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Leave me alone, Self 1!

At first I thought maybe the entry for “The Inner Game of Tennis” on the reading list was a typo. What does tennis have to do with ITP or anything non-tennis related for that matter? Nevertheless, I was intrigued and decided to find out for myself. I quickly realized the book’s relevance to ITP and life in general. While the book does focus a lot on game of tennis, I think it would do itself a favor by emphasizing the book’s subtitle – The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance – because it provides a far more accurate description of what the thesis and theory behind the book are.

On the other hand, both the main title and subtitle might mislead one to think it’s a self-help book, or a “how to succeed in business” or “how to get ahead of everyone else” type of book. But it’s really none of these things. At least not if you read it the right way. It can get a little watered down at parts when Gallwey prescribes a heavy dose of tennis analogies and technical tennis explanations. I guess you can’t blame him though since he came up with his theory while he was a tennis teacher, and spent the majority of his professional career employing his theory on the court. But more recently Gallwey has introduced the Inner Game approach to corporations and individuals in a variety of fields and I can understand why.

The Inner Game of Tennis is a fascinating study of the mind, and the struggle between what Gallwey refers to as the two selves: Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1, the “conscious teller” is the part of the brain that gives instructions to the Self 2, which is the part of the brain that translates our knowledge of technique into physical action. To use a tennis analogy, Self 1 is the side of the brain that’s consciously focusing on your form, swing, how hard you’re hitting the ball. Self 1 judges Self 2 and is often heard saying things like, “Why can’t I hit the ball straight today?”, “my serve f@*king sucks”, etc. Self 2 is the part of the brain that would like to just perform the physical action as it has learned to do so. Gallwey’s main point is that Self 1 is untrusting and judgmental of Self 2 and interferes with the natural abilities of Self 2.

Gallwey explains that your body learns to do most things naturally without judgment such as walking into a room, turning on the light and sitting in a chair to read. Or how a child begins walking after seeing others walk, then imitates the action, and ultimately continues to walk even after falling a few times, because the Self 2 realizes it’s better than crawling. Gallwey explains that “the process by which the body learned and performed these actions is no different from the process by which it learns and plays the game of tennis”.

This applies to a lot of things outside of the court such as taking an important test, playing an instrument, performing, problem solving. The theory of Self 1 and Self 2 can explain why when we are warming up, practicing an instrument, or in dress rehearsal, we tend to do well because Self 1 thinks it’s not important. Then when it’s time for the real thing (a match or opening night), you perform worse than you did in practice because Self 1 is now aware of the importance. Self 1, untrusting and judgmental, doesn’t believe that Self 2 can do the job on its own and takes over.

There are a few instances in recent memory that I find fit this theory. One, for example, physical computing. In the beginning, I struggled with the labs because (I think) my Self 1 was very aware of how little experience I had. When something didn’t go right I found my Self 1 doubting and putting down my Self 2. As a result, I kept making errors and becoming more discouraged. Then one day I was working on a lab that wasn’t due any time soon and I wasn’t nervous or really thinking too hard about what I was doing, and next thing I knew I had done everything right on the first try.

Speaking of physical computing, during office hours with Tom Igoe a few weeks ago (before I started reading The Inner Game of Tennis), he said something along the same lines as Gallwey’s theory that struck me: when you all of a sudden start doing well and feeling like you “get it”, you become self-conscious of your success and start to question it. As I read The Inner Game, I was reminded of this conversation. Perhaps Tom was the one to add this book to the list??

Another memory that came to mind was my experience preparing for and taking the LSAT. I scored 5-7 points higher on all of my practice exams (which were taken in a simulated test environment to the real thing) than I did the two times I took the official exam. I have no doubt that my Self 1 is partially to blame for that. Although looking back I suppose I owe Self 1 a thank you. Had I scored 5 points higher on the real thing, I might have actually ended up applying to and attending law school (gasp!).

