Book Summary: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Book Summary: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin


“The theme is depth over breadth… to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.”

In a nutshell

I didn’t realize how many nuances existed in learning something new and complex.  I found Josh’s description of the principles and subtleties of the learning process to be super interesting, but the stories of his journeys to greatness in chess and martial arts are really what makes this book outstanding.  I couldn’t capture the gravity of this element in the summary, so you should definitely check out the book.  

At the end of the day, becoming great at anything new—be it a language, software, or a sport—takes a ton of focus, time, and diligence.  There is no way around this, and you don’t need to read a book to tell you that.  But Josh’s account will help you find the beauty and passion in the journey to mastery—which is probably just as important.

Book Notes

When you become a master at something, you necessarily internalize the fundamentals of that art, and paradoxically it becomes more difficult to explain the fundamentals to newcomers.

Thoughts on teaching

Some teachers start out by praising all actions, good or bad, in order to build their subject’s confidence. This ends up forging a dishonest relationship, disrupting objectivity, and encouraging self indulgence. A lack of internal conflict is necessary to foster the learning process.

Thoughts on learning

Two questions about learning:

– what differentiates the small group of people who make it to the top?

– if there is a good chance of failure, what is the point of pursuing excellence?

The two theories of learning:

– entity  

– incremental

The entity theory suggests that intelligence is a fixed quantity, an entity that cannot be changed. The incremental theory suggests that intelligence can be gained by conscious effort, and difficult concepts can be picked up and mastered step-by-step.

Mastery comes from hard work

Children and adults who buy into the incremental theory are far more likely to rise to the top of any field than those who adopt an entity theory. The key is to associate success with incremental hard work. Children with the entity theory have been shown to quit on easier problems after having failed at a more complex problem, because they tell themselves a narrative that they’re not smart. The biggest pitfall of learning is to attribute successes and failures to an ingrained ability.

Learning is better than winning

The lessons learned on the way to excellence are worth much more than the trophies and glory. Similarly, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins. Those that draw lessons from every experience learn the most and are happier overall.

The ingredients of learning

Start out by focusing on reduced complexity and clear principles. For example, in chess, Josh began with just a king and a pawn vs. a king—just three pieces on the board. Once you master these initial principles, you can turn these axioms into creative insight. Children who begin their chess education by learning openings often succumb to an entity theory of learning. This is because the opening game is very complex with many nuances, so newcomers end up memorizing beginning’s without first understanding the underlying principles. Similarly, some people focus on learning what comes easy to them rather than harder subjects because it makes them feel smart. If you are a big fish in a little pond, cultivating a façade of perfectionism, you will crumble when your abilities are actually put to the test. Setbacks along the way and a love for learning are the road to success.

Growth comes at the point of resistance. We don’t learn unless we push ourselves to the limits of our abilities.


Enter the soft zone

One of the fundamental keys of learning is to avoid being distracted by the tiny earthquakes inside of our heads and enter a serene state of flow. If you’re tense and trying to hard to avoid distraction, you are in a hard zone, which is brittle and easily broken. If you are relaxed, yet focused, you are resilient and your focus can withstand anything.

Cultivate resilience

Mental resilience is possibly the most important trait among world-class performers, and it should be nurtured continuously. For example, trying to alter the connotation and feeling of pain is one way of channeling negative energy and converting it into positive energy. It is a skill that needs to be developed incrementally over time. Train your mind to be at ease in the midst of unpredictability and chaos, and be able to sift through and organize your thoughts clearly. This can be done by going on walks in the rain, and listening to music and noise (both pleasant and unpleasant) while trying to think.

When you make an error in competition, your sense of flow is broken. In this moment it is critical to regain your senses, and not let one mistake lead to subsequent errors.

To pursue a high level of learning, it is essential to cultivate a sense of childlike playfulness combined with a more mature appreciation for the subtleties of the art you’re pursuing.

Two ways to tame a horse:

– tie it up and try to scare it by making lots of noise. Once it’s partially submissive, you attack the horse, and jump on it.

– establish a harmony with the horse by heading it, talking to it, grooming it, and feeding it. The horse when it comes time to mount it, the horse will want to maintain the relationship.

The gentler way of training is much better, because it encourages a bond between teacher and student, and lets the students in Nate art and style shine through.

Invest in loss

If you never make the same mistake twice while learning something, you would quickly become one of the top performers in your field. While this is impossible due to elusive nuances and bad habits, try really hard to being open to feedback and also to new ways of doing things. If you approach learning feeling the need to look good, you will miss great opportunities to grow and learn.

The pursuit of death over bread is essential to success in learning. In order to understand the macro, you need to be willing to dive into the detailed mysteries of the micro.

“The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.”

We live in an era of attention deficit. There are so many obstacles in our way to find in true focus, be it the internet, social media, TV, etc. This is toxic to the learning process.

“The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hunting for something new and pre-fabricated to keep us entertained… If caught in these rhythms we are like tiny current-pound surface fish, floating along in a two dimensional world without any sense of the gorgeous abyss below.”

Make smaller circles

The concept of making smaller circles: when you practice your form over and over, you begin to internalize the subtle nuances of the craft, and the raw mechanics of what you are taught are replaced by subconscious feel.

Three rules for peak performance in chaotic situations:

– learn to be at peace with imperfection: Bend with stressors rather than breaking.

