faintly wrinkles his nose, there might be an inkling of a tell lurking. Impatience while standing on line at the buffet might betray a problem sitting with tension. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one’s relationship to discomfort? The reaction to surprise? The need for control?  loc. 1867

Quarterbacks flick their eyes and send safeties flying all over the football field. Real estate moguls furrow their brows, act impatient, check their watches to lull buyers into nervous offers. A chess player observes a rhythm, then sits, lets his clock tick even though a decision has already been reached, then finally makes his move just as the opponent predictably gets up to go to the bathroom. What now? Take a minute, go to the bathroom, come back. Control the pace of the game. Awareness of these dynamics can make you hard to manipulate, and can allow you to turn the tables on even the savviest of conditioners.  loc. 1999

Part III: Bringing it All Together

15: The Power of Presence

16: Searching for the Zone

Jim Loehr, who ran a performance training center called LGE in Orlando, Florida. LGE (recently renamed the Human Performance Institute)  loc. 2123

Jim told me that he was also an avid chess player and had followed my career for a long time. We fell into a conversation about the psychological parallels of top-notch chess competition and quarterbacking in the NFL. I was amazed by how many of the same issues we wrestled with. I think that this conversation in the LGE gym was my first real inkling of how universal the arts of learning and performance really are.  loc. 2136

For a number of years, when notating my games, I had also written down how long I thought on each move. This had the purpose of helping me manage my time usage, but after my first session with Dave, it also led to the discovery of a very interesting pattern. Looking back over my games, I saw that when I had been playing well, I had two- to ten-minute, crisp thinks. When I was off my game, I would sometimes fall into a deep calculation that lasted over twenty minutes and this “long think” often led to an inaccuracy. What is more, if I had a number of long thinks in a row, the quality of my decisions tended to deteriorate.  loc. 2154

Striegel and Loehr told me about their concept of Stress and Recovery. The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line.  loc. 2158

Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen.  loc. 2164

The physical conditioners at LGE taught me to do cardiovascular interval training on a stationary bike that had a heart monitor. I would ride a bike keeping my RPMs over 100, at a resistance level that made my heart rate go to 170 beats per minute after ten minutes of exertion. Then I would lower the resistance level of the bike and go easy for a minute—my heart rate would return to 144 or so. Then I would sprint again, at a very high level of resistance, and my heart rate would reach 170 again after a minute. Next I would go easy for another minute before sprinting again, and so on. My body and mind were undulating between hard work and release. The recovery time of my heart got progressively shorter as I continued to train this way. As I got into better condition, it took more work to raise my heart rate, and less time to lower my heart rate during rest: soon my rest intervals were only forty-five seconds and my sprint times longer.  loc. 2181

during weight workouts, the LGE guys taught me to precisely monitor how much time I leave between sets, so that my muscles have ample time to recover, but are still pushed to improve their recovery time. When I began this form of interval training, if I was doing 3 sets of 15 repetitions of a bench press, I would leave exactly 45 seconds between sets. If I was doing 3 sets of 12 repetitions with heavier weights, I would need 50 seconds between sets, if my sets were 10 reps I would take 55 seconds, and if I was lifting heavy weights, at 3 sets of 8 reps, I would take one minute between reps. This is a good baseline for an average athlete to work with.  loc. 2194

Summary of Josh’s learning approach

this is what my entire approach to learning is based on—breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness.  loc. 2215

I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know that relaxation is just a blink away from full awareness.  loc. 2224

17: Building Your Trigger

This is a problem I have seen in many inconsistent performers. They are frustrated and confused trying to find an inspiring catalyst for peak performance, as if the perfect motivational tool is hovering in the cosmos waiting for discovery. My method is to work backward and create the trigger. I asked Dennis when he felt closest to serene focus in his life. He thought for a moment and told me it was when he played catch with his twelve-year-old son, Jack.  loc. 2270

a blissful state when tossing a baseball with his boy, and nothing else in the world seemed to exist.  loc. 2273

all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner,  loc. 2274

The next step in the process is the critical one: after he had fully internalized his routine, I suggested that he do it the morning before going to an important meeting.  loc. 2297

