Mastery: The Process 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.  The book dissects the process of learning any new skill with depth and insight.

The book is part memoir, part instruction manual, and part philosophy.  Waitzkin very thoughtfully thinks through each step in his process of learning and lays it out in this book. He also fleshes out the philosophical underpinnings of his process.

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.

But at the heart of this book are the insights of an elite performer who has taken great responsibility for his own journey and success.

I highly recommend it.

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

My notes from the book are below.

The process of learning
One of the best biographies on the learning process

Notes Grouped by Themes and Key Points
His first coach is an excellent example for youth coaches

His first teacher Bruce Pandolfini, a master level player himself–provided a critical environment that was more focused on love of the game and learning than on winning tournaments.

There are many individual and nuanced points Waitzkin makes about his first coach, but the bigger point that stands out is ability to find balance in his approach. He nurtured love of the game and discipline around principles.  Sometimes the training was serious and other times all about the fun of competition.

Losing didn’t bother him–he just took this as an opportunity to learn, whereas winning was thrilling.

He began with building trust and learning about each other. Only then did he progress to teaching the game.

Taught principles and let him learn them through playing, not through memorization.

Found the balance between a disciplined approach to the game and the competitive street approach he found in the park. This is a difficult balance to find.

Pandolfini acted more as a guide than as the authority. He had Waitzkin explain his thought process out loud after decisions. (This is similar to Anders Ericcson writing in Peak)

Although he was not an authoritarian, he also did not give false praise or patronize. This built Waitzin’s confidence in his ability to make his own decisions.

After asking about thought process asked questions to guide him to a better decision.

The coach was not afraid of silence.

In his first year teaching him Waitzkin did not compete in any major tournaments.  He put “…learning and passion first, and competition a distant second.”

The coach put him into positions to learn how to finish a game and do well while in the middle of the chaos. Most kids his age were memorizing opening moves and learning how to crush lesser players right out of the gate.  Waitzkin was playing in central park against adults, and therefore did not expect winning to be easy.

He was learning to be at ease in the stressful times.

“As the game went on, their confidence shrank and I became a predator. Noticing these tendencies, Bruce started calling me Tiger. He still calls me Tiger.”

Most importantly he created a safe environment for him to grow:

I was unhindered by internal conflict–a state of being that I have come to see as fundamental to the learning process. Bruce and the park guys had taught me how to express myself through chess, and so my love for the game grew every day.

Pandolfini used visualization, had him study classic games, and continued to get create a  more and more complex after Waitzkin’s return from his first defeat.

Finding your next coach

Inevitably Waitzin outgrew his coach same year as Searching for Bobby Fisher came out.

He needed to choose a new coach at 16, in the midst of growing fame, and found he had two coaching styles to choose from:

Yuri Razuvaev was like Yoda

  • training like a spiritual retreat, individualized to the person
  • “learn hard from soft”

Compares to mom with horses–“don’t break the horses spirit…make your intention the horse’s intention.”

Mark Dvoretsky--most important author for chess pros in the world(only at home with chess)

Developed and advocated a comprehensive training program same for all, break them down and fit into his program.

He chose Dvoretsky, which was a poor fit, and a factor in Waitzkin leaving game, but not the only factor. He lost trust in own intuition, but ultimately he may have left chess but there was value in this process.

“…the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness–of in-between. There is a careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if you stretch too thin, they will snap….The effects of moving away from my natural voice as a competitor were particularly devastating. But with the perspective of time, I understand that I was offered a rare opportunity to grow, much of what I believe in today has evolved from the brutal testing ground of my final years of chess.”  p89

His next coach was not a chess coach at all, but rather William C Chen, a Tai Chi master.

