Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin

clear light bulb
Photo by Pixabay on

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’s had a pretty successful life.

In telling his story, Waitzkin offers 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 truly excellent.

Key Takeaways

  • Teachers do best not to lecture, but instead to allow for mistakes, then gently question the student about them. Waitzkin’s first chess 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.”
  • “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: 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.
  • Another lesson: Some people are “entity” learning theorists and some are “incremental” theorists. 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 restate 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.” In the soft zone, interruptions can come, and you can flex with them, allow them, then get back into your flow thought. In the hard zone, by contrast, you’re tense and rigid and if anything interrupts you, you try to fight against it. The soft zone is when outwardly you look serene, though inside you’re fully focused.
  • Waitzkin relates a 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 and assimilates all relevant knowledge of their trade, so that it becomes a part of them and can be accessed automatically. Their mind or subconscious does that part of the work for them, with no consciousness of it at all. In this state, they can break the rules well, as an artist who has fully learned her craft before trying something new.
  • 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 he seeks to replicate that feeling. In sports, this is when you seek a certain feeling while striking the ball, rather than thinking about the technique. 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. The author gives an example of when he was struggling with a life transition, then started making mistakes in his chess game, also during transition moments. His subconscious was uncomfortable with the transition moment.
  • Another lesson: When possible, use “beginner’s mind.” Beginners and children aren’t afraid to fail. But experts think of every failure as a crisis, which greatly impedes improvement. Be playful.
  • Allow “investments in loss”–times when you’re not performing optimally because you’re working on honing a new skill.
  • The author describes the art of Tai Chi and the great strength that you have when you don’t the opponent, but instead use their own force against them.
  • Another lesson: “Make 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. The author provides an example from his Tai Chi training, saying that he had to perfect the art of the single, straight punch to such a degree that his arm barely had to move in order to deliver a powerful blow.
  • Another lesson: Use adversity to your advantage. Great performers see what they can learn from the worst circumstances. His example was that of perfecting his left-dominant fighting when his right hand was broken.
  • Another lesson: Don’t neglect the internal or abstract or intuitive angles of the skill. NFL players who use the off-season to review tapes learn to intuitively see patterns in the plays.
  • Another lesson: Practice “chunking”–learning whole tactics or sections of knowledge so well that they become intuitive, and don’t need to be broken down in your mind into smaller parts. These sections will then come to you all at once, which saves a lot of time.
  • Learn how to induce shock or heightened emotion in order to slow down time. When Waitzkin broke his hand during a fight, his awareness increased and time felt slower. 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: Be present. “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 are able to almost read the minds of their competitors.
  • Another lesson: The winner is the one that controls the tone of the game. Examples: Waitzkin’s chess style is erratic; he thrives in the chaos. Others prefer a more methodical game. When he controls the tone of the game, he has a huge advantage.
  • Another lesson: It’s a hugely important to take breaks from your skill at times. Waitzkin took two 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.
  • 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.”

About the Author

Josh Waitzkin is an American chess player, martial artist, and author. He is best known for his achievements in the world of chess, having become a National Master at the age of 10 and winning multiple national championships. Waitzkin has also excelled in the martial arts, earning multiple black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and becoming a world champion in Tai Chi Push Hands. In addition to his athletic accomplishments, Waitzkin is a highly regarded author and speaker, having written two books on the topics of learning and performance, “The Art of Learning” and “The Art of Possibility.” Waitzkin is also the founder of the JW Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the benefits of chess and martial arts to children around the world. His unique blend of expertise in multiple disciplines has made him a sought-after speaker and coach, and his insights into the process of learning and mastery have inspired countless people to achieve their own goals.


Babies come. But babies don't go. Get Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Story on Amazon now.