Book Cover
  • 3rd July 2018

Josh Waitzkin “The Art Of Learning” {Book Review}

Book Cover

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, Josh is the subject for the Hollywood movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.

In his book, The Art of Learning, Josh walks us through his approach to learning, and how he managed to become world-class in multiple disciplines.

The books start in 2004 in Taipei, Taiwan where the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships was fought.  In the video below, you can see the entire fight between Josh and a Taiwanese champion called “buffalo”.

Before I butcher this moment completely, here are Josh’s own thoughts in describing 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 book, but a deep and philosophical guide to inner optimal performance.  So, let us start!  Who is this Josh Waitzkin…

Who Is Josh Waitzkin

Josh definitely knows the road to success.  When Josh was 6 years old, he started to play “Blitz Chess” against street hustlers in the infamous Washington Square Park.  He watched and absorbed, and in no time, he became the king of hustlers himself.

Josh proceeded to make his name in the chess world.  He became the only person to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junio High School, Senior High School, US Cadet, and US Junior Closed chess championships before he even turned 16.(2)

There are famous scenes of Josh playing 20-50 chessboards at the same time against other people, where he walked from table to table and beat them all.

Josh was, in consequence, called a “chess prodigy”.  But where he excels, in my opinion, is his systematic approach to learning because he was successful in many fields that have almost nothing in common but Josh.

Once he left the chess world behind, he won multiple national Championships in Tai Chi Chuan and two World Championships.  After that, he became a black belt under Marcelo Garcia, who is the Michael Jordan of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

4 Lessons I Learned From Art Of Learning?

Stretch To Grow

I was particularly interested in Josh 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 the same age 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 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 realise 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 pond?  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 emphasises multiple times that a big part of his philosophy of learning is to thrive in chaos.

In chess, Josh favoured chaos on the board.  Normal chess players favoured clean, memorised patterns.  Josh uses confusion and playing in the unorganised game to his advantage because he loved to play when the conditions were not perfect.  This allowed him to dictate the tone of the battle and thrive in an atmosphere where other players were uncomfortable.

I think this is true for life also.  We do not just want to thrive when all of our favoured 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 also thrive when conditions are not ideal, but the contrary; chaotic.

A perfect example is meditation.  People who learn meditation prefer perfect conditions, nobody is around, it is quiet, and it is the perfect time of the day.

Ultimately, however, we do not want to be relaxed and calm when everything is right, but we want to be in our zen when the shit hits the fan and 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…” Josh Waitzkin

A beautiful example that Josh uses is parenting and bad weather.

We are conditioned to teach our kids, that when it is raining it is bad weather, and we do not go out.  Josh made it a habit with his son to celebrate every storm.  Every time there is a snow or rain storm, he goes out with his son and dances 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 despite things happening around us is a completely different challenge, and you can see that Josh 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 the 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 a 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, who coached many world-class performers, says that we can create a gateway to these 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 tranquillity.

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 while listening to a song on repeat raises my chances of coming into the flow.

The key is to recognise 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 key before the behaviour, and you can simulate that, in my opinion, you raise the probability of slipping into the flow.

Easier, however, in my opinion, is that you start by isolating variables that are in the way of you getting into the flow.

Things that distract you, behaviours 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, are all enemies to my mindfulness.

Mitigating toxic influences is a topic for itself. Still, I think that life by itself can be distracting enough, so isolating the common enemies to our flow state is key to living a harmonious life.

Become An Incremental Learner

In The Art of Learning, Josh 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 calls it, have a fixed mindset.  They think their skills or intelligence is fixed like an entity.

Incremental learners, on the other hand, are learners who 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 their result, if they fail a test, it is because they were too stupid, not because they had not learned enough, or because they used the wrong strategy.  This, of course, has terrible consequences to the self-esteem.  If they fail too 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 being particularly 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 do not 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 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.  You then fuse these principles with your own style, or how he calls it, your own funk.  This by itself is a pathway that takes really 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 do not have to become a poet 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 do not like.

Besides that, there is nothing to cut away from this gem.  A special book, by a very special man.  And, Josh 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.



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