Book Review – The Art of Learning

Book Review

The Art of Learning

By Josh Waitzkin

Many of you reading this post know who Josh Waitzkin is, but for those of you who don’t, he is the kid in Searching for Bobby Fischer (real person, not actor). Follow the link if that doesn’t ring a bell.

I’ve seen/heard a couple of Waitzkin interviews since reading the book. I kind of get the impression– from the book and the interviews– that he kind of dislikes the attention the movie gave him. I suppose being world-famous as a pre-teen will do that. He wrote that the attention caused a lot of pressure. Still, he went and wrote a book about it so I’m sure he’s happy to leverage the fame when he wants to spread his message. It’s a pretty good message, too.

Not only is Waitzkin a chess champion, but he’s also a world champion in martial arts. I know, right? Two great things that go great together, no? It’s a surprising combination. And that’s the point. Waitzkin’s art of learning applies to both. Or so he tries to explain.

The message? You, too, can learn, have focus, become world class. The lessons he learned in chess can be applied to push hands (the mostly Taiwanese) martial art he chose. It’s a lot like judo from what I could see.

I would be hard pressed to succinctly explain the methods of learning in his book (it took him a whole book to do so, after all). But there are a couple of things that stand out.

Ability is not inherent. If a kid might say “I’m good at” (chess, judo, baking cookies), then he/she thinks the ability is inherent. This mentally limits our ability to improve. If you fail then it’s because of some reason like I’m not strong/smart/creative enough. Also, if you think you’re the best, and you lose, then the loss reflects on you as a person inherently, which is devastating. Instead, learning is incremental, and loss doesn’t mean you are a bad person.

We learn when we push ourselves. I’ve heard this a lot lately related to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. You get better with deliberate practice.

Flow state. Waitzkin talked about how he lost himself in chess. Then later in push hands. He also wrote how that level of intensity can be mentally exhausting if forced. He called them both the zone. But one is the hard zone. The preferred is he soft zone.

Presence. I hear this a lot, too. Don’t allow distractions to interfere with the flow state. Interestingly, he appears to have some students or clients, too. Apparently, he helps people reach their ideal state by finding triggers. He asks, when are you at your best, mentally? How did you get there? When he knows that, he can use those external factors to artificially create the same feeling again.

I’m sure Waitzkin would say that anyone can achieve what he has. It is repeatable. Maybe so. He might have benefitted from his environment as well. It seems like he got a lot of support and encouragement from family and teachers. But much of what he says is supported and backed up with research as well.


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