May 7, 2021

Make Smaller Circles

This is the nineteenth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

In Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, he talks about “making smaller circles” in the context of Tai Chi Push-hands—a martial arts practice that evolved from a training method into a competitive discipline. The concept gets its name because Push-hands involves making circular hand movements. As you refine your technique, your movements become smaller and subtler.

I have also trained in martial arts. When I would learn a new technique, I would initially make awkward movements that were ineffective and easy for my opponents to read. Over time, I would refine these movements to become subtler and more effective. I would make “smaller circles”. This concept can be more broadly applied in a less literal sense beyond martial arts.

This idea of refining things until they become almost imperceptible fascinates me. I once heard an anecdote about Tony Robbins researching high performance by working with military sharpshooters.

He would watch them practising on the range and, every time they made a tiny physical adjustment, he would ask them what they just did and why. It turned out these micro-adjustments significantly improved their accuracy.

The process of refinement usually happens over time, like pebbles being smoothed by the sea. But there are ways we can apply imperceptible micro-adjustments to have an almost immediate effect. For example, slightly tensing your core when you bend down to pick something up is invisible to observers, but it will protect your spine and save you from potential injury and back pain.

If we want to optimise our technique in any discipline, we must look beyond the obvious and pay attention to what is happening beneath the surface. Instead of making radical changes in pursuit of better outcomes, we can audit what we do currently and find opportunities to reap rewards by making smaller circles.