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(Don't Fall For) The Downward Spiral

| “When we are present to what is, we are right up front with the expansion of time. But when we make a mistake and get frozen in what was, a layer of detachment builds. Time goes on, and we stop.“

I’ve just finished a book that I highly recommend, "The Art of Learning" by Josh Waitzkin. It’s a book that will teach you about what it takes to become a world champion. In this episode, we will discuss the lessons I discovered in the Downward Spiral chapter.


  • What you can learn from professional chess players
  • A passage from the Downward Spiral chapter (that you don’t want to miss)
  • How to avoid letting your own mistakes create negative feelings
  • Why it’s important to stay connected with a present moment
  • Big lessons from a podcast with Dr. Joe Vitale

     And so much more.


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Welcome to the Ivy League Prep Academy podcast, where we help you make a meaningful impact in your communities and get accepted to your dream university. Becoming the person that Ivy League schools recruit is more enjoyable and meaningful than you ever imagined. Come find out why our I just finished a book that I highly recommend.

It's called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitskin. You may not have heard of this book or of Josh Waitskin, but he is a really impressive person. He definitely knows the road to excellence, to just elite performance.

In fact, he was the first time he earned a national championship in chess was when he was nine years old, and more or less, he was the top rated player for his age group. For the next eight or nine years, he won multiple national championships and some world championships in chess. And then later, because he was the subject, partly because he was the subject of a very popular movie called Searching for the Next Bobby Fisher, or Searching for Bobby Fisher, he became a movie star.

He became a celebrity when he was 16 or 17 years old, and fans would come to his chess tournaments. Obviously, this was really distracting for a 16 year old or a 17 year old to have people come and ask you to sign their shirt right before your chess match. It wasn't very conducive to him continuing his dominance in chess.

And he took a break from the game later, not much later, just very shortly thereafter, he discovered Tai chi and martial arts. And he became so enthralled and so fascinated by martial arts that he dove just as deeply into martial arts as he had into chess, and within a few years went through this strenuous physical challenge of martial arts and became a master of tai Chichuan, which is an internationally recognized competition in martial arts. He became the world champion.

He earned the title of world champion after a few years of getting into the sport. Truly, truly phenomenal. Now he wrote a book about learning, and in the book he says I'm paraphrasing here he says that, yes, he's an expert in chess, and he has spent thousands of hours studying and learning chess, and he has also spent now thousands of hours studying and developing his skills in martial arts.

But really what he thinks he's best at is learning. And I just think it's so fascinating. So I highly recommend the book.

The subject of this podcast, and the reason why I hit record, and I'm grateful that you're here listening, is because of his chapter titled The Downward Spiral. In this chapter, he talks about how common it is for chess players somewhere around the three hour mark, to make a mistake. And then that mistake, because they're frustrated that they made a mistake.

It leads to some carelessness. They're frustrated. They try to make up for the mistake that they made.

Maybe they have the lead, and then they make a mistake, and now they lost the lead and where they should continue to play the same style and the same kind of game that they've been playing that got them the lead in the first place, because they made a mistake and they feel frustrated. And now they're no longer playing with the same lead that they had the previous couple of hours. They're tempted to take unnecessary risks and make more mistakes.

And so many outstanding chess players, elite chess players at this stage begin what he calls the downward spiral. Now, obviously, there are a million applications to life, but I wanted to read for the first time ever, all the books that we've reviewed in this podcast. I've never been tempted to read a long passage like this, but I want to read this experience that he had.

So he begins on I want to read this from page 64. And just some context at this point in the book. He is a master trainer for some young chess prodigies.

He's training, I think, four or five young chess players, and he's on his way to go train one day. So we begin on page 64. He says, it was my habit to walk the 2 miles to P.

S. 116 every Wednesday, planning my class and enjoying the city. One fall afternoon, I was strolling east along 33rd street, lost in thought, and headed toward the school.

Everyone who has grown up in Manhattan knows that it is important to look both ways before crossing the street. Cars run lights, and bicyclists ride the wrong way down one way streets. Drivers are used to narrowly avoiding bustling midtown crowds, and most New Yorkers are untroubled by the cacophony of sirens, blaring horns, and taxis speeding ten inches in front of our noses.

