The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – Book Review and Notes

Adam Books, Mental Models Leave a Comment

The Art of Learning - Josh Waitzkin

Tim Ferris recently recommended The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. After their podcast I decided to read the book and really enjoyed it.

If you don’t know Josh Waitzkin, he was the child chess prodigy and inspiration for the movie, Searching for Bobby Fisher. He won the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994. He is the only person to have won the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S.

After a long chess career, he went on to be equally successful in martial arts. He holds several US national medals and a 2004 world champion title in  Tai Chi Push Hands. Waitzkin is also a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

I’m trying to become a better writer, but in the meantime, I’ll give you Tim Ferris’s brief description of the book, before I provide you my detailed notes,

Through stories of martial arts wars and tense chess face-offs, Waitzkin reveals the inner workings of his everyday methods, including systematically triggering breakthroughs, cultivating top-1% technique in any field, and mastering the art of performance psychology.

Josh lays out his process for mastering chess, tai-chi and any other process by taking you through his life and its ups and downs as he conquered the chess world and later tai-chi.

Chapter 3 – Two Approaches to Learning

Great distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence how that affects children. To put it simply, entity theorists believe intelligence is innate and determines their outcome while incremental theorists (or learning theorists) believe hard work and practice determines their outcome. An entity theorist talk about being smart, while entity theorists talk about how hard they worked.

The most interesting part is that learning theorists are much more likely to rise to the level of their competition and for losing to motivate them to work harder. Entity theorists are more likely to be brittle and prone to quit. As Waitzkin puts it, “children  who associate success with hard work tend to have a mastery-oriented reponse to challenging situations, while children who see themselves as just plain smart or dumb or good or bad at something have a learned helplessness orientation.”

When you work with kids, be sure to use words that encourage a learning theorist attitude and a mastery oriented response.

I enjoyed this quote,

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.

Chapter 4 – Loving the Game

Critical competitive example is dictating the tone of the battle. Short-term goals can be useful development tools if they are balanced with long-term goals. Success isn’t easy.

Chapter 5 – The Soft Zone

Learning to be able to tune out the world around you when competing is important. Josh calls this the Hard Zone, that “demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure.” A Soft Zone “is resiliant like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.”

My favorite part of this chapter was an Indian parable, which has really stuck with me.

A man walks across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has 2 options – one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals.

I thought this was a pretty perfect metaphor for learning to accept what you can change and learn to work within the parameters you have rather than be angry at the world for not conforming to what you need or want.

Chapter 6 The Downward Spiral

In chapter 6 Josh discussed the importance of momentum and learning to channel it as well as recover it when it starts to escape.

“People speak about momentum as if it were an entity of its own, an unpredictable player on the field, and from my own competitive experience I can vouch for it seeming that way. The key is to bring that player onto your team by riding the psychological wave when it is behind you, and snapping back into a fresh presence when your clarity of mind begins to be swept away”

Chapter 7 – Changing Voice

Chapter 7 focuses on the concept numbers to leave numbers. The best description I can give this concept is to that eventually when a skill or knowledge has become deeply enough ingrained you can begin to have intuitions, feelings, and just KNOW what to do in a given situation without doing any actual thinking about why you know. In order to reach this level of intuition Josh would revisit the points in a match that he was unable to navigate and work his way back through for hours until he understood what the correct actions should have been and where his thinking went wrong.

As he describes it, “by numbers to leave numbers or form to leave form, I am describing a process in which technical knowledge is integrated into what feels like national intelligence.”

Chapter 8 – Breaking Stallions

Here we discuss the importance of keeping one’s disposition and natural talent or style in line with the way one competes. The metaphor used is the 2 ways you can break a stallion – through terror, shock and awe or through  kindness and patience.

Chapter 9 / 10 – Beginner’s Mind and Investment in Loss

Here we begin to explore Tai Chi as Josh begins to train. He spends a lot of time in the details of Tai Chai and push hands. It made me want to go find a gym and learn to roll. We also learn the concept of investment in loss, which I take to mean the willingness to lose, let go of your ego, be embarrassed and uncomfortable in order to learn and get better. Being unable to do so often means stagnation.

“I realize how defining these themes of Beginner’s Mind and Investment in Loss have been. It is essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in peak performance. Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their sword in the fire.”