He was a great fit for Waitzkin due to his:
  • understated teaching style, shared through osmosis
  • spoke softly, moved deeply
  • “gems were afterthoughts, hidden beneath the breath, and you could pick them up or not”
  • very mortal, no fancy words, no spiritual claims (like Yuri Rzauvaev/Yoda)
  • insight, but wisdom was very physical
  • “he read the body like a great chess player read the board”
  • “if I was ready I would learn”
  • breathing should be natural state (before years of stress)

The process with this coach in Push Hands–allowed him to learn by doing, getting beaten by better students, small corrections, slowly molded him into shape.

The Importance of Perspective:

After his first significant loss the family left on a long-term fishing trip. Painful experience that quickly dissipated.

Parents created this environment.

The break and time spent on a boat and in nature allowed his unconscious mind to work. Gained creative new solutions to chess problems, but not directly.

With Tai Chi–integration.

“Had been an athletic guy who practiced a sport of the mind…I felt trapped in a cerebral bubble like a tiger in a cage.”

Intrinsic Motivation is Key:


Developed deeper commitment that went beyond winning.  He dug in from losing and responded with hard work.

I arrived at a commitment to chess that was about more than fun and glory. It was about love and pain and passion and pushing myself to overcome. It might seem absurd, but I believe that year, from eight to nine, was the defining period of my life. I responded to heartbreak with hard work. I was self-motivated and moved by a powerful resolve

Because he was motivated by love of game he could handle pressure.

Burning passion for the game allowed him to keep normalcy even as an 11 year old because he was playing for the right reason

At 19/20-traveled the world, introspective, inconsistent competitor, but dove deep into psychology of chess and life

–“I was no longer primarily refining the skill of playing chess, but was discovering myself through chess.”

In order to be a great competitor need to return to freedom of a child, but must maintain “harmony with your unique disposition.”

Tai Chi— practiced for hours each night as he learned 60 basic moves  (Again, reminiscent of the book Peak and the concept of deliberate training)

“It took full concentration to pick up each valuable lesson, so on many levels class was an exercise in awareness. While his method worked very well for me, it also weeded out students who were not committed to serious practice.”

Open to the timing of learning something new– “humility training.”

Devoted to training –learned with “open pores’–no ego (others would try and explain themselves when corrected)

Mental Representations

(Mental representations is term from Anders Ericcson’s Peak my notes on Peak here)

Made good decisions without always knowing why. Intuitive and unconscious.  Saw multiple moves ahead.

“…sensed a logical thread to positions that seemed irrational”

His language: “numbers to leave numbers” –deliberate training to build mental representations
  • critical position from a game,where intuitive had not been up to the game
  •  recalled his attacking positions
  • pick apart opponent’s defenses
  • integrating the evolving structural dynamics it had not quite understood before
  • “soaked in countless patterns of evolving sophistication”
  • thinking –unhindered, free, faster
  • 6 hours at a time, 30 hours a week, until–“all complications dissolved”
  • “I couldn’t explain this new knowledge with variations or words…”
  • “I am describing a process in which technical information is integrated into what feels like natural intelligence.’

“Techniques that are hidden within form started to come out of me spontaneously…partners would go flying away from me without my consciously doing much at all. This was trippy, but a natural part of systematic training.”

“In both fields players tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.”



As a superior competitor he could dictate the battle– did not need to play a predictable safe memorized game. He was comfortable in chaos.

“One of the critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline…is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.”

He had depths of endurance compared to peers–mental as well as physical.

Losing hurt “losing is brutal.”

This is such an critical point for any competitor: You must regain presence after you make a serious error. Do not spiral downward.

Momentum is not an accident:

  • Don’t let the first mistake get to you (avoid compounding errors)
  • Don’t push with hollow overconfidence–
  • “Distance between winning and losing is minute”–make your way back to the momentum you had
  • Be present to this moment where it can go either way–pause, breath, be aware or get up and go (“psychological flushing”)

“Growth comes at the point of resistance”–find challenging opponents

But, this is my thought–not his–you must be prepared for that point of resistance. If you jump in to too competitive of environments without the mental skills to handle mistakes then you may not grow when playing challenging components. You may spiral down. Like everything, this is a balance.

