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Express Yourself: Making Smaller Circles

The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin

“The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin has a chapter called “Making Smaller Circles,” in which Waitzkin argues for the importance of drilling the fundamentals of a practice over and over again to increase potency and efficacy. He gives examples from the martial arts and chess, but you can apply this notion to any area of interest.

The way I apply the concept of “making smaller circles” in my life is to focus on decreasing the complexity of my form of expression while increasing the potency of the expression.

A simpler way to put it is that I focus on economy of expression, which, to me, comprises the elements of style (including elegance), tone and effectiveness. It’s akin to minimalism: Minimal effort for maximum effect.

Another way to approach economy of expression is to think about “phrasing,” or how an idea is expressed.

This applies to various modes of expression, of which there are many. I like to focus on physical movement, writing, art and music as my modalities.

In the mode of physical movement, I’ll offer the same example as Waitzkin does in his chapter of “Making Smaller Circles”: a jab. If you practice the fundamentals of a jab–a type of punch coming from your lead arm–you will eventually know the body mechanics of the movement through the way it feels. Keep practicing the mechanics, and you will eventually throw a jab naturally, without your mind getting in the way, as Waitzkin says. A jab embodies economy of expression because it is a basic boxing/martial arts movement that becomes potent with the work that you put into repeating the fundamentals of the movement. You can watch a top-notch boxer to see the elegant power in a jab.

In the mode of writing, economy of expression is the communication of complex ideas via a minimal amount of words. It’s wonderful to know a lot of words, but to choose words with precision is more effective than throwing a lot of big words together to show that you know what they mean. This is why Ernest Hemingway is regarded as a great writer: He practiced economy of expression. To tie it back to physical movement, it’s like having a high power-to-weight ratio: high density of thought expressed through few words.

In the mode of art, while there are artists whose work I admire because of they way they capture visual intricacies (for instance, Tiepolo), in my own artwork, I focus on minimalist contours and shading, using only one pen to do the work. I’m fascinated by how much you can express–a reality, an idea, beauty–through economy of expression. (See my designs at Society6 and RedBubble.)

In the mode of music, I love listening to artists who create using economy of expression. I’ve been playing along on electric guitar with The Black Keys’ albums lately, and it’s really pleasurable. The Black Keys has only two band members, but they produce a big sound. As I’ve been been playing along in my own way to their albums, I’ve noticed that guitarist Dan Auerbach employs the concept of “making smaller circles” to maximum effect. You can play scales up and down the fretboard on a guitar, but Auerbach is a minimalist when it comes to playing. I notice I fit right into the style of his music when I concentrate my phrasing on a particular scale in one section of the fretboard. The movement of my fingers on the fretboard may seem simple–but the effect is full of soul, and, in my opinion, that’s what the best music has: soul.

To sum up: Economy of expression is a way of making minimal effort for maximum effect.

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