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Josh Waitzkin on how not to let one mistake turn into a downward spiral

A downward spiral has a simple trajectory. It starts small with one mistake that we either overlook or makes us so nervous that we turn one mistake into many and never recover from it. 

I.

We all have experiences of events that got out of control and landed into a rapid downward spiral to never recover again. In our personal lives, we often experience days where our performance takes a hit and never recovers again throughout the day. For example, I had an excellent start yesterday. But after a midday break, I went off track and started to randomly browse the internet. By the time I realized I was wasting time, one hour was already gone. I stopped myself. Took a small break. And regained my focus and started working again. 

But I don’t get lucky every day and manage to recover. And the days I take a downward spiral, over the years I have noticed I maintain a pattern. First, I make a small mistake of going off the rail for an hour or two. When I realize that I’m wasting time, I either get angry at myself or resentful. These emotions then take over my response system. For instance, when I get angry, I lose my ability to think straight. Instead of catching myself, I double down on wasting more time. When I’m regretful, I feel hopeless and again go back to wasting time because I feel now it does not make any sense to try to be productive today any longer. I have already wasted a few hours. 

Instead of stopping myself after my first mistake wasting an hour, I overlook and my emotional state makes me unable to think clearly, and I exacerbate my mistake causing an eventual downward spiral. 

II.

Every downward spiral starts in a similar fashion. Be it in your personal life, at your work, or in an organization. You make a small mistake. You disregard it either because you are out of your wit or your emotional reaction overrun your ability to think. You then add another mistake to it. By the time you come to your senses, you have started a downward spiral that is almost out of control. 

In an illuminating chapter of his excellent book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains how a downward spiral begins and offers practical insight into dealing with one. According to Waitzkin, a downward spiral begins when we stop living in the present moment and allow one mistake to turn into multiple mistakes. The book is based on Waitzkin’s years of experience in the competitive chess world and several other competitive sports. Waitzkin distills his experience in playing competitive sports into a system for learning. As a result, this offers a practical look into the inner working of not only how we learn but also how our mind works.  

Waitzkin writes, “With young chess players, the downward spiral dominates competitive lives. In game after game, beginners fall to pieces after making the first mistake. With older, more accomplished players the mistakes are subtler, but the pattern of error begetting error remains true and deadly.” 

There is a clear psychological path to how this happens particularly when it involves some kind of performance pressure. When we make mistakes, we immediately become self-conscious. We become nervous. Our breaths get heavier. Our heart moves faster. Our palms sweat. If you are in a stressful position where you need to perform or make a good decision, this sense of nervousness is not a good sign. Psychological distress leads to bad decisions. Instead of thinking clearly and trying to understand and acknowledge your mistake, you make suboptimal decisions and subsequently turn your one mistake into a series of mistakes. 

Waitzkin explains why our mind goes overboard when we make a small error and how our inability to relax into our errors and see them for what they are clouds our judgment and costs us dearly. 

“As a competitor I’ve come to understand that the distance between winning and losing is minute, and, moreover, that there are ways to steal wins from the maw of defeat… Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors,” writes Waitzkin. “Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.”

We usually operate with an unreal expectation of not making errors or mistakes whereas in reality mistakes are common. Because of our expectations, when we make an error it eats into our mental ability to function properly. We started to believe that things are no more in control which eventually led to more mistakes. 

III.

He then goes on to offer an antidote to dealing with a downward spiral. One simple approach is staying real. Staying in the moment and don’t expect perfection. 

Waitzkin writes: “When we cling to the troubling emotions that result from an obstacle or loss, we abandon the present for the past. In short order, we find ourselves using our personal resources to wage an internal war instead of using them to handle what is going on now and move forward. By focusing on a past problem it becomes easy to believe that things have taken a turn for the worse. In not being awake to the present, we magnify the original loss, allowing it to produce a ripple effect of additional problems. These, in turn, take us even further off a course of growth. We must stay cool under fire and fully in the present to glean the most we can from every experience and achieve success.”

Our reality is often a manifestation of our inner state. When we are a mess internally, it affects our external actions and decisions. When we get distracted, it is often because we are internally misaligned. We are stressed, unhappy, depressed, and so on. To function well, we have to find a mental state that does not mess with our functioning. We should have an empty mind. We should not interpret reality in detrimental ways. When we have a mind that is calm and centered, we can see our mistakes as mistakes, no more, no less and recalibrate our position based on our situation in reality. 

Waitzkin explains this the best, “in every discipline, the ability to be clear headed, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.”

Next time when you are exacerbating your mistake, be it in a personal setting or at work, catch yourself before driving yourself into the emotional black hole and return to reality. Presence is the antidote to most of our mental maladies. The Art of Learning is a fascinating read in its entirety. Highly recommended. 

Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about entrepreneurship, business, strategy, technology, and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

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