So how do we try to overcome the power of the self-doubting, distracting, Self 1? One way, Gallwey argues, is to focus on imagery. The best way to “speak” to Self 2 is in its native language which is sensory images. Movements are learned through visual and “feeling images”, and getting a clear image of what you want to happen is the most useful method for communication with Self 2. Instead of letting Self 1 tell Self 2 to keep your wrist tight, keep your feet moving, swing through, see in your mind the image of yourself doing these things. Similarly, as we planned our physical computing midterms, we were advised to imagine what you ultimately want your project to be, and then worry about how to execute it.

A good analogy for how we should treat the learning process is to act like an umpire would in a tennis match. When one player serves a double fault, that player call is a terrible shot and is unhappy. The other player judges it as good and is pleased. Then there is the umpire who simply calls the ball as he sees it. By calling things how they are, we can accept them, learn from them, and try to correct them.

Gallwey says, “When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are.” The way to do this, Gallwey argues, is keeping our minds concentrated on the here and now. But I think most of us would agree that this is not an easy task. Gallwey’s discussion about this really resonated with me:

It’s perplexing to wonder why we ever leave the here and now…they are the only place and time when one ever enjoys himself or accomplishes anything…Most of our suffering takes place when we allow our minds to impinge the future or mull over the past. Nonetheless, few people are ever satisfied with what is before them at the moment. Our desire that things be different from what they are pulls our minds into an unreal world, and consequently we are less able to appreciate what the present has to offer.

I think most people would agree with Gallwey after reading this concept, but I had never really thought about it this way before. Why do we leave the here and now when we indeed suffer the most when we indulge in reliving the past and daydreaming about the future.

The Inner Game of Tennis and the theory of the two selves provide a compelling explanation for why we often come up short when we feel as though we have tried our hardest and why, on the contrary, the when we aren’t trying so hard we are surprised by the results. Even though Gallwey’s process for letting Self 2 shine seems like a lifelong battle against Self 1, I think that simply being aware of the two selves is incredibly valuable. I have already recommended this book to a few people close to me that I think could benefit a lot from simply looking at one’s learning and performance in this light.


18 comments to Leave me alone, Self 1!

  • Nancy

    Great post! BTW I put the book on the list, b/c it’s on the top of Alan Kay’s must read reading list.And he’s one of the smartest people I have ever met. There are lots of places to get t his kind of information– yoga, Flow theory, dance, etc… but the fact that it’s tennis, I think–makes you curious. You should see some of the youtube footage on Gallwey teaching people tennis…amazing.

  • Karl Ward

    I have not read the book, but I’m generally skeptical of any recommendation to fight against one’s own conscious mind. In fact, I’m a big fan of Self #1 and Self #2. I wouldn’t put one over the other. I like your take on it better (be aware of both), but I would add that you should not fight against either. Then again, I don’t get paid to teach people tennis and I’m not a best-selling author so what do I know? All that said, now I want to read this book and his other book about the Inner Game of Music.

    I almost went to law school too. Self #1 told me not to take the LSAT because I didn’t really want to be lawyer, and Self #1 is usually pretty good about steering me away from temptation. Self #2 is not so good at that.

  • Christina

    Thanks, Nancy. I’m definitely going to check out some of the footage on youtube. The examples he gave from teaching on the court were really interesting and I would love to see them in action.

  • Christina

    I understand what you’re saying about not fighting your conscious mind and, actually, I think Gallwey would agree with you. I think his point is more that Self 2 is very smart and very powerful, and often times we overlook that fact (or Self 1 distracts us from that fact). And it’s interesting you bring up the word “fight”, because Gallwey also talks about the importance of not fighting old habits, but rather creating new ones.

    I have the book with me if you’d like to borrow it. I’d be curious to hear your take on it after. Also, cheers to both of us for not going to law school!