Entity vs Incremental Theory (Growth mindset) and Impact on Process vs Goals:

Addresses fixed (entity) versus growth (incremental) mindset

Need to find balance between these.  Don’t just make it process goals–need a focus on results as well.

“Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be greatest at what they do–we need to be psychologically prepared to face the unavoidable challenges along our way, and when it comes down to it, the only way to learn is by getting in the water.”

Evokes Carol Dwecks recent addition to her work “false growth mindset'”

Page 45 walks through how to build this in a specific young athlete

“–beauty of the roses lies in their transience”

Enjoy win–note lesson learned–move on.

Empathy for loss–dialogue for discovery–let young athlete become astute on his own

“A heartfelt, empathetically present, incrementally inspiring mom or dad or coach can liberate an ambitious child to take the world by the horns.”

As adults–put yourself out there, win or lose, take the lesson–try your hardest –“Growth comes at the point of resistance.”

Psychological Strength/Processes

Experienced flow playing chess during an earthquake in India–made him dive into performance psychology

Developed method for finding flow–First learn how to avoid being distracted by mini earthquakes of our lives

Methodology for triggering states of flow

1. Learn to flow with whatever comes –develop the “soft zone”

2.  Use whatever to our advantage

3.  Learn to be completely self sufficient

4. Create own mini earthquakes–mental process feeds inspiration

  • Contrast to “hard zone”–  need the world to cooperate with you, perfect circumstances, quiet
  • “soft zone” quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed, mental juices turning, resilient
  • don’t fight it, but work with it ‘become at peace with the noise’–started training with blaring music
  • become aware of tricks others use to distract (don’t become the victim
  • wasn’t until into martial arts career that really learned how to use his anger/moods that arose
  • most training is in everyday life

“My whole life I have worked on this issue. Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously….when uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort, but to become at peace with it.” (p. 60)

Tao Te Ching
  • hermetic Chinese sage Laotse
  • inward focus, underlying essence
  • see false constructs around you
  • resonated with his views “numbers to leave numbers”
  • helped him resolve conflicts with fame and ambition

On the Road by Jack Keroac (freedom)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig  (depth over breadth)

 The Process of Learning–Beginner’s Mind and Invest in Loss

“Investment in loss” –giving yourself to the learning process

Give up old habits

“…If a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice–both technical and psychological–he or she would sky rocket to top of field.”

Thematic errors occur and as a coach we should try to pick these out.

Early years of Tai Chi– “my mission to be wide open to every bit of information…learn from every error’

His concept of “Clear interference” is very similar to The Inner Game of Tennis

Trained w/ those far more advanced–week after week, show up and get hammered. This is what he means by  “investi n loss.”

He stopped fearing the impact, could take it, opponents started to slow down in his mind, could read intentions, and get out of the way, found his weaknesses, and then started to win…eventually this partner quit working with him as he started to win (Dweck’s Mindset work, see above entity)

His opponent could not “invest in loss”

Beginner’s mind–vulnerable time, make sure you allow time to internalize skills, learn. As a coach this is when it’s important to be a good guide.

–How do you maintain this humility and safety when no longer a beginner?

–Notes that after the movie came out he could not allow himself to “invest in loss” in chess any more

“It is essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in a peak performance state. We must take responsibility for ourselves and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best that we can become. Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.”–p 113

All about fundamentals, releasing tension and cultivating energetic awareness

–“at times i repeated segments of the form over and over, honing certain techniques while refining my body mechanics and deepening my sense of relaxation”

Small movements for hours– building ‘feeling” (takes back to mental representation) –similar to early stages of chess, developing principles that were in mental framework and could then be applied to much more complex situations

“Making smaller circles”–like “numbers to leave numbers”–“touch the essence of a technique,and then to incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping true to the essence.” —

Takes many weeks and months, maybe years! with just learning the right way to punch–built technique, power, and “body just knows”

Depth beats Breadth–true in chess and push hands

Hope you enjoyed

Ron Adams

What Makes Ray Allen Great?

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