The Art of Learning Summary

Why read this

  • To get inside the bright mind of a chess prodigy and martial arts champion who became adept at learning from a very young age;
  • To know what it takes to become the best at any activity, and some of the mental aspects required to do so.

Why listen to the author

  • Waitzkin was called a child prodigy at chess, he become International Master at 16, and was seen by some as the next Bobby Fischer before he switched to practicing Tai Chi;
  • Holds several US national medals at Tai Chi and 2004 world champion, is black belt in other martial arts and is now a coach that lead martial arts teams to win championships;
  • Having had to switch from two so different sports, the author has a deep knowledge about what it takes to learn to get to the ultimate mastery.



The Art of Learning Summary

A book by Josh Waitzkin
Summary by André D. Ferreira

Reading time: ~7min.

Your Success is Not Pre-determined

In the fields of learning and performance there needs to be a careful balance between pushing oneself relentlessly and pushing too much so much that one cracks down. Just like muscles need to tear to grow, so does a skill needs to stretch beyond its ability to grow. But not too much or it will snap. When competing, you need stronger opponents that push you to go beyond what you can currently do, but not so strong that you stop winning and lose the confidence in your ability.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, makes the distinction between two types of mentality regarding how people approach success, and how they are raised as children to think about it. There are children who are raised to think that success is mainly pre-determined by inherent personal qualities. These tend to say that they are “smart at something” and personalize their success or failure, “I’m bad a math” “I can’t sing. I just don’t have it”. Whether they win or lose, they tie that outcome to themselves, their natural-born qualities. Qualities which they see as fixed entities that cannot evolve.

On the other hand, there are those that tend to describe their results as a result of their effort. In this case they use sentences  such as “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I didn’t get it because I didn’t try hard enough”. A child with the this mentality believes that with hard work, difficult activities can be mastered incrementally. That by trying, the novice can become the master. Dweck’s research has shown that these children are far more likely to push through challenges rather than quitting, as compared to children who believe born with qualities are the major determinants in achieving success.

This can be seen in kids that are born with natural abilities who start excelling at chess quickly because of good genes. However, soon after they hit a roadblock as struggles become more intense and they tie the failures to their being. The sign of a fragile confidence. They start to lose interest in the game and avoid challenges. Instead of being an opportunity for growth, losing is instead a crisis.

In Waitzkin’s experience, successful people aim high and put their hearts out in every struggle. They know that there’s more to gain from the lessons learned on hurdles along the way of wins than the wins themselves. They are usually armed with a healthy attitude of drawing wisdom from every experience, either “good” or “bad”. The challenge then becomes to keep in mind the long-term goals when tired and panting from the struggles that come along the way.

Growth Comes at the Point of Resistance

The bigger the defeat, the bigger the opportunity to learn.

“The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do – we need to be psychologically prepared to face the unavoidable challenges along our way, and when it comes down to it, the only way to learn how to swim is by getting in the water.”

Be grateful that what you are learning is not easy, because you are willing to endure the hardships while others are not. When they see you perform and achieve greatness they won’t be able to easily copy you unless they do go through the same pain, which generally they won’t.

“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”

“When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.”

“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.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Depth > Breadth

Always start building knowledge with the basics. Understand and know how each basic concept relates to each other. Master the basics, deeply understand the simple concepts and actions before going after complicated stuff.

In both chess and Tai Chi, “players tend to get attached to fancy techniques and don’t recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.” Waitzkin believes that it was that understanding that won him his first Push Hands National championship in November 2000, after just two years of Tai Chi study. While many of his opponents knew more about Tai Chi than he did, he was very good at the small amount of things that he knew. He had focused body mechanics into a powerful state, while most of his opponents had broad, elegant but relatively impractical repertoires.

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

There Won’t Ever Be a Perfect Time

One time Waitzkin broke one of his arms. He kept practicing with the other, and took that setback as an opportunity to learn how to block attacks with just one hand and to use visualization techniques to keep training his broken arm, allowing him to compete in the world tourney. Ancient stoics would be proud. There are clear distinctions between what it takes to be decent, good, great, and what it takes to be among the best. If your goal is to be mediocre, then you have a considerable margin for error. If you hurt your toe, you can take six weeks watching television and eating potato chips.

Waitzkin says that if he were to stop training whenever conditions weren’t right, he would spend the whole year on the couch. If you want to be the best, you have to take risks others would avoid. You need to be constantly optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to your advantage. Granted, there are times when the body does need to heal.  But that doesn’t mean you have to rest your mind. Those are still great opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal side of your game. However keep in mind that we need to find a pace that we can keep going indefinitely. Burnout is very common when people get highly motivated, but then work so hard that it is not sustainable in the long term.

The conscious mind can’t work with as much information as the unconscious. What happens with chess Grandmasters is that despite them working with less conscious information, they see a lot further unconsciously as they have internalized a lot more information.

“Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world class performer and it should be nurtured continuously…When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoid them.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Push Yourself

Waitzkin then suggests a technique that can be applied not only to sports but to all aspects of life that you seek improvement on. Let’s take swimming as an example, and imagine that you enjoy swimming laps in a pool. Instead of simply swimming until you are exhausted and then stopping, push yourself to your healthy limit. Recover for a minute or two, and push yourself again. Create periodicity. Then on other sessions, gradually increase the intensity and duration of the sprint times, and reduce the rest periods. Now think about that same general principle applied to other activities that you do which you want to improve.

Now, a key aspect of the rest periods, is that you should also improve how much you rest in them. For this it would be an excellent idea to spend a few minutes a day doing some simple meditation practice. As you get better and better at releasing the tension of stress and quickly becoming ready with a full tank of gas, for whichever activity physical or mental, you gain confidence in your abilities to move back and forth between the highly focused mental state or physical exertion, and relaxation. “I can’t tell you how liberating it is to know that relaxation is just a blink away from full awareness. Interval work is a critical building block to becoming a consistent long-term performer.”

Accept Wrong-Doers for What They Are

There will always be injustices, wrong-doers and cheaters in the world. Being angry and wroth won’t take you anywhere though. Instead, you should be able to deal with the situation with a cold head. One of the reasons why you get angry with certain attitudes is because you don’t know how to react, and fear the outcome is disadvantageous for you. By not knowing how to react to foul-play, the outcome is indeed likely to be disadvantageous. That situation puts you in an emotionally distress state which further increases the chance of you making more mistakes. Some people in fact do foul-play with this 2nd intent in mind. So you need to know how to react against foul-play.

Waitzkin tells the story of how this happened to him. He was facing a guy that was used to rattle opponents with foul play. By being unmoved, Waitzkin turned his tactics against him. The opponent landed one cheap shot, but Waitzkin knocked him out of the tournament.

On another confrontation, in his first match of the 2002 Chung Hwa Cup, he was against the Austrian representative, who had just won the European championship a few months earlier. He played dirty and counted on getting into his opponents’ heads. However, a large part of Waitzkin’s training the previous couple of years had been focused on handling his kind. He knocked him out of the tournament. Know their dirty tricks, be ready for them and know how to handle each of them. When they happen, coldly do what you rehearsed before. Accept that people will do shit as part of life, deal with that with a strategic cold head and swiftly move on to the next thing after you do, unfazed. For you, they are but hurdles, which you are expecting and prepared, for you to overcome, nothing more.

Do your experiences point to similar conclusions as Waitzkin’s? What would you say was your tipping point in your quest to learn better? — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

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