Things flow pretty nicely usually, but the margin for error is slim. There I stood within the maelstrom of the midtown rush, waiting for the light and thinking about the ideas that I would be soon discussing with my students. A pretty young woman stood a few feet away from me, wearing headphones and moving to the music.

I noticed her because I could hear the drumbeat. She wore a gray knee length skirt, a black sweater, and the typical Manhattan office workers white sneakers for the trek home. Suddenly, she stepped right into the oncoming traffic.

I guess she was confused by the chaotic one way street, because I remember her looking the wrong way down Broadway. Immediately, as she stepped forward, looking right, a bicycle bore down on her from the left. The biker lurched away at the last second and gave her a solid but harmless bump.

In my memory, time stops here. This was the critical moment in the woman's life. She could have walked away unscathed if she had just stepped back onto the pavement, but instead she turned and cursed the fast pedaling bicyclist.

I can see her now, standing with her back to the traffic on 33rd and Broadway, screaming at the now distant biker who had just performed a miracle to avoid smashing into her. The image is frozen in my mind. A taxicab was next to speed around the corner.

The woman was struck from behind and sent reeling 10ft into the air. She smashed into a lamppost and was knocked out and bleeding badly. The ambulance and police came, and eventually I moved on to PS 116, hoping that she would survive.

As I walked into the school, dumbstruck by the severity of what I had just witnessed, I felt compelled to share a version of the story with my students. I left out the gravity of her injuries, but I linked life and chess in a way that appeared to move them. This tragedy needn't have happened.

I explained how this woman's first mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping into the street in front of the traffic, maybe wearing headphones, put her in her own world, a little removed from the immediacy of the moment. Then the biker should have been the wakeup call. She wasn't hurt, but instead of reacting with alertness, she was spooked into anger, irritated that her quiet had been shattered.

Her reaction was a perfect parallel to the chess player's downward spiral. After making an error, it is so easy to cling to the emotional comfort zone of what was. But there is also that unsettling sense that things have changed for the worse.

The clear thinker is suddenly at war with himself, and flow is lost. I have always visualized two lines moving parallel to one another in space. One line is time.

The other is our perception of the moment. I showed my students these lines with my hands moving through the air. When we are present to what is, we are right up front with the expansion of time.

But when we make a mistake and get frozen in what was, a layer of detachment builds. Time goes on, and we stop. Suddenly we are living, playing chess, crossing the street with our eyes closed in memory.

And then comes the taxicab. That chess lesson was surely the most emotional I've ever taught. And I just have to say, so many of us, as students, as parents, as professionals, as teachers, boy, we can so easily allow anger, allow frustration, allow our own mistakes to create this feeling of unfairness or victimhood.

If we feel like someone treated us poorly, even though we made the mistake in the first place, we can begin to feel that way. And then if we're not careful, we lose the moment. We lose presence in the moment, and we make the next mistake and the next mistake.

And the downward spiral is real, and it is dangerous. And so what do we do about it? Well, of course, you heard from Josh Waitson. We need to catch ourselves after that first mistake.

Take a deep breath as you breathe. Bring your attention back to this moment. Don't get lost in your frustration, in your feeling that you've been wronged, that something is not fair, that something has gone wrong, that you've lost an advantage or anything else.

That energy is not going to serve you in this moment. If you're in the middle of a chess game and you make a mistake and make a wrong move, go get a drink, go to the restroom, splash water on your face, breathe, and come back. If you're in the middle of class or in the middle of a test or you're in the middle of a presentation or something else, a discussion with a teacher, you feel like something is unfair.

Don't get lost in the anger and make the second mistake and let that lead to a downward spiral. Instead, take a deep breath. Get regrounded in the moment.

Lose the fear and the frustration that you're feeling as quickly as possible and get back to the moment. Take a deep breath in and get back to it. On a previous podcast, I interviewed my mentor and one of my real heroes in life, Joe Vitali.

And Joe Vitali is credited with really bringing the story of a Hawaiian healing practice to the world. He wrote a couple of books that really teach this method that allows you to get yourself out of the downward spiral very quickly. And what he teaches is if the frustration is inside of you, if the anger is inside of you, if you're the one who feels that something was unfair, then that energy and that feeling, that emotion, you own that you were a part of it.