Let me emphasize that your personal routine should be determined by your individual tastes. If Dennis had so chosen, he could have done cartwheels, somersaults, screamed into the wind, and then taken a swim before playing catch with his son,  loc. 2303

I had learned from Jack Groppel at LGE to eat five almonds every forty-five minutes during a long chess game, to stay in a steady state of alertness and strength.  loc. 2328

18: Making Sandals

As we enter into this discussion, please keep in mind the three steps I described as being critical to resilient, self-sufficient performance. First, we learn to flow with distraction, like that blade of grass bending to the wind. Then we learn to use distraction, inspiring ourselves with what initially would have thrown us off our games. Finally we learn to re-create the inspiring settings internally. We learn to make sandals.  loc. 2404

The approach of one master chess player

sitting quietly in his room for a period of introspection. His goal was to observe his mood down to the finest nuance. Was he feeling nostalgic, energetic, cautious, dreary, impassioned, inspired, confident, insecure? His next step was to build his game plan around his mood. If he was feeling cautious, quiet, not overwhelmingly confident, he tended to choose an opening that took fewer risks and led to a position that harmonized with his disposition. If feeling energized, aggressive, exceedingly confident, he would pick an opening that allowed him to express himself in a more creative vein. There were countless subtle variations of mood and of opening. Instead of imposing an artificial structure on his match strategy, Petrosian tried to be as true to himself as possible on a moment-to-moment basis. He believed that if his mood and the chess position were in synch, he would be most inclined to play with the greatest inspiration.  loc. 2560

19: Bringing it All Together

it is my hope that you will take these ideas and make them your own. Make them fit with your natural disposition.  loc. 2602

I have talked about style, personal taste, being true to your natural disposition. This theme is critical at all stages of the learning process. If you think about the high-end learning principles that I have discussed in this book, they all spring out of the deep, creative plunge into an initially small pool of information.  loc. 2693

See location 2695 (page 225) for a summary of each of the chapters

20: Taiwan

If you ever hear martial artists talking about a “pummeling war” they don’t mean that two people are clobbering one another, but that they are fighting for underhooks.  loc. 2895


In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.  loc. 3148



Dealing with Test Anxiety: Avoidance, Acceptance and White Bears.

Have you ever heard of the white bear intelligence test? Whoever thinks of a white bear the least is the smartest. So, let’s try it out:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.42.06 AM

The test starts now: Don’t think of a white bear…

I told you not to think of a white bear!  Ok, so you thought of a white bear. But now you really have to stop thinking about a white bear, the more you think about it the dumber you are. Just suppress the thought of a white bear so there is absolutely no image of a white bear in your head.

I said DON’T THINK ABOUT A WHITE BEAR, this really isn’t looking good for your intelligence score…

Obviously this isn’t a very good test of intelligence, so why are we thinking about white bears and trying to suppress these thoughts? Because this is an exercise used by Senay, Cetinkaya and Usaka (2012) to explore acceptance of test-anxiety-related thoughts as a means of  helping students to improve their test performance.

For many people, anxiety about tests is one of the main factors that reduces test performance. This occurs because anxious thoughts such as “I’m no good at maths” or “I’m going to fail” or “this is too hard” occupy space in working memory. This reduces the cognitive processing power that’s available to be allocated to actually doing the test (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). The default coping strategy for many students is to try to suppress these anxious thoughts, but what can often happen is that (as with the white bear whom we met above) the thoughts just keep on popping up, and sometimes trying to suppress them can just increase their prevalence!

