What is The Art Of Learning about?
Josh Waitzkin chronicles in “The Art Of Learning” how he became an internationally known chess master and martial arts world champion. You might have heard of Josh, he is the subject for the Hollywood movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.
In his book, “The Art of Learning”, Josh Waitzkin walks us through his approach to learning and how he managed to become world-class in multiple disciplines.
The books start in 2004 in Tapei, Taiwan where the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships was fought. In the video below you can see the entire fight between Josh Waitzkin and the Taiwanese champion “buffalo”.
Before I butcher this moment completely, here are Josh Waitzkins own thoughts to describe this key moment in his life.
Forty seconds before round two, and I’m lying on my back trying to breathe.
Pain all through me. Deep breath. Let it go. I won’t be able to lift my shoulder tomorrow, it won’t heal for over a year, but now it pulses, alive, and I feel the air vibrating around me, the stadium shaking with chants, in Mandarin, not for me.
My teammates are kneeling above me, looking worried. They rub my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The bell rings. I hear my dad’s voice in the stands, ‘C’mon Josh!’ Gotta get up. I watch my opponent run to the center of the ring. He screams, pounds his chest. The fans explode. They call him Buffalo. Bigger than me, stronger, quick as a cat. But I can take him — if I make it to the middle of the ring without falling over. I have to dig deep, bring it up from somewhere right now. Our wrists touch, the bell rings, and he hits me like a Mack truck.
Who could have guessed it would come to this? Just a few years earlier I had been competing around the world in elite chess tournaments. Since I was eight years old, I had consistently been the highest rated player for my age in the United States, and my life was dominated by competitions and training regimens designed to bring me into peak form for the next national or world championship. I had spent the years between ages fifteen and eighteen in the maelstrom of American media following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on my dad’s book about my early chess life. I was known as America’s great young chess player and was told that it was my destiny to follow in the footsteps of immortals like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, to be world champion.
Josh Waitzkin The Art Of Learning
The Art of learning is not one of your typical how I did it books, it’s a philosophical guide to inner optimal performance. So lets start! Who is this Josh Waitzkin…
Who is Josh Waitzkin
4 Lessons I Learned from Art Of Learning
Stretch to Grow
I was particularly interested in Josh Waitzkin because he is not shying away from failures and loses or even crisis. Actually, with this guy, it is the opposite, he craves failure.
When Josh was 6 years old he started to play chess against adult hustlers who were just crushing him in the central park. Through those first loses he learned where his weaknesses were and this made him better. Other young talents in various disciplines often only compete against players of their same age in order to not demotivate them. Josh had to come to terms with losing very early.
Growing up as an aspiring basketball player I can relate to this principle. From a very early age, I competed against my big brother, who was a not only a professional basketball player but also a giant( 2.06cm). So my entire upbringing I played against him and his buddies and constantly got my ass kicked. Coming to terms with losing very early as well.
My brother always used to tell me that when I am the best player on a team, that I am on the wrong team.
And I believe that this is very true.
I believe that we grow through adaption. Our brain and our muscles can only grow if we face stress, otherwise, there is no need to grow. So if you are reading this, I encourage you to go out and fail and compete way above your comfort zone.
Even as an adult we should try to live according to this principle of living outside of our comfort zone. Most of my friends are far more successful than me and they motivate me to grow and to keep up with them.
Another benefit of competing outside of your comfort zone is that constantly getting your ass kicked is a good teacher to stay humble. You realize that you have much to learn and that you do not have to take yourself to serious.
I still remember that when I was feeling myself a bit too much on the basketball court that my brother would challenge me to a one on one game, kicking my ass every time and dunking all over me. This kept me hungry and I would continue to work hard on my game.
I believe that humans have an extraordinary potential for adaptation. And furthermore that creating a social environment of people who force you to stretch is the only way to thrive.
I encourage you to evaluate your social context. Are you the big fish in a small pott? Or do you have friends who inspire you to become better and to grow?
