The Art of Learning

I loved The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. I listened to it on Audible while driving across the country so I don’t have my notes as readily available as I might otherwise.

I am buying the book so that I can “read” it again, but until then here are a few brief thoughts.

Waitzkin, who was the basis for the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, tells an entertaining story of his journey from young chess master to martial arts champion as an adult. He’s still a relatively young adult (mid-thirties) so I assume there will be many more journeys of mastery in his life time.

He asserts in the book that his greatest gift is not playing chess or martial arts (both of which he mastered), rather his great strength lies in knowing how to learn.

Waitzkin explains his approach in The Art of Learning.

If you want to be a great learner then commit to the long-term process of learning even if you need to stumble, fail and deal with a little humility.

He was very good at dealing with failure. In fact, he learned from each failure which enabled him to progress.  (Points to Dweck’s book Mindset and the qualities of a “growth mindset.”)

Waitzik believed in committing to learning the fundamentals of each medium.  If you understand the fundamental reasons why things work you can solve problems creatively. This is true in any domain.

His experience with teachers mirrors the stages of learning en route to expertise outlined in the Ericcson’s work. I wrote about that here.

One key take away for me was how well he did knowing fewer skills, but knowing what he did know really well.

He preferred depth to breadth.

Rather than trying to know everything about his martial art, he developed true mastery of the skills he did learn. He won championships with this approach.

Another piece that corresponds to the research on performance was Waitzkin’s awareness that whether he was competing in chess or tai chi he needed to have a method to deal with stress. And he needed to rest. Waitzkin often dealt with the mental stress by doing something physical, like a good run or workout.  We’ve all certainly been there.

Regardless of what he was competing in, and whatever his method, after each event he put a strong emphasis on recovery.

“To this day, virtually every element of my physical training also revolves around one form or another of stress and recovery…”

There is much, much more to this book, but his willingness to fail and his commitment to deep deep training stand out.

I highly recommend it.

A review of the book Searching for Bobby Fisher (NYTimes)

The process of learning