In fact, you created it. Okay? So even if you feel like, well, wait a minute, it only happened because of what someone else did, think about it this way. If you're walking across your room and you kick the chair accidentally, right, the chair was not supposed to be there.

And when you kicked it, it hurts. And you want to blame the chair, but the truth is, the pain is inside of you. The pain is not inside of the chair.

And yeah, the chair maybe should not have been there. The chair might have been in the wrong place, but ultimately, the pain is inside of you. You created the pain.

And so when you feel frustrated, even when it's clear to you that someone else wronged you, someone else did something that's not fair, you'll have plenty of time after you're. Outside of the risk of the downward spiral, you will have plenty of time to deal with what went wrong and whose fault it is and how you can prevent that same mistake from happening next time. But in the middle of the emotion, if you need to perform, if you're in the middle of a chess game or the middle of a test in school, or the middle of a conversation, that's important.

With a teacher or a counselor or a friend. If you're in the middle of that and you can't afford the downward spiral, don't allow your first mistake to create the frustration that's going to lead to that downward spiral. So how do we do it? What did Joe Vitali teach? He teaches, and I can vouch for this.

I've taught it many times, and I've used it countless times in my life. He teaches that. Think about it this way.

Even if it doesn't feel like it in the moment, the reason why you feel that pain is because you were a part of it. On some level. On some level, it triggered you.

You feel it's unfair. You feel angry. On some level, you own that anger.

It's within you. And if you can at least just acknowledge that you helped create it, you were a part of the creation of that anger, that unfairness, that feeling of frustration. If you can acknowledge that you are a part of the creation, then you can quickly say to yourself four things I'm sorry.

Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

Now, that sounds crazy, but this is actually a Hawaiian healing mechanism, a Hawaiian mantra called Ho opponopono. These four phrases, of course, we use English when we say them, but ho opponopono is this idea that was made famous from a Dr. Hulin.

Actually, his full name is E Haliakala Hulin, but we can call him Dr. Hulin. And Dr.

Hulin did some amazing things with it. We won't get into it here later. Joe Vitali wrote books about Dr.

Hulin and what he did, but the whole point is this mantra, ho opponopono just stands for these four phrases that we can say to ourselves. Or you can consider yourself saying it to your higher self, right? And you say, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the role that I played in creating this anger and this frustration.

Even if it was tiny, even if I didn't mean to even if really I don't believe that it was my fault, I recognize that on some level, if I'm triggered by it, if I'm feeling this way, I helped create it. On some level, even if it just feels academic, I'll acknowledge that on some level, it was me. So I'm sorry for whatever role I played in creating this pain, this frustration inside of myself.

Please forgive me for whatever I've done, even if it wasn't on purpose. Please forgive me. Thank you.

Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for allowing me to move on. Thank you for keeping me out of the downward spiral.

I love you. And you're saying to yourself, I love you, right? You can say to your best self, you can say to your divine self, but however you approach this, you just say to this conscious element of you the part of you that recognized that you're in the downward spiral and you need to snap out of it. This level of consciousness.

You speak to that and rather than say the whole thing. I'm sorry for all whatever I contributed to this pain. Please forgive me for my role in this.

Thank you for allowing me to move forward. Thank you for keeping me out of the downward spiral. I love you.

You can just say the four phrases I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.

I love you. And if you just say that in your mind or out loud once or twice, you can completely reset your energy in that moment. You can completely disarm the frustration or the anger that you're feeling in that moment.

And with that, the downward spiral disappears. If we were back in the story, it's like this woman having a second chance and being able to come back to the sidewalk to safety rather than get angry and pursue her anger and try to seek justice. You can get back to this moment, get out of the anger and frustration, and perform at your best again rather than fall into that downward spiral.

So I want to share this with you. It's truly a powerful process and a powerful concept. Don't get stuck in the downward spiral.

Instead, return to this moment. Right? There are two lines running here. One is time, and the other is our awareness of time and our consciousness.

And so you stay with the awareness of time and don't stop and get stuck in the past when you disengage from that anger, that frustration that leads to the downward spiral. I hope this served you as much as this thought process. And this story from Josh Waitskin really impressed me and inspired me.

I hope this inspired you as well and serves you. Thanks for listening and go make your impact today.