After all, learning and growing is fun and a necessity for happiness.
Write down the 10 friends you associate most with. Now evaluate them on a scale of 1-10. 10 they are making your life better and encourage you to become a better version of yourself. A 1 would be that this particular person is the bane of your existence and is holding you back or is making your life much more miserable.
Key Insight: This exercise is not meant for you to exclude anybody out of your life, it aims at raising awareness for your social context. One of my favorite quotes from Sigmund Freud is that before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure to check if you are not surrounded by a bunch of assholes.
Humans are creatures of habit, and social imitation is one of the most powerful psychological drivers.
Thrive in Chaos
Josh Waitzkin emphasizes multiple times that a big part of his philosophy of learning is to thrive in Chaos.
In chess, Josh favored chaos on the board. Normal Chess players favored, clean, memorized patterns. Josh uses confusion and playing in the unorganized game to his advantage because he loved to play when the conditions are not perfect. This allowed him to dictate the tone of the battle and thrive in an atmosphere where other players where uncomfortable.
I think this is true for life also.
We don’t just want to thrive when all of our favored conditions are met. When we feel good, when we have all of our preferred resources around us, when we are in the right flow it is really easy to function.
Josh teaches to thrive also when conditions are not ideal, but the contrary; chaotic.
A perfect example is a meditation. People who learn meditation in perfect conditions, nobody is around, its quiet and it is the perfect time of the day.
Ultimately, however, we don’t only want to meditate when everything is just right when we are happy anyway. We want to be able to execute when the shit hits the fan when we are in a storm. This is when we need it the most.
Everybody can be happy if the sun is shining, all bills are paid, everybody is healthy and we are in an ideal situation.
We do not want to be able to only meditate in a flower garden, but also in situations that are not ideal, that are even stressful.
Again basketball has been a great teacher here.
I internalized that the real game starts when I am tired when my knees start hurting when my jumper is not falling and when our best player is fouled out, this is where basketball starts.
This is when it counts. When things are not going according to plan when you are breathing heavily, when you think you have nothing more to give, this is when it’s showtime, time to compete with the guy in front of you, to see who of you has the bigger heart.
“One thing I have learned as a competitor is that there is a clear distinction between what it takes to be decent, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great and what it takes to be among the best…” Josh Waitzkin
A beautiful example that Josh Waitzkin uses is parenting and bad weather.
We are conditioned to teach our kids, that when it’s raining it is bad weather, and we don’t get out. Josh made it a habit with his son to celebrate every storm.
Every time there is a snow or rain storm Josh goes out with his son and dances. In order to teach his son, that success is not dependent on perfect outside conditions.
This to me has a deep application for life also. Everybody can be happy when our needs are met when everybody is healthy when we have enough money, and peace around us. Being happy in spite of things happening around us is a completely different challenge. And you can see that Josh Waitzkin is not only a master of learning but a master of living a life of harmony and mindfulness.
Cultivate the Soft Zone
In the Art of Learning Josh speaks a lot about Flow, which he calls the “Soft Zone”.
“Flow with whatever happens, integrating every ripple of life into a creative moment” (Waitzkin 54)
In the book, Josh describes the most intense chess game he ever played. During a national title match of his, an earthquake shook the event halls. (3) Each competitor was lost and broke down by this external stress of fear and uncertainty.
Josh, who loved chaos, thrived in this situation, and it helped him to reach a higher level of consciousness. A mental state in which he is capable of seeing things differently, and integrating the subconscious into the conscious. A phenomenon that basketball player describes as “being in the zone”.
The zone or the flow is almost a mystical concept where your brain operates on a different level, you see things different, things slow down for you.
Josh Waitzkin who coached many world-class performers says that we can create a gateway to this state of mind by conditioning.
So we can actually make “entering the zone” a habit.
Click here to read my article on how to create any routine you want.
Exercise: Grab a piece of paper and brainstorm!. Let’s deconstruct what happens for YOU if you operate in “the zone”.
- Write down a scene of your past where you were “in flow”. Do this for 2 minutes. No rules here, just write what you did before you entered “the zone” .
- What you do when you are in flow? Where are you? What do you listen to? What have you eaten prior? What time? Any rituals that you know that gets you in flow? What are you doing when nothing else seems to exist? Music? Food? Location?
- What kills your flow? Brainstorm for 2 minutes what your an environment would look like where you would definitely not enter “the zone”.
Although flow is not something that you can provoke 10 out of 10 times, you can manipulate the odds, and condition yourself to be more likely to slide into the zone.
Creating flow generating rituals is a necessity.
For me, for example, writing to while listening to a song on repeat raises my chances of coming into the flow.
The key is to recognize your own patterns. What did you eat before? What music did you listen to? Who was around? What location? Did you perform a particular routine that day?
If you can identify the conditions before performing the desired behavior, you can do the same things again, and raise your probability of provoking the same outcome again.
Easier, however, in my opinion, is that you start by isolating variables that are in way of you getting into flow.
Things that distract you, behaviors and people, circumstances that are the enemy to your mindfulness and inner harmony.
For me, this would be being hungover, having toxic people around, social media notifications, eating heavy junk food, are all enemies to my mindfulness.
Mitigating toxic influences is a topic for itself. But I think that life by itself can be distracting enough, so isolating the common enemies to our flow state is key in order to live a harmonious life.
Become an Incremental Learner
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains the difference between entity and incremental learners.
A concept that Carol Dweck explains perfectly in the favorite psychology book of Bill Gates “Mindset”.
Learners who have an entity approach have a fixed mindset. They think their skills, intelligence is fixed like an entity. It’s the opinion that your results are determined by your god given static talent.
Incremental learners on the other learners believe that with hard work, the right strategy and optimal resource management one can learn almost anything.
Incremental learners praise themselves not only for their outcome but for their effort and strategy.
An entity learner lives and dies with his result.
If he fails a test, it is because he is too stupid, not because he learned not enough, or because he used the wrong strategy.
This, of course, has terrible consequences for his/her self-esteem. If they fail to often, they say things like ” math is just not for me” or “I am just not good at languages”.
In reality, their brain is perfectly capable of learning those disciplines.
When you’re an incremental learner, you believe that even a total beginner can eventually become the master at almost any given discipline.
This principle is not only important for learning but also for happiness. Failure is unavoidable in my opinion. If you determine your entire identity over your production, then you are going to have a hard time.
If you are like me, and you fail often, this mental pattern can cause unhappiness, and sometimes even depression.
If you praise yourself not for your talent, but for your acquired abilities, your effort, your ability to put your heart and soul into things then you are much better off in my opinion. Effort is a variable that you can control.
With this mindset even when you fail, you don’t completely fail as a person.
What do I not like about the Art Of Learning?
For much of the book “The Art of Learning”, Josh Waitzkin described his vision of the road to mastery.
It’s the idea is that you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation in the understanding of the principles and that you then expand and refine the repertoire.
You then fuse these fundamentals with your own style, or how he calls it your own funk.
His approach to learning seems to take a lot of time and is not aimed to be mediocre, but to really excel. Maybe even become the best in the world at your desired craft.
This pathway of learning takes years and years. It aims at becoming a master at your craft. To a lazy bastard like me, this sounds like a whole lot of work. I believe in shortcuts.
For a curious person like me, spending an entire lifetime on one skill is romantic, but it also radically limits the different skills a person can learn in a lifetime.
There is so much to learn on this incredible planet, and if you focus too much on mastery you may lose out on a platter of skills that you can achieve within short, or mediocre time.
Besides that, there is nothing to cut away from this gem. A special book, by a very special man. And Josh Waitzkin does a great job of portraying his journey of mastering both the chess world and the martial arts scene.
If you want to check out other great books, click here to see my book club.
As always, thank you for reading and go kick ass in life!