  • Zhenzhen

    Born and raised in mainland China, I grew up in a culture where children are often criticized and given orders to follow. When I first started college in the US, I had a panic attack, because I didn’t know how to choose classes and a major to study. I have had a few pretty serious relationships since college, with guys who have been very kind to me. They almost all ended by me doubting if they were the right people. After college, I started working. I constantly wondered if I was doing something that was worth my time. Ordering ice-creams from tiny food trucks will take me minutes to decide. It always seemed like there was a better flavor. Buying a pair of jeans could often turn into an hour-long marathon. No matter which pair of jeans I ended up buying, there always seems to be a better pair out there somewhere, that makes a better fit. Since when I was a little girl, I have seem to be living a life where I was constantly seeking for permission to be, to live, to make mistakes and to learn. The decision of coming to a program like ITP was part of an attempt for me to say goodbye to the way I have been living for the past 20 something years. Each opportunity for me to make something and see other people’s response has almost been a meditative process for me. I smile when people like what I make. I try to appreciate it when people give me advice. But most importantly, I seem to enjoy it the most when my projects are something that I feel comfortable making, instead of someone else’s idea I am chasing after. Almost all of what I have been seeking for in this program came in ways I was not expecting. Taking crazy things, things me or other people have no control of, is really a serious waste of time. No matter what we wish for, no matter how fast we want to go, people can never be anything but themselves. And things will always take time. There is really no option, but to accept things as they are and do what we can. Without accepting ourselves, the world around us will always seem like a wind storm that never settles.

  • HannahMishin

    Yay on no Law School!!! (though lawyers can be awesome when you need them).
    As for bifurcating our minds, I must object (though with a caveat that we must “game” ourselves to accomplish things we never knew we could, and perhaps this is his method for gaming his mind). Intuition comes from that place of self doubt as well… if I understand correctly, and instinct. We sense so much more than what our cognizant selves can comprehend, and using our brains as Judge (ump calls this and it is good/bad), vs. using our brain as a sensing and understanding tool (though this is difficult to achieve), where Self#1 and Self#2 agreed to see together. (When an ump calls a play, understand the reasons for that call rather than judging his/her choices). I think living in with a judgement free mind is difficult, not often possible, but is the desired and optimal way to have our brain work for us. (that non-judgement should also apply to our “brains/selves” on P-Comp projects…:) ).

  • Erin Finnegan

    I’ve been reading a book called The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Ending Overeating, which is more or less a diet book, and although it sounds unrelated to The Inner Game of Tennis, I was surprised to find similarities:

    > The best way to “speak” to Self 2 is in its native language which is sensory images.
    Ending Overeating suggests the reader/dieter visualize compassionate people and pleasant scenes. In Gallwey’s terms, perhaps this is to speak to Self 2! Meanwhile, Self 1 is as discouraging in dieting as in tennis, as a highly critical, vocal voice telling one to eat those cookies (or whatever) and continually bringing up past failures into the conscious mind.

  • Erin Smith

    I recently watched the documentary “Jiro dreams of sushi” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-aGPniFvS0 -essentially a film celebration of Jiro Ono, one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs, and a man that Japan declared a national treasure. Jiro’s art of preparing sushi is one that involves the perfection of extremely simple elements. As you watch his hands fly through their movements you realize that his actions are completely separated from the logical mind. All of his motions are driven by physical impulse that has been developed over his relentless, 75-year practice (he spent years as an apprentice just focusing on rice). Everyone in the film remarks that he is never completely satisfied with his work, and will be striving to improve his craft until the day he dies. This may be a perfect union of Self 1 and Self 2, an emotionless and insistent Self 1 who wants to strive for the future, and a Self 2 that is completely trusted. An apprentice in the film remarks that there’s no real way to verbally describe how to make your sushi perfectly, that you just have to feel how to do it. By having one highly focused study that lasts decades, these chefs all learn how to completely trust and accept their instincts, regardless of the fact that they can’t describe how they’re doing it. Being in a program like ITP we may not have the benefit of knowing exactly what it is we’re striving for, but I think that finding a way forge an interlaced bond between Self 1 and Self 2 is the best way to love your work and allow yourself to perform at your best.

  • Isn’t the state of being always in the present the zen itself? The persued nirvana state?

    Your reading reminded me of 2 other short books: one, written by Eugen Herrigel, “Zen in the Art of Archery”, and the other, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull — a story” written by Richard Bach. Both about reaching this special place in our selves: the here and now, when you don’t think, when you just “be”.