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.21.27 AMThere’s a compounding factor at play here too, and that’s the fact that students often realise that these anxious thoughts are compromising their performance. This adds extra pressure on them to suppress these thoughts (pressure that I tried to simulate above by suggesting that the white bear exercise was in fact an intelligence test [but I probably didn’t fool you]) and can lead to the vicious cycle pictured to the right.

note: It can infact be more like a vicious spiral, with the student getting more and more stressed as the test goes on… but I didn’t know how to make a spiral in Microsoft SmartArt Graphics.

Senay, Cetinkaya and Usaka (2012) wanted to test ‘acceptance’ as a technique to help students deal with test-related-anxiety. They took 87 college freshmen, both male and female who were doing an intro-to-psychology class, and performed the intervention immediately prior to a class test. They split the participants into 4 groups. A control group (told to just do the exam is they normally would), a group who had a 10 minute training on anxiety avoidance techniques*, a group had a 10 minute training on anxiety acceptance techniques**, and a group who received training in both.

*ie: avoid the things that are likely to produce anxiety for as long as you can. In this case the main technique spoken about was to pass any difficult questions and come back to them once all of the easy questions were completed

**Here the students were told to 1: don’t try to suppress anxious thoughts (at this point the white bear example was invoked to prove that suppression doesn’t actually work), 2: not pass judgement on whether or not their anxious thoughts were justified (eg: ‘Am I having this thought because I actually am dumb?’ This equates to realising that the “White Bear Intelligence Test” is in fact not an intelligence test), 3: see anxious thoughts are something that are going to naturally pass through a person’s mind, and that they don’t have to do anything about them. From time to time, everyone thinks about white bears!

I’m keen to emphasise here that this intervention was only 10 minutes long, and immediately prior to the test, this makes the results even more interesting!

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.55.01 AM

Of course it was checked that there wasn’t any bias present in the groups prior to the training (ie: all groups had a similar distribution of ‘anxious’ and ‘not-so-anxious-ish’ people) and all that jazz, and in the end, this is what came out in the wash (see right, from pg. 423)

All 3 treatment groups did (statistically) significantly better than the control group!

The authors also looked at test scores as a function of how frequently test strategy was employed. This was measured by asking the participants to rate, on a scale from 1 to 7, whether they used coping techniques (7 being very frequently). This revealed an interesting result.

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.03.22 AMEssentially, the more often the treatment participants employed the techniques, the more successful they were in the test (correlation). Conversely, more frequent use of techniques by the control group (techniques of their own choosing) was correlated with lower exam scores. This was likely because it was simply an indication that they were having more anxious thoughts, which were not being effectively dealt with and thus compromising their performance.

Also interesting to note is that there was no statistically significant difference between the results of the 3 treatment groups. The authors suggested that this could have been due to a ceiling effect whereby maximum returns to technique were reached by either of the strategies used in isolation (acceptance or avoidance). Thus, using strategies in combination didn’t yield any significant improvements above the use of either of them individually.

So, in conclusion, you help your students to improve their test performance by letting them know that skipping hard questions and coming back to them later and by telling them that it’s ok and normal to have anxious thoughts. “When you have anxious thoughts you can just think to yourself ‘how interesting, an anxious thought, oh well, that’s normal’ and continue on with your test”. I’m amazed by how just a 10 minute intervention had statistically significant results!

I would be interested to see the effects of longer term acceptance strategy training, such as meditation, on an individual’s ability to deal with anxious thoughts. I’m personally really enjoying using the Headspace app at the moment to do daily meditation. And I do feel that an approach of ‘seeing my thoughts as passing cars on the road, there’s no need to get picked up and taken away by them, just watch them pass’ has really helped me to be more positive and let negative emotions go more easily since I started the training a few weeks ago  :)


Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The Relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 224–237.

Senay, I., Cetinkaya, M. and Usak, M. (2012). Accepting test-anxiety-related thoughts increases academic performance among undergraduate students. Psihologija, 45(4), pp.417–432.




Goal Setting: How a 2 hour goal setting exercise can facilitate long term success (with downloadable worksheet)

Out of my recent summary of Richard Shell’s  Springboard, Launching Your Personal Search for Success  came several things that I want to explore further. One of them was about goal setting.

