James Tanabe is a few inches over five feet tall, and has an unexpected number of arm muscles. With penetrating dark eyes, wavy hair combed back, and a thoughtful demeanor, he’s the kind of person that listens to you with his whole being.
That’s what he was doing in a sweaty room in Montreal Canada, at Ecole Nationale de Cirque—circus school—in 2001. Listening.
Born in Minnesota of Japanese parents, and an overachiever since he began Tae Kwan Do at age four, Tanabe had worked his way to an early high school graduation while mastering a dozen extra-curriculars: badminton, guitar, theater, gymnastics, comedy writing, flute. At 17, he entered MIT to study planetary physics, meanwhile learning peripheral neurology, stunt coordination, and professional dance in his spare time.
He was a fast learner. One might dare say a polymath. But at circus school, at age 23 (whilst also studying French), Tanabe found himself at the middle, if not bottom, of his class.
The students at Ecole Nationale were athletic, flexible, destined to become acrobats for Cirque de Soleil and other world-renowned troupes. They appeared lighter than air as they leapt, twisted, and climbed. Meanwhile Tanabe was trying to unlearn years of bad habits he’d developed from his early gymnastics training.
His class busily studied trampoline and high wire and spinning acrobatics, and Tanabe soaked them all in.
But in particular, Tanabe was there for the hand balancing.
One-handed handstands are a staple of circus performance. They’re also one of the harshest things a human can do to his or her body; balancing on a single arm puts massive strain on the shoulder, and holding oneself in the position becomes exponentially difficult with every second, if not done properly. If you watch professional breakdancers, for instance, you’ll notice their one-arm handstands last at most three to five seconds, but typically just one. The breakdance method, which amounts to overcoming gravity with sheer muscle, is more of a dance trick than an an acrobatic ability (if the name didn’t give that away!).
Tanabe had been working on his one-handed handstand for four years. He could do them better than the average person, but when he looked at pictures of himself, he cringed at the messy form. They weren’t the kind of handstands a circus performer could use to transition to another move, or land on from a flip; Tanabe’s handstands were wobbly and tense.
Standard acrobatic convention says that it takes a dedicated student 12 to 18 months of serious training to master a one-arm handstand—approximately a thousand hours of upside-down time. This is with proper circus schooling, not typical high-school gymnastics or breakdancing on a piece of cardboard in the subway.
That’s why Tanabe was listening. As most of the class struggled like he did, mimicking the proper form but straining to hold it, the very best students balanced effortlessly.
Tanabe scrutinized these handstand masters, but he wasn’t looking at form or posture; he was listening to how they breathed.
“I would notice that the people who really excelled tended to have an extremely calm disposition and almost seem to be somewhere else,” Tanabe said. “It was a meditative state, whereas the people who never really seemed to progress always had this kind of anxious energy, and they were treating it like it was strength. Therein was the key!
“It wasn't, ‘Okay, how do you hold this muscle and this muscle?’ It was more, ‘How do I just lose myself?’
Whereas novice most students struggled to build strength and to fight gravity, Tanabe observed the tiny differences between them and those who’d mastered the skill.
“Learning a one-armed handstand is nothing to do with supporting your weight or balancing on your hand ,” he concluded. “It is about finding body alignment and breathing.”
[Footnote: Note that handstands don’t require deep meditation (which takes many people years of practice to master), but rather a meditation-like state. It’s a simple letting go that students often don’t realize makes the rest of hand balancing easier to master. “I have always felt that handstand training is the most relaxing part of my day,” Tanabe told me.]
Within six months, Tanabe had his handstand. He thinks he could have mastered it sooner, had he entered school habit-free. “The majority of that six months was actually unlearning most of the steps I had taught myself,” he said.
Now, James Tanabe is an exceptional learner. Most of us have a fraction of his interests and skills. And he certainly has the willpower to work hard, and the desire to dedicate himself to a variety of topics that might not interest the average person. However, his method for learning handstands—and every other skill he acquires, in fact—is a smartcut that can be repurposed.
When I asked Tanabe to map out his process for acquiring a new skill, he listed these (bold emphasis mine):
I map out the progression of skills and their dependence on others to make sure that I maximize effort.
I observe the behavior of my peers and try to adapt the best practices of all of them.
I develop personal relationships with my teachers by asking them advice about other things in life, especially their greatest regrets and their greatest hopes.
I continually search out public demonstrations for the skill I am learning.
I evaluate all other disciplines to determine which aspects of their training directly apply to the new skill and which ones are in conflict with each other – personal negotiation ensues.