    The Zen Archer was a recommendation of my Theatre coach, as a parallel way of understanding the state of mind of effortless action that an actor should achieve when on stage. If you try to hard, you are doing it wrong. You have learned your lines previously, you have done the same scene hundreds of times before: now just be. The book is actually about a western guy that attempts to learn the art of zen by learning how to control his movements precisely while practicing archery. It is a very interesting way he goes until achieving his goal.

    “Jonathan Livingston Seagull — a story” was a reading from my childhood years, and if I remember it well, is about a seagull that transforms itself by overcoming obstacles and reaching new states of consciousness through his/its victories.

    I will read “The Inner Game of Tennis” for sure. Thanks for posting!

  • Aaron

    Ok, this might be the longest comment ever, but I have a lot to say about this, or rather, I have a story to tell. Maybe someone out there will read it…

    I read this book about 14 years ago (I think), when I was working arduously trying to master the saxophone (I did my undergrad in music and worked as a musician in a lot of different bands as well as doing studio work). The book had been recommended to me as a way to approach mastery of an art form. At that time I was already playing gigs and teaching some, so I was well into my habits as a player. The concept of ‘getting out of the way’ and letting the body and brain do what they know how to do was immediately applicable to playing an instrument. I consciously did it as much as I could in my mind, telling myself to get out of the way, but really, I think I probably got more in the way by trying to get out of the way. As Karl mentioned, Self 1 battling Self 2 didn’t work so well, but the concepts really made sense to me, and I thought there must be a way to actually implement this in some sort of real sense, other than just intellectually.

    A couple of years later I was studying with George Garzone, a really amazing saxophone player and teacher. He had me practice playing random notes (nothing pre-planned or thought out) at different speeds, and pay attention to the connections between the notes. Teachers I had had in the past had always given me certain things to practice that I could see, “oh yeah, I need to learn these scales,” or “I need to learn these chord progressions.” This was the first time someone had assigned me something where there didn’t seem to be any definite aim, but I set out to practice it because I trusted George knew what he was doing. After a while of this I started noticing remarkable improvements in my overall playing, but I had no idea why. During one lesson I remarked to George, “you know, I keep coming here and studying with you, and you don’t really teach me anything, but I keep getting better.” And he said, quite incredulously, “What do you mean I don’t teach you anything!? I teach you things like, ‘Hey, your shoe is untied, tie it.’ or ‘Your fly is down, zip it up.’” I didn’t much understand his point, but I laughed anyways, and thought that maybe I should refrain from saying I wasn’t learning anything from now on.

    Later on, as I continued to practice playing randomly, I thought more and more about what George was teaching me, and how I was improving. The exercise of playing random notes seemed to me an exercise of letting go. When playing randomly, without a goal, there is no aim to what happens, whatever happens is a-ok. The attachment to sounding good, or playing something impressive, is not there (at least not there as much as normal). The more I did this, the more I could just let go with whatever I was playing. Listening to the connections between notes, as George had me do in this exercise, really brought the awareness back to the present moment. The act of listening to the sort of non-entity happening between notes was outside of the normal habit pattern enough to make the mind (and body) fully engaged in the process. They were aware and not encumbered by thinking about how things should sound, so they were free to unconsciously make the improvements without ‘Self 1’ getting in the way. My playing automatically began improving, and improving drastically, seemingly without effort. I wasn’t improving because George was giving me all the secret techniques that all the greats knew and I didn’t, it was really about fixing small things in my playing analogous to “oh my zipper is down, I better zip it up.” And the beauty of it was is that George never said “you need to play like this,” or “you need to fix that,” he was totally Mr. Miyagi with me. I consider him one of the best teachers I ever had.