Here’s the tantalising intro to goal setting that Richard gave us in his book. (Kindle location 3819)

“In a notable study of academic achievement, researchers randomly selected college students who were struggling with their grades and conducted a simple intervention. Half the students were given a two-hour, web-based, goal-setting tutorial.

Screen shot 2014-09-10 at 10.15.52 AM The program led students through a five-step process to conceive, frame, and write out specific personal goals related to their future, followed by a three-step tutorial to help them lay out detailed strategies for how they would achieve the goals they had set. (control group did a personality/aptitude test). At the end of the following semester, the researchers reviewed the academic performance…. Four months later, however, the grades of the group that had received the goal tutorial had risen, on average, from 2.2 to 2.9, while the other group’s grades rose only from 2.2 to 2.3. In addition, the members of the goal-tutorial group carried heavier course loads and felt better about themselves and their academic performance. This simple intervention, in short, had materially improved the chances for these students to graduate on time and with a new, more positive attitude.”

Well, that sounds like a pretty good use of 2 hours! I had to look into it in more detail.

Dominique Morisano, Jacob B. Hirsch, and Jordan B. Peterson, “Setting, Elaborating, and Reflecting on Personal Goals Improves Academic Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95 no. 2 (2010): 255-64.  (See the appendix of the paper for more detail on the 8 step process that I outline below. Please see the bottom of this page for a downloadable worksheet on goal setting.)

So, what were these 8 steps?

1. Vision Get students to free-write about a) their ideal future, b) qualities they admire in others, c) things they could do better, d) their school and career futures, e) things they would like to learn more about, f) habits they would like to improve.
2. Label Label the main ideas and concepts that came out of the visioning process. Take a few of these (7 to 8 in the study) and write about what a successful outcome would actually look like if realised.  Ensure that each labelled goal is clear and specific.
3. Prioritise Prioritise goals from step 2. Detail specific reasons for the pursuit of each goal and consider the attainability of each goal within a self-specified timeframe. (Attainability considered as success-expectation has a large influence on motivation)
4. Impact Ask students to write about the impact that attaining each of the goals would have on their life. This exercise provides further motivation for students. (As an interesting aside on Impact, check out what Dan Gilbert has to say about Impact Bias)
5. Chunk “Many things which cannot be overcome when they stand together yield themselves up when taken little by little.”-Quintus Sertorius. This step is about getting students to break their goals up into bite sized pieces/subgoals and constructing concrete strategies for achieving ach of them.
6. Obstacles Encourage students to identify likely obstacles to each subgoal and think of strategies to over come these.
7. Cap Students cap each subgoal, ie: define what it will look like for each sub-goal to be achieved. This is about benchmarking goal attainment to help keep students focused through aiding them in monitoring their own progress.
8. Committed Students evaluate the degree to which they are committed to achieving each goal. This is about the student forming a personal contract with themselves to strive for the goals that they have defined. At the end of the exercise all documents were emailed to students for their reference*.

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*A possible improvement on this would be to get students to schedule emails to themselves (could use boomerang or set as events with reminders in google calendar) so that they are reminded on a weekly (or so) basis of their goals and their goal accomplishment timeline.

Good luck using the below worksheet in your classroom or life to help your students or yourself live and learn better  :)

Downloadable goal setting worksheet.



For those who would like to be able to remember this 8 step process without referring to this article again, please consider the following mnemonic:

note: When i say “a friend’ or ‘a brand’ make sure you envision a specific friend and an specific brand, etc.

You’re looking into the eyes of a good friend  (Vision), the camera shot zooms out and you notice that they’re wearing a new pair of glasses with a new brand (Label), You ask them how they chose this new label and they admit that it was hard to prioritise (Prioritise). Suddenly, the glasses fall of your partners nose and impact the ground (Impact). They’ve fallen into two big chunks (Chunk). You decide to walk to the hardware store to try and fix them, but your friend, who is missing their glasses, has trouble avoiding the telephone poles on the way (Obstacles). You decide that it’s best to get them a hard hat to keep them safe on the journey (Cap). The hard hat salesperson ask you out, but you have to tell them that you’re already committed (Committed). 