– Use the imperfection to your advantage

– Create ripples in your subconscious to inspire us in uninspiring circumstances

Apply interval training to everything

During your training, alternate between periods of intense, external training and periods of subtle, nuanced, and internal fundamentals. This will take you to the next level by not only giving you the critical skills but also the mental framework’s to the Pete at a high-level. For Josh, a broken hand forced him to study fundamentals and get extremely good with one hand. This allowed him to be a much better martial artist wants his other hand was healthy again.

Use obstacles to get better

Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come back from an injury or ailment better than you were prior to it. Also, don’t confuse consistency with monotony. Find ways to enliven your learning process to keep yourself engaged and curious.

The internal solution: find inspiration from external events that motivate you to get better without them actually happening (e.g. adversity).

Listen to your intuition

Intuition is the bridge between the subconscious and conscious mind. If we fail to get in tune with it, we miss out on an incredible opportunity to unlock our creativity.

Use chunking as a platform to help you think at a higher level

The mind aggregates pieces of related information into “chunks,” which make it easier for it to store large amounts of information. These clumps act as platforms for higher levels of thinking in which the fundamentals are internalized.

In chess, for example, you first have to learn the values and movements of each piece. Soon this becomes natural, and you start picking up how the pieces interact and work with one another, and also how the power and value of each piece is relative to its proximity to other pieces. The principles that you learn lose their rigidity as you become better and better. The better a player becomes, the more fluid his or her interpretation of chess becomes.

Develop your subconscious mind

What separates the very good from the great is that great players are deeply present—the conscious mind is relaxed so the subconscious mind can flow unhindered. The conscious mind can only handle a finite amount of data at any single point in time. With practice, we carve neural pathways that facilitate the connection between the conscious and subconscious mind. This then frees up the conscious mind to deal with only the most important details, leading to a much more effective handling of the situation.

Master subtle cues

In any physical discipline, mastering the manipulation of your opponent’s footwork will make you a formidable opponent. By practicing smaller circles, you can become very skilled at subtle cues that will go under the radar of your opponent and give you an advantage.

If you’ve trained your subconscious mind to an advanced degree, you can use your conscious mind to zoom in on small details such as the blink of an eye. By focusing on one small detail, you can effectively slow down time and look for an advantage that you can exploit. All it requires integration of psychological, technical, and learning behaviors. Be aware of these dynamics in any interaction or discipline.

Embrace chaotic situations

Build up your threshold of discomfort. This will make you more at ease and help you keep your focus in complex and chaotic situations.

Embrace distraction. If you can’t get a song out of your head, think to the beat of it. Also, let your mind release when it has the chance to. This will make your focus even more intense when you need to switch on. In every discipline, the better we are at recovering, the better we will be under stress. Practicing high intensity interval training will make it progressively harder for your heart rate to increase, and also decrease the time it takes you to recover back to your resting heart rate. When you train this way physically, it leads to equivalent benefits for your mind. Practice the ebb and flow of stress and recovery in every day activities such as working, exercising, reading, and meditating. As we practice this, we get better at moving back and forth between a state of intensity in a state of release, and help you relax under pressure.

Our lives are not Hollywood screenplays. We don’t get to pick how we will feel when a big opportunity comes calling. We need to get good at waiting. If we are always switched on, we will wear ourselves out. We need to cultivate our ability to relax, and also our ability to switch on. If we are not in the present moment, we may miss our big moment altogether.

Create your trigger

To get better at switching on our focus and awareness, we need to create a trigger for that behavior.

First, figure out an activity in which you are fully aware and present every time you do it.

Then, find one or two activities that put you into a relaxed and serene state. Then create a four or five step routine–it could be something like Music, meditation, stretching, or eating. Try a 15-minute breathing exercise for example to practice not only becoming a relaxed, but also stress and recovery and as well as present state awareness.

By doing so, we create a physiological link between our trigger and getting into a state of focus. We can then use that same process to trigger our focus before activities that we don’t want to focus on, like a meeting or a presentation. Nutrition is also a key component of hot performance. You need to be nourished, but not have eaten too much.

Condense your trigger

Over time, you can begin to condense each step of the process and achieve the same result. One of the advantages to this condensing practice is flexibility to speed up or slow down your trigger based on the circumstances. The other benefit is more subtle–once mundane situations can turn into blissful states of awareness and appreciation. Eventually, you will be able to compress a full focus trigger process into a single deep breath.

People have different ways of dealing with pressure. Some people try to control their emotions by switching them off, but the most elite performers channel their emotion and use it to their advantage. This requires self awareness and the ability to embrace chaos and unpredictability.

Funnel anger into focus

Use acts of aggression and hostility to expand your threshold of control over any situation. Get over the initial sense of anger and indignation, and learn to adapt to them. Channel your frustration into increased intensity and resolve.

Lay the foundation by studying situations of reduced complexity, and then ratchet up two more complex scenarios. Then learn to make smaller circles by practicing a single aspect over and over until the underlying principles are internalized. Internal lysing many small details can also have the effect of slowing down time.

Build your knowledge like you would a pyramid. Once lower layers become internalized, a creative leap will enable you to see further up. To fully take advantage of this, you need to figure out the technical components of your creation in order to add them to your pyramid.

By assuming weak opening positions, you can lure an opponent into a trap and turn it into an advantage.

Find the gladiator within

Great adventures and great trials can’t be calculated. You can’t prepare for everything, and the only thing you can expect with certainty is surprise. Your training should lay the foundation for inspiration in these chaotic and surprising conditions. The key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration and allows us to create in our own style under the wildest pressures imaginable.

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