The Art Of Learning – Book Review

First book review… we will see how this goes. My goal here is to get 3 main sections: summary of the book and underlying theme/philosophy; main takeaways that stuck out to me as i was reading – whatever they are; and most importantly the actionable items that I took away from the reading and how I can incorporate them into my life.

PART 1

Josh Waitzkin was introduced to me on the Tim Ferriss Show, episode 2. What really struck me was how he breaks down the things he is trying to master. The Art of learning starts off at a critical moment in Josh’s life, his childhood where he became a chess prodigy. He takes an almost obsessive approach to chess. Most importantly, what makes him a great chess player as a child is that he becomes completely comfortable with the game. He talked about his first chess coach Bruce, and his teaching style to start at the end game. Starting with just two kings and a pawn on the board and working backwards from there. It  allowed him to break the game down into its simplest form without the distraction of all the other pieces. Josh becomes extremely successful even after a very short period of time he starts competing at a high level. On the Nationals final table he lost his first major game against another child. Up until this point he had been invincible, his confidence had been at an all time high. When he lost, this was one of the defining moments in his life. He took a complete break, then cam back more passionate about it than ever.

Josh talks about Entity vs. incremental theories of intelligence. These are terms I had never heard of but I can instantly relate and understand the concepts completely. Entity theory of intelligence is can be summed up by something everyone has heard someone say at some point: I am not good at ______ (math, science, reading, throwing a ball, etc.) It is basically a cop-out as these individuals see the discipline in the blank as a fixed entity, “I am just like that”. An incremental learner associates success with hard work, and tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situations. This section was really fascinating (chapter 3) as it talked about the parents role in these theories of intelligence. My main takeaway was to assess the areas in my life where excel through hard work and what areas I have given up on. I am definitely in the incremental learner camp, but there are areas of my life that i have given into my natural tendencies. One that comes