Chapter 11 – Making Smaller Circles

As Josh puts it, “the learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” He relates a story from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I remember myself about a writer unable to think of how to write about their home town. In order to break the block, the writer starts with a single brick on a single building that breaks the floodgates wide open.

“My understanding of this process, in the spirit of numbers to leave numbers, is to touch the essence of a technique then to incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping it’s true essence. Over time expansiveness decreases while potency increases. I call this method “Making Smaller Circles.” He also provides some fantastic examples using the body mechanics of tai chi.

I also enjoyed the quote, “Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

Chapter 12 – Using Adversity

Here we focus on teh difference between what it takes to be decent, good or great. What I take from the chapter is it takes unrelenting work and consistency, no excuses and a willingness to take risks. Most importantly the learning process can never stop and you always have to keep an engaged, searching mind.

Here we introduce the concept of the internal solution, which is to create situations to grow or enhance performance. For example, if an athlete favors a single leg or arm, purposely force yourself to use only the other for an extended time period.

Chapter 13 – Slowing Down Time

This chapter focuses on chunking and carved neural pathways. Essentially we learn that the reason chess players and others can assimilate and process such huge amounts of data so quickly is with incredbily advanced levels of pattern recognition, in which things are clustered or chunked together and conclusions can be rapidly drawn and patterns found without consciously evaluation each individual component. As he puts it “looking at very little and seeing quite a lot. This is the critical idea.”

Chapter 14 – The Illusion of the Mystic

If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponents slightest move, I move first. – Wu Yu-hsiang

This means at the first hint of an opponents move, move first. Learn to read intention. Once you do you can focus on controlling or provoking the reaction you want from your opponent. The more skilled, the more subtle this psychological warfare becomes. The process ends up involving multiple concepts we already discussed, including Making Smaller Circles and Slowing Down Time.

Chapter 15 – The Power of Presence

Another amazing analogy about a jaguar psychologically breaking a man before attaching. You’ll have to read the book to get it. The point though, was to discuss the ability to push opponents to crumble from pressure even in situations that were relatively even matched. The ability maintain one’s cool is crucial to winning. You have to be at peace with mounting pressure.

We cannon expect to touch excellence if going through the motions is the norm of our lives. The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are in practice the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement.

Presence must be like breathing.

 Chapter 16 – Searching for the Zone

Another new concept called Stress and Recovery. Dominant performers almost all use regular recovery periods, especially during competition. You have to be able to relax, even if just for moments. This can be observed in sports greats such as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, on the sideline with a towel over his head.

“Regardless of the discipline the better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have we have to endure and perform under stress.” As you get better and better at managing the process of release/relax the time it takes to reach this state, recharge, and start again will get smaller and smaller.

Chapter 17 – Building Your Trigger

Competitors often compete in less than ideal situations. You have to be able to wait and wait and wait and then be on in a moments notice. As Josh puts it, “not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not life, it is life.”

The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just on flowing when everything is on the line.

This chapter was pretty brilliant and these techniques hadn’t occurred to me. Essentially he teaches that the easiest way to bring yourself to the right mindset is to find something that puts you there and and make a routine around it. Over time you can slowly shorten the routine and take out steps until it takes a very minimal routine to bring your brain in to focus or flow.

For example you could use a some stretching and nice walk with your favorite music on. Over time, you shorten the walk, then eliminate it. Now you have stretching and the song. You slowing shorten the song and get the stretching down to a few brief movements. Eventually you can just hum a few bars in your head and you are ready to go.

Chapter 18 – Making Sandals

The real internal challenge is to maintain that fundamental perspective when confronted by hostility, aggression and pain.

You have to learn to channel and direct your emotions rather than suppress or control them. Passion can be your fuel. Once you know best how to handle them for your personality type, you can channel them the optimal way, or as Josh puts it, make sandals.

Chapter 19 / 20 – Bringing it all Together and Taiwan

Finally we come back to Josh’s journey to win the Fixed Step and Moving Step Tai Chi World Championship, using all the techniques he’s explained through the book. The story is a lot of fun and he has quite a gift for taking something so physical and subtle and creating a vivid mental image.

I greatly enjoyed the book and it comes highly recommened. This will be one that stays on the shelf that I come back to reference in the future. I hope everybody gives The Art of Learning  by Josh Waitzkin a read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *