One of the great things about books is that we can get a look inside the minds of brilliant and successful people. We can see how they think and how they process information. We can learn from their mistakes to avoid wasting our own time and energy.
Reading autobiographies and self-improvement books are the best ways to access this knowledge. These types of books allows authors to reflect on their lives, or to lay out guidelines on how to better oneself.
In the The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin we get a combination of of both. We read about Waitzkin’s childhood and twenties. He tells us his successes, failures, thoughts and emotions that went into his incredible success.
Moreover, he meticulously breaks down his process for learning and acquiring mastery. Not only was he a chess master, but he used his approach to master the combat form of Tai-Chi to become world champion.
Techniques to Master any Skill
Waitzkin’s ability to acquire and develop skills is profound. He has a number of techniques he lays out for the reader:
- Engaging in simplified drills to understand certain concepts at a deeper level
- “Making smaller circles”: Learning something in a slower, simple form
- Finding the right coaches and mentors
- Seeking out tougher opponents
My whole career, my father and I searched out opponents who were a little stronger than me, so even as I dominated the scholastic circuit, losing was part of my regular experience.
- Focusing on the ‘why’ or ‘meta’, not mastering the basics or fundamentals first (e.g. He learns the endgame first in chess, with all the pieces off the board, before learning opening sequences as most novices are taught).
- Making the most of a drawback
The latter example really stood out. In one of Waitzkin’s Tai-Chi practices, he broke a wrist. Did this injury sideline him? Nope.
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 avoiding them.”
Josh actually used this injury to improve his skills. It heightened his focus, and forced him to train with just one arm. This allowed him to gain a deeper grasp of the sport because he was forced to explore different techniques and perspectives he wasn’t previously aware of.
If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage. That said, there are times when the body needs to heal, but those are ripe opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal side of my game. When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.”
He also used visualization to heal his wrist faster. When looking at the injury the doctor had never seen such quick recovery! Using visualization he somehow kept the muscle strong by engaging it mentally, not physically.
Waitzkin is quite effective at self-observation and can convey his thought process clearly. Moreover, he recognizes his weak points and failures, and teaches how he overcomes any obstacle.
We also learn that the path to mastery is not easy. It requires a ton of practice. Specifically, we learn that we must practice individual moves and fundamental techniques repetitively until they are deeply ingrained physiologically and psychologically.
Here are some more quotes that will provide insight into his techniques and approach to mastery:
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.”
Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”
I was able to stay relaxed when doing Tai Chi on my own, and now the challenge would be to maintain and ultimately deepen that relation under increasing pressure. Also, from what I had read, the essence of Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art is not to clash with the opponent but to blend with his energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness.”
I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice—both technical and psychological—he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field. Of course such a feat is impossible—we are bound to repeat thematic errors, if only because many themes are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.”
Making Smaller Circles…players tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important the quantity of what is learned…
Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.
Recall that initially I experienced the whole throw as a blur, too fast to decipher , and now we are talking about a tiny portion of the throw. Including many distinct moments. When it felt like a blur, my conscious mind as trying to make sense of unfamiliar terrain. Now my unconscious navigates a huge network of subtly programmed technical information, and mu conscious mind is free to focus on certain essential details that, because of their simplicity, I can see with tremendous precision as if the blink in my opponent’s eyes takes many seconds.”
A man wants to walk across the land, but the Earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.”
A Few Drawbacks
I was expecting a lot more actionable advice from this book than I got. Much of the book is a memoir, going from his time as a child chess champion, to his matches at the Tai-Chi Chuan world championships. And while these events have a lot to offer, the advice is not as concrete as I had hoped for.
Moreover, this book focuses on concepts that are best suited for masters. For example, I was reading Ed Latimore’s 8 Most Recommended Books and he said The Art of Learning is one of his favorite books. As a professional boxer, someone who trains all the time for a fight, I can see how he would relate more to Waitzkin’s teachings. A typical reader will never perform at the same level as Waitzkin, nor will they have hours a day to devote themselves to a particular sport or activity.
A Great Read for Aspiring Master’s
People who wish to, or must, perform at a high level should check out this book. The subtleties of achieving mastery are made clear by Waitzkin—a man who has walked the walk.
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.”
For the layman, The Art of Learning will provide less value. There are still powerful lessons, but Mastery by Robert Greene would be perhaps a better place to start.