    My story doesn’t end there though. Even though George had opened me up considerably as a player, I still wanted to ‘want’ less (ironic how that happens) in my life in general. After trying many things out I started doing something called Vipassana (www.dhamma.org). Vipassana is a meditation technique where one learns to observe the physical sensations one feels from moment to moment all over the body and train the mind not to react to those sensations. The habit of the mind is to hold on to and try to continue experiencing things that feel good, and to push away and get rid of things that feel bad. If you observe closely, you’ll see that what we’re feeling is continuously changing, and we actually have very little control over what our nervous systems are having us experience. The aim of Vipassana is to be OK with whatever we do experience, and to observe how it is always changing. After working on it for some time (I’ve been doing it for about 12 years, meditating 2 hours a day and doing retreats when I can) things have, in a lot of ways, stopped being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and have just sort of started, well… being. The practice of being OK with how things are is a practice of becoming more and more natural, which is really the combination of Self 1 with Self 2. What I’ve found is that there is not a definite Self 1 or Self 2, but that there are just different levels of ourselves that we are more aware of, less aware of, and not aware of at all. These levels of awareness are all up to us. I can attest that if one really works at it, one can actually change the habit pattern of one’s mind. For me it has been an awesome journey.

  • aml742

    My first ITP weeks were challenging. Even though I have been working on projects created with cutting edge technology, I had never been the one developing the technology itself. My job was to feed technologists with content ideas and strategies: knowing and discovering technologies through the content filter.

    From the first class of my first semester, I understood ITP was the place I had been searching for years. A place where you simultaneously create technology and content ideas. The approach we are taught here is that technology frames creative ideas and as much as ideas frame technology. The more you know how the technology works, the more creative ideas you have. The more you have creative ideas the more you discover technology.

    As of the first day, I also understood the next two years are gonna be a challenge. To come up with creative and original ideas, you must let yourself go and dive into that creative space that generates inspiration. The thing is that with technology, this is hard to achieve. There are so much codes, algorithmes, softwares to master before you can let yourself go, that I doubted for weeks I could succeed in being creative using those tools. It felt like my Self 1 was constantly thinking that I had to completely master every single technology before I could pretend creating with it.

    Also, the tools we learn here are not simple tools. They are complex and elaborated computed languages that demands a lot of cerebral work to be performed. Unlike a pen on paper, or paint on a canvas, or dance, I first found it hard to let myself go and be creative. How far to you have to master a technology so it becomes an extension of your body and you hands? So it becomes part of your Self 2 impulsions? It sometimes feels like learning technology implements an intermediary in between my ideas and and my creativity. Can technological creation be spontaneous? Or is it always mediated by a third entity that you can never completely control and understand? Is technology a filter with which we comprehend society or is it simply a tool?

    How can we let our Self 2 be spontaneous when our brain has to continuously process code and cerebral knowledge?

    Also, how can we build interactive art and experiences that allows the public to expose their Selves 2? I have always wanted to create immersive art that generate a simple emotion and impulse inspiring the individuals’ Selves 2 to act. Not to think and judge themselves but impulsively move and react. Having people behaving spontaneously with their Self 2.

    What is interesting and paradoxical is the fact that to create such simple and instinctive environments, I do have to master cerebral and logical knowledge using Self 1…

  • aml742

    ^previous post by Anne-Marie Lavigne

  • Jonathan "Sparks"

    Like Aaron, this idea of a divided self immediately made me think of my experience in performing music. I have played drums since I was a kid, and I am definitely at my best when my self 1 is just hanging back. Actually the times I’ve gotten into the most trouble have been when my conscious self “woke up” and realized I was in the middle of a song. My subconscious mind had made it that far through the song and could have done fine with the rest, but the realization that my higher brain hadn’t been in control made me freak out and mess up.

    This amazing drummer I was friends with once told me the key to playing well is to develop an inner instrument, which sounds really cheezey, but I think it is totally true. It’s almost like scat singing in your head. While my self 1 is busy humming ideas for beats and fills, my self 2 can be allowed to translate those ideas into actions it has stored in muscle memory from years of practice. I actually heard a raw studio track from a Led Zeppelin recording a couple years back where you can hear John Bonham scat singing while he was playing. I think that pretty much solidified that idea for me.

