Josh Waitzkin – The Art Of Learning
Josh Waitzkin chronicles in the Art Of Learning about how he became an internationally known chess master and martial arts world champion. Furthermore is Josh Waitzkin 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.
What is The Art Of Learning about?
Josh Waitzkin chronicles in the Art Of Learning about how he became an internationally known chess master and martial arts world champion. Furthermore is Josh Waitzkin 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 called”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 your typical how I did it books, but a deep and 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 and even crisis. When Josh was 6 years old he started to play against adult hustlers who were just crushing him. 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.
There is a saying in Germany, that when you are the smartest/strongest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
And I believe that this is very true. We grow through adaption to obstacles, and stress of competing against people who push us to grow.
Even as an adult I try to live according to this principle. Most of my friends are far more successful than me and they motivate me to grow and to keep up with them.
Also constantly getting your ass kicked is a good teacher to stay humble, because while being confident you realize that you have much to learn and that you do not have to take yourself to serious.
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.
So 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.
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 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 want to be relaxed and calm when everything is right, but we want to be in our zen when the shit hits the fan when we are in a storm. This is when we need it the most.
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.
“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…”
A beautiful example that Josh Waitzkin uses is parenting and bad weather.
We are conditioned to teach our kids, that when it is raining it is bad weather, and we don’t get out. Josh made it a habit with his sun to celebrate every storm. Every time there is a snow or rain storm he 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 being 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”
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 the zone.
The zone or the flow is almost a mystical concept of when 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 states of mind by conditioning.
This starts with any habit, by finding a trigger. This trigger should be a key activity in your life that gives you inner focus and tranquility.
What are you doing when nothing else seems to exist?
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 your the before going behavior, and you can simulate that, in my opinion, you raise the probability to slip into flow.
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, for example, this would be being hungover, having toxic people around, social media notifications, or eating heavy junk food, for example, 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 book Mindset. Click here to view it on Amazon.
Learners who have an entity approach, or as Carol Dweck call it, have a fixed mindset. They think their skills, intelligence is fixed like an entity.
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. While an entity learner lives and dies with his result. If he fails a text, 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 of the self-esteem. If they fail to often, they say things like ” math is just not for me” for example, or “I am just not good at languages”. While in reality, their brain is perfectly capable of learning those disciplines. With this belief in mind, step by step, incrementally, a total beginner can eventually become the master. This principle is not only important for learning but also for happiness. Failure is unavoidable in my opinion. And if you determine your entire self-worth 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 however on being a hard worker, a person who never gives up, somebody who does not know everything but knows that there are people who know the answer are much better off in my opinion.
The problem is, what happens if you praise a child for example on beeing particular smart at math, and that kid fails the exam? The only logical consequence for that kid is that it is stupid.
They may fail, but they 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. 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. U fuse then these principles with your own style, or how he calls it your own funk. This by itself is a pathway that takes very long in my opinion and is contrary to my idea that there are shortcuts to mastery.
His approach to learning seems to take a lot of time and is not aimed to be mediocre, but to really excel. In my opinion however often it is enough to become good at a skill and then move on to the next one. I think you don’t have to become a poet in order to master the English language for example. 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.
I believe the speed of how much information our brain can take in, is highly underrated. Although I like his almost philosophical approach to learning something towards mastery this is the only point I don’t like.
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 at 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.
Call to Action
- Watch the video & grab a piece of paper
- What are you doing when nothing else seems to exist? Write down 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 get you in flow?
- What do you know brings you out of flow? What person? What music? What kind of environment is the enemy to your mindfulness? What food, beverages cause inner turbulences for you? What distracts you?