The Psychology of Social Change, Presentation from Students of Sustainability 2014

Based on the book “Change of Heart” by Nick Cooney, this presentation explores how a consideration of our psychology can help us to become more effective communicators. This presentation was given at the Students of Sustainability conference at the Australian National University in July 2014. The audience was primarily social justice and environmental activists. SoS is an annual conference that brings together change makers from around the country to learn and be inspired.

(if you are receiving this post via email the video can be viewed here)

Here is the 2 pager summary of the presentation. Designed to jog your memory of the main concepts post-watching and for quick reference in future if you’re running a campaign or something similar. Numbers to the left refer to page numbers in the book.

Please find the Prezi presentation file below:


Book Review: Springboard, Launching Your Personal Search for Success-Richard Shell

WOW! If I had to sum this book up in one word, that would be it.

Now, for many people the word ‘success’ reeks of sex, money, and power, but this book really frames the word ‘success’ in a new light, and approaches it in a fresh way.

Author Richard Shell, who runs a success course at Wharton college in the U.S, breaks his book into two parts. The first half asks “What is Success”” and helps the reader to define what success is for them. This is done in a number of ways, one of which is the ‘Six Lives Exercise’ whereby the reader hears of the lives of 6 people who are all successful in different ways. This is an excellent lead-in to thoughts and conversations (if used in a class environment) about values and reflections upon what we ourselves find successful.

Springboard-Richard Shell

The second half of the book, “How will I Achieve It?” is all about just that! It’s broken into chapters focused on subjects such as finding your calling, motivation, self confidence and persuasion.

I have read quite a bit in this space over the years, from psychology to self help to motivational literature. In this book Richard Shell mentions (and distills) almost every key point I have come across in these fields to date. Furthermore, the referencing system was second to none, every fact, figure and claim in the book was hyperlinked to the “notes” in the back which were themselves logically ordered for quick reference. Easy access, delicious!

Hands down, this is the best book I have ever read in this area. Would make an excellent 18th, 21st, 30th, 40th, 50th, (etc) birthday present for anyone willing to take the time to dig in.

Read on for a selection of Wot-I-Got out of the book (I made over 250 notes whilst reading this book, that must be a pb!) and see the PDF at the bottom of the page for my notes in full.

Numbers refer to kindle locations, and remember, all points have excellent references within the book!


Introduction, Two Big Questions

88: Quote: “It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any self-deceotion or illusion, that a light will develop out of events, by which the path to success may be recognized”

116: The “Odyssey Years”, between 20 and 35. A new period of life as defined by modern sociologists

346: Quote: on being true to oneself: “The challenge in social interaction is figuring out how to maintain your sense of personal authenticity at the same time that you make the adjustments needed to work with a variety of other people and personalities.

Part One, The First Question: “What is Success?”

Chapter 1: The First Answer: Choose Life

374: Quote: “There is no one who, if he listens to himself, does not discover in himself a pattern all of his own, a ruling pattern.”-Michel De Montaigne, French Philosopher

454: Finding Success-Four Key Themes: 1. Defining success for yourself often involves trial and error, 2. Seek awareness of the success values and culture of your family so that you can independently consider your own success goals, 3. Success is a multidimensional concept, 4. Success is not a destination

Chapter 2: An Easy Answer: Be Happy

690: The word happiness is used to describe three distinct things. Ice Cream (momentary) happiness, Lifestyle Happiness, Life Purpose Happiness. (note: not Shell’s terminology)

764: French and U.S women spend roughly same time eating, but french pay 2 x as much attention →  more ice cream happiness

915: The Harvard Study of Adult Development/The Grant Study tracked the happiness and health of 268 men for 72 years. George Vaillant, study head, concluded with “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people”.