    Generally speaking though, I think about this segmenting of my identity quite a bit. Often I phrase it to myself as past vs. present self which I think is essentially the same concept. But, I also have kind of formed a third level in my mind. This started a few years back when I was having a hard time with a project and was being really hard on myself. A friend of mine said “you would never be that mean or say those things to anyone else, so why would you say them to yourself?” That really stuck with me and I have found myself going back to that especially now with the new challenges that ITP has presented. It is kind of like a third, almost parental self that has a check on the conscious, too often critical self. From your description of this book, it sounds like the author may be suggesting developing something similar to that, an even higher self regulating self.

    This is all very interesting, I will definitely check this book out.

  • The core idea of Inner Game of Tennis and all the preceding books in the series of inner games is which Timothy Gallwey formulated like this –in another one of his books, The Inner game of Music-:
    “Performance = instinctive potential self (self 2) – conscious judgmental self (self 1)”
    The whole idea seems interesting at first, especially when considering how much usually it is hard and without fun, to learn a new sport like tennis or a new instrument for any amateurs and this method would definably bring back joy to this process. The examples of his methods for teaching tennis to amatuers1, obviously shows how it was affective for amateurs and how much easier and more enjoying it became for them in the beginning, a phase that all classic approaches to coaching makes it the hardest one but instead here it is fun and natural like a kid leaning to walk…
    Let’s take a look at how Gallwey came to inner game theory in first place; He came to it in 70’s when he was a tennis coach and he met Prem Rawat, -whom the book, inner game of tennis is dedicated to- coming from India to Sates for expanding his enlightenment methods. This meeting as Gallway himself says, had a great impact on him, changing all his perspectives and views.2 So getting introduced to the eastern enlightenment was the basis of inner game theory that later went far beyond tennis; a new method and approach to teaching and coaching based on the eastern enlightenment in contrasts to all the previous systems based on western thought and knowledge.
    But in my opinion his theory of shutting self 1, would not be working for a champion or a professional because I think it is the judgmental conscious ego, self 1 that makes a professional out of any amateur, exactly by the endless judgments, analyses and comments upon self 2 to make it more and more perfect; even more generally speaking because as Christina also mentioned the inner game theory is not only about tennis but life in general -and coming the other books in this series proves this also-, I think all knowledge and progress of human kind and even what that makes us human different from all other animals and the core of humanity itself is Self 1. Being in here and now may reduce the pain and suffering that our conscious ego causes but let’s not forget that behind any great human achievement, discovery or invention, there were people, who were not satisfied with what was before them at the moment and their desire that things be different from what they were.

  • Andrew Cerrito

    So many good reflections and personal stories here that I don’t have too much to add – I just noticed a lot of parallels between this philosophy and that of mushin, which stems from Zen Buddhism precepts and is valued in martial arts:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin

    This quote in particular seems pretty analogous:

    “The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.” – Takuan Soho

    Interesting to see just how long this kind of philosophy has been around!

  • Nancy

    I’d say in general in life: beware of ideas that have either/or. It’s not Self 1 OR Self 2, Left Brain OR Right Brain…. They are both there all the time. It’s useful to understand the different functions so you can manage them. Arianna Huffington at the WE Festival last year spoke about “the obnoxious roommate in her head: who kept telling her what she couldn’t do,ought not to do, and how bad she looked. Clearly, there was a good roommate in there too.
    Other books that deal with these different ways we learn and make decisions are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and Zen and the ARt of Archery (that Mary Fe brought up) and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi .
    So we don’t have to talk about the right brain and the wrong brain (as someone did at a conference I was at a long time ago on hemispheric differentiation of the brain)…let’s agree that there are a quite a few remarkable actors in your noggin. And you’d be very handicapped if you only had one. You gotta learn the steps, the scales, the basic functions of programming, the verbs and nouns of another language before you can get into the flow. Creativity is virtuosity and inventiveness on/with/over/in on skills, rules, etc. At least, IMHO

  • Christina

    Aaron and Jon’s stories were so interesting to read. I used to play the piano and the violin, and I wish I could have had a teacher like Aaron’s. I hope to one day learn to play the drums, and I plan on using the “play random notes” strategy right from the start.