Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #91: "The Art of Learning" by Josh Waitzkin

Dear kids,

I know you’re not going to take all my many book recommendations. But please. Please, take this one. The Art of Learning: A Journey in The Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin recounts the author’s path to becoming an eight-time national chess champion (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer), then his journey to several world Tai Chi championships. So you might say he had a pretty full life.

In telling his story, Waitzkin gives in-depth theories about the learning process, drawing parallels between two major areas of knowledge. His main theme is how to become not just good at something, but a truly excellent.

Waitzkin’s lessons in learning are many, and include:

  • Teachers do best not to lecture, but instead to allow for mistakes, then gently question the student about them. Waitzkin’s first teacher, Bruce, didn’t speak much. They just played: “Whenever I made a fundamental error, he would mention the principle I had violated. If I refused to judge, he’d proceed to take advantage of the error until my position fell apart.
  • Another lesson: teachers must not squelch the natural style of the student, or their love of the game. “Many teachers have no feel for this balance and try to force their students into cookie-cutter molds. I have run into quite a few ego maniacal instructors like this over the years and have come to believe that their method is profoundly destructive for students in the long run… Teachers should be a guide, not an authority.
  • “Much of the time in our lessons was spent in silence, with us both thinking. Bruce did not want to feed me information, but to help my mind carve itself into maturity.”
  • Another lesson: Some people are “entity” learning theorists and some are “incremental” theorists. (Terms of Dr. Carol Dweck.) Some kids are taught that their intelligence is fixed, an entity, part of who they are, while others believe deep down that skill is an incrementally learned thing. The latter do much better in every way, even stuff they start out poor at. Parents, teachers must resituate praise and commentary to reinforce this idea. Never say “you’re good at this,” only “you’ve learned this well,” etc. The child labeled “smart” at something won’t want to face a challenge, list he fail to live up to expectations.
  • Another lesson: Performing in the “soft zone” is better than in the “hard zone.” Soft zone… means interruptions can come, and you can flex with them, allow them, then get back into your flow thought. Hard zone means you’re tense, rigid and if anything interrupts you, you try to fight against it. Soft zone is when outwardly you look serene, though inside you’re fully focused.
  • Gives parable of man who wants to walk across the earth, though it’s covered in thorns. The “Hard Zone” fighter will try to cover all the earth with pavement. The “Soft Zone” performer makes sandals.
  • Another lesson: we must learn “numbers to leave numbers” and “form to leave form.” This means that the great performer first fully digests, assimilates all relevant knowledge of his trade, so that it’s later just a part of him – on automatic. His mind or subconscious does that part of the work for him, with no consciousness of it at all. He can even break the rules well.
  • The excellent performer notes the feeling he has when he does something right, even when he’s not sure exactly why it was so right – then seeks to replicate that feeling. In sports, this is when you seek a certain feeling while striking the ball. Not thinking about the technique at all. In chess, it’s when you get a feeling about a good move you make, then seek to replicate it later.
  • Another lesson: watch for times when your life outside your trade affects your performance. Example: at times when Josh was struggling with change and transition, he made mistakes on the board during times of transition – too slow to adapt to them. (In this way, sport or work can be like psycho analysis.)
  • Another lesson: “beginner’s mind.” Beginners and children aren’t afraid to fail. Experts think of every failure as a crisis, which greatly impedes improvement. “A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.”
  • This often results in an “investment in loss” – times when you’re not performing optimally because you’re working on honing a new skill.
  • Also talks a lot about The Art of Tai Chi and the strength that you have when you don’t the opponent, but instead use their force against them.
  • Another lesson: “Making smaller circles.” When a writing student, for example, is blocked after being told to write about his hometown, the teacher tells her to write about a single brick of a single building. In order to become exceptional, we must break down the art to its very smallest components, then practice and practice those until every single nuance is deeply felt and understood. Example from Tai Chi: perfecting the art of the single, straight punch to such a degree that the arm barely has to move in order to deliver a powerful blow.
  • Another lesson: using adversity. Great performers see what they can learn from the worst circumstances. Example: perfecting left-dominant fighting when right hand is broken.
  • Another lesson: Not neglecting the internal or abstract or intuitive angles of the skill; undulating between these and the external or concrete or technical skills. Example: Nil players who use the off-season to review tapes.
  • Another lesson: Learn how to control two of his hands with one of yours (metaphorically). “Whether speaking of a corporate negotiation, a legal battle, or even war itself, if the opponent is temporarily tied down qualitatively or energetically more than you are expending to tie it down, you have a large advantage.”
  • Another lesson: slowing down time. This is what you do when you are so masterful at your skill that no matter how fast you are performing or how much information is coming at you at once, you “see” it all. The way you get to this point is by “chunking” – learning whole tactics or sections of knowledge so well that they are now intuitive, and don’t need to be broken down in your mind into smaller parts – it comes to you all at once – and “carving neural pathways” – practicing something so many times that it becomes automatic. The very first time you do a new skill, you’re chopping down trees in your mind with a machete… but every time thereafter, the path is more clear, easier and faster to travel.
  • Another way you can slow down time: to increase your mental perception through shock or heightened emotion. When Josh broke his hand during a fight, his awareness increased and time slowed down. The trick is to learn how to create this heightened awareness when you aren’t experiencing anything unique – to do it at will.
  • Another lesson: the importance of presence. “Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.”
  • The Grandmaster chess player looks at (consciously, focuses on) less than the master, but sees more.
  • Also, sometimes Grandmasters and expert fush hands competitors are able to almost read the minds of their competitors – can see the slightest move they make. The principle is stated in the words of a 19th century sage Wa Yu-hsiary. “At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”
  • Another lesson: The winner is the one that controls the tone of the game. Examples: Josh’s chess style is erratic; he thrives in the chaos. Others prefer a more methodical game. When he controls the time, he has a huge advantage.
  • Another lesson: It’s a hugely important to take breaks from your game at times. Josh took 2 weeks at sea with his family every summer, which felt like a huge sacrifice at the time. He also learned to take short mental breaks during chess matches – to stop studying the board for a few minutes and run up a few flights of stairs – and to tighten his recovery time between Tai Chi rounds to one minute.
  • Another lesson: If you want more serenity during your trade of choice, find something in your life that gives you a feeling of flow, peace – then either do that before you go to work or practice… or if that’s not possible, set up a short routine that you can do before your relaxation activity. Program yourself to enter flow during this “pre-flow” routine, then after it’s ingrained, you can switch to doing the “pre-flow” activities before you go to work, and it will create the flow, since your brain associates it with your flow activity. This is called “building your trigger.”
  • Another lesson: “Convert your passions into fuel…” make even negative emotions work for you, not against you. Example: Basketball star Reggie Miller used Spike Lee’s heckling to fire him up before a game.
  • Once you know what good feels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.”
  • Another principle: Seek out competitors who are better than you are, or who work differently.
  • Another principle: learn from moments of great insight, leaps of logic, great inspiration and creativity. Don’t assume you just happened upon something inspired. Review it, break it down, learn why and how it worked. After you do this, you will have gained ground, permanently raising your level. From there, another new height comes within reach. “In that moment, it is as if you are seeing something that is suspended in the sky just above the top of your pyramid. There is a connection between that discovery and what you know – or else you wouldn’t have discovered it – and you can find that connection of you try.”



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