Chapter 3: Society’s Answer: Seek Status, Fame, and Fortune

1153: Hungry Ghosts-the name given by budhhists to people who can’t get enough status, wealth, or power

1323:The  Amish enforce’ Rumspringa, they force college-age community members to leave their farms from 1 to 2 years to explore

Chapter 4: An Inspired Answer: Find Meaningful Work

1685: Book: What Should I Do with My Life?-Po Bronson, 53 stories of people’s search for meaning in their work (from >900 interviews

1688: Term: ‘Phi Beta Slackers’-Po Bronson, describes smart people content to follow the conventional career path of least resistance

1750: The ‘Golden Handcuff Problem’-Those with high pay get addicted to a high flying lifestyle, thus become handcuffed to their careers

Part 2: The Second Question: “How Will I Achieve It?”

Chapter 5: Discover What You Can Do Better Than Most: Capabilities

2366: Book: Human Nature and Social Order-Charles Cooley, Introduces the term “Looking-Glass Self” to explain the insights that can come from seeing oneself reflected in the looking glass of other people’s perceptions

2507: Essay: The Hedgehog and the Fox-Philosopher Isiah Berlin, Hedgehog is a specialist, Fox is a generalist

Chapter 6: Set Yourself on Fire: Motivation

2680: Andrew Wiles on solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. It is like exploring a mysterious, unlit mansion with many rooms: “One enters the first room of the mansion, and it’s dark. Completely dark.” after bumping into various objects, ‘you learn where each piece of furniture is.” Finally you find the light switch and at last you can see exactly where you are and where everything is… “Then you move into the next room” and repeat the process. The moments of insight and illumination come suddenly; the work to achieve them is slow, methodical and painstaking; and the experience of finally discovering the solution is deeply satisfying.

2680: Richard believes that reward-based motivation is a useful tool.

2764: Adam Grant of Whaton College documented that different personality types require different motivations boosts for the same work

Chapter 7: Learn to Fail: Self-Confidence

3062:’ Self Handicapping’- accepingt invites to parties and movies on the nights before big tests, thus your can say “I didn’t really try”.

3166: There are three different ways to attain level one confidence (ie: confidence in your true self)

-1. Someone you respect believes that ‘you can do it’

-2. A Rite of Passage

-3. The Power of Faith, more detail follows

3192: Roughly 30% of the effectiveness of medicine is said to come from the power of suggestion, even higher for pain relief.

3316: Level two confidence: The success mindset (see my blog post on Mindest-Ollie)

Chapter 8: Focus Your Mind: Passion, Imagination, Intuition, and Reason

3551: 78% of ‘highly accomplished professionals’ cited focused goals as a critical success factor

3563: “The Zeigarnik effect”-This mental crowding in one’s consciousness as a result of unmet goals

3575: Plato conceptualized the mind as a charioteer driving 2 horses, Charioteer=soul, Horses=passion and reason

3649: “The Recency Effect”-The brind most vividly recalls the most recent data and overweights that in your decision

Chapter 9: Influence Others: Credibility and Dialogue

3994: Quote: “That’s the way to really learn things – by yourself,”-Willy Gibbs, inventor of the double hull ship design, studied engineering independently whilst attending law school

4039: Aristotle divided friends into three distinct categories: Pleasure, Utility and Virtue in his book ‘Nicomachean Ethics’.

4345: Quote: “Friends are as companions on a journey, we ought to aid each other to persevere in the road to a happier life”-Pythagoras


4405: Quote: “The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been on the one hand and…the things we have made of ourselves on the other”- H.G. Wells

4522: Danish Folk Saying: “You must bake with the flour you have”

4552: Quote: “It is not always the people who start out the smartest, who end up the smartest.”-Alfred Binet, inventor of the IQ test


4647: See Richard Shell’s (author) Success course syllabus here: http://lgstdept.wharton.upenn.edu/shellric/teaching.htm