The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

The Art of Learning: An Inner to Optimal Performance is written by Josh Waitzkin. In this book we get a glimpse into the journey Josh went on from his days as a chess prodigy to becoming a World Champion in Tai Chi Chuan. On the surface these skills look completely unrelated but as we go on the journey we begin to discover how both worlds compliment each other.

More than one solution to any meaningful problem

When facing a problem I have found it more difficult when I operate from the flawed assumption that there is only one correct answer. 😕 In fact there are numerous solutions to any meaningful problem.

In the book we see how Josh deals with an arm injury that prevents him from using his right arm to fight. Instead of taking the conventional approach of resting until his arm was strong enough he decided to train using only his left arm. In doing so he was able to improve his overall game.

Obstacles are not obstacles but challenges to overcome

In the book we see that Josh embraces challenges rather than run from obstacles. It is the same stimulus but we get to see the stimulus from Josh's perspective. We see how Josh intentionally seeks out opponents who are stronger than him with the intention of investing in loss in order to grow in the areas he needed to grow in

3 Core Principles

Josh identifies 3 core principles that serve to point out what the 'magic' is built on.

  1. Making Small Circles - take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power until we are left with an extremely potent and invisible arsenal. In computer programming the concept of a for loop will initially seem foreign to you but as you practice and internalise the technique of creating for loops your understanding will deepen and you won't need to consciously think about what you are doing, this happens without any compromise on the power of the for loop.
  2. Slowing Down Time - focus on a select group of techniques and internalise them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. This happens because the mind is able to process more frames in less time. An example of this is when you learn a foreign language and from practice and repetition your brain starts to pick out words, as your understanding of the language deepens the language appears to slow down as your brain is able to process more in less time.
  3. Illusion of the Mystical - use the previous two principles to control the intention of the opponent - this is done by zooming in on very small details to which others are completely oblivious. This can be observed in language learners who seem to speak effortlessly in their foreign language.

Two Worlds -  One Center 🌐

From reading this book we gain a better understanding of how chess, a highly analytical field, compliments Tai Chi Chun, a field which works more with the physical body. We see that Josh leverages his strategic mind as his strength. Rather than striving to become someone entirely different he chose to double down on his strength and find a way to leverage it to his advantage. Rather than fight power with power he chose to build from the strategic mind he had cultivated from a decade spent as a chess player.

Small Fish, Big Pond 🐟

Josh demonstrates a small fish, big pond approach to learning. When he entered the Tai Chi Chuan world it would have been much easier for him to stay within the confines of the U.S., instead he chose to challenge himself in Taiwan.

Reduced Complexity

It is interesting to see that when Josh learned to play chess he took a reverse engineer approach to learning. Rather than start from the beginning with all the pieces on the board, he chose to start from the end. In this way he began with less pieces on the board and less for his brain to process. He then gradually added more and more pieces to the board as he worked backwards.

A similar approach can be applied to language learning. By utilising a word usage frequency approach we focus on the most frequent individual words that will get us speaking and interacting as soon as possible. When we do this we set ourselves up for instant feedback and we quite quickly move into a process of growth and confidence in the foreign language.

via GIPHY

Being True to Yourself

Perhaps the most important take away from this book is to be true to yourself. It was by being true to himself that Josh was able to more clearly see his strengths and how he could leverage them. Instead of being content with spotting the patterns and modelling successful people, Josh took the time to operate from an expression of his true self. He seemed to do this by taking action, being a small fish in a big pond and embracing the growth mindset, also know as beginner mind.

via GIPHY

Over to you...

I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who is looking to transition into a seemingly unrelated field. By reading this book you will gain some insights into what you already have going for you and how your different background will quite quickly turn into a huge advantage.

Are you thinking of learning an entirely new skill? Have you read the Art of Learning? What did you learn from it?