The first and final step are classic Ladder-Hacking. That’s how Tanabe works his way up to difficult skills, breaking apart the process like a mechanic disassembling a motorcycle engine. With hand balancing, the letting go was the first rung of a ladder from which he quickly climbed, whereas initially he’d tried to jump to the top of the ladder by attempting full, one-armed handstand after handstand, brute practice-style.
But the middle three steps provide crucial accelerant to the process; they teach Tanabe what metaphorical ladder rungs he should be climbing, how to climb them, and in what order.
Not everyone is blessed with a willing mentor like Usher or Socrates.* How do you harness the power of great mentors even if you're not lucky enough to know one?
(*I bet this is the first time in history those two have been used in a sentence together!)
The answer is to steal from one.
David Bowie: “The only art I’ll ever study is the stuff that I can steal from.”
T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Jay-Z: “We were kids without fathers… so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”
RZA: “Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.”
James Tanabe: “I observe the behavior of my peers and try to adapt the best practices of all of them.” And “I continually search out public demonstrations for the skill I am learning.”
I stole the first four quotes from one of my favorite books, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. He stole them from various other books. And Bowie, RZA, et al., stole the idea for stealing like artists from other artists who stole before them.
James Tanabe wanted to observe as many top hand balancers as he could, so he could discover all the little things they do differently than just the good ones. So he looked at the best students in his class. He went to live performances, where professionals displayed their best technique. This is like watching and rewatching old videos of Michael Jordan playing basketball; it’s more useful to an aspiring pro ball player than game footage of local high school matches.
Cold business jargon refers to this as “benchmarking” or “finding best practices.” Usually, however, that’s code for “see what our peers are doing.” The difference between that and stealing from a master is to mimic not the peers, but the absolute best in the world: mimic their every breathing pattern, incorporating tiny quirks and details into the unique mixtape of our own experiences and skills in order to make something better.
The late literary giant Saul Bellow would call those with an exceptional ability to spot the important detail among the noise, being a “first-class noticer,” as he refers to his protagonist Harry Trellman in The Actual. This, I’m convinced, is the difference between those who learn quickly or not. And those who learn the most quickly, I’m convinced, apply the art of first-class noticing toward the very best practitioners in the world.
“There’s a common thing among mentors,” Tanabe says. “They make it really hard on you. You say you really want to be an actor, and they say acting is the least important key to your success. They are extremely blunt. ‘So you’re talented? Who cares?’”
The best mentors, in other words, help students to realize that the things that really matter are not necessarily the big things, and not necessarily raw skill. The more a mentor opens up—the more vulnerability is shown in the relationship—the more details are exposed for a student to notice, and Steal.
Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the most influential composers in history, was by all measures a musical genius, a prodigy identified and tutored at a young age by his musical father. Beethoven studied under the great composers of his time, particularly the renowned Joseph Haydn. And he considered himself the music world’s successor to Mozart, studying the dead master’s work zealously and artistically Stealing from him.
But despite Beethoven’s talent and training, he was a mess. On his own, he’d perhaps not have had such a successful and influential music career had he not receive the patronage and deep mentorship of his friend, the Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Rudolf actually took piano lessons from Beethoven, and the two became friends. Rudolf ended up guiding Beethoven through some of his toughest periods and assisted Beethoven financially when no one else would.
The thing about success is we literally cannot attain it on our own. Without people like Archduke Rudolf, one of the world’s greatest musicians would never have made it, despite the man’s talent and training.
The best mentors, Tanabe insists, “set you up to succeed in fields outside of theirs. Mentors say, ‘What’s this person ideologically missing?’” Deep mentorship occurs when the relationship between master and student goes beyond curriculum and focuses on the student’s holistic success.
“The answer to having a really good one arm handstand is to have a really good two arm handstand,” Tanabe says. “To have a really good two arm handstand, you really just need to be able to do a handstand against the wall. To be able to do a handstand against the wall, all you really need is really good shoulder flexibility and patience."
But first, he said, one must learn to relax. He learned all that through Stealing from Masters, and he built up expertise and an astonishing career by seeking deep mentorship.
When a mentor isn’t present, overachievers like Tanabe turn remote mentors into muses. They then find side doors to get the attention of potential mentors for one-on-one interaction, and over time, the investment in the relationship with a master mentor accelerates the mentee’s success.
Today, Tanabe runs a circus production company that tours throughout the world. He recently finished an MBA at Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, consults for McKinsey & Company, and in his spare time helps to fund artistic communities throughout the world through his philanthropy, La République Internationale des Arts. By the time you read this, he’ll probably be doing five other things. In part, because he works hard; in part because he is a bottomless pit of learning. But mostly because he’s a first-class noticer who borrows from first-class people.