I recently listened to an interview of Josh Waitzkin by Tim Ferriss. Josh Waitzkin is the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer and the author of The Art of Learning, an elegant account of the journey from novice to peak performer. The podcast is action-packed, but here is one specific take-away that I have started applying, and that anyone can use.
Josh talks about Billy Kidd, former Olympic Gold Medal downhill skier. Billy Kidd once asked Josh: “What are the three most important movements in any ski run?” Josh explains that the most important are the last three movements because they shape the muscle memory that the skier remembers as he makes his way back up the mountain.
The last moments of any physical activity are so easy to do sloppily. Many times at the end of a ski run I have found myself finishing with shoddy, ill-considered movements. And yet that poor performance at the end does have a lasting impact. If the last movements are sloppy, we continue to practice sloppily. However, if we execute with fineness, we are much more likely to maintain that same pattern thereafter.
I remember as a cross-country runner in high school running races with no chance of being overtaken or overtaking the next runner. It was tempting to stumble across the finish line, to not give the last 100 yards my all. Over time I learned that the internal reward for finishing at my very best shaped my whole experience of the race. I found myself wanting someone to compete against, or short of that creating an imaginary runner to struggle against. By creating additional pressure at the end of the race I encouraged myself to try up until the very end and came away feeling better about the whole experience.
As I put together Josh’s account and my experience running I remember a cognitive bias know as the Peak-End Rule. It turns out we do not evaluate past experiences based on anything sensible like an average of an overall experience. Instead, as a heuristic, we remember a combination of the peak experience and the very last moments. Take, for example, an experimental subject who is subjected to painfully cold ice water for 5 minutes. If the ice water is kept at an extremely uncomfortable temperature for exactly 5 minutes, the subject will report the experience as more negative than if they experience the same water for 5 minutes plus 1 additional minute at only a slightly less agonizingly uncomfortable temperature. That is to say, someone who experiences 6 minutes of discomfort, where the last moment is slightly improved will report a better overall experience than someone who just experiences 5 minutes of discomfort! This is a wild bias but explains Joss’s theory of physical performance – that the last three movements matter a great deal.
In recent months I have been practicing ballet every day. Ballet classes are designed to end with the most dynamic movements – my favorite. But now more than ever I will strive to make those last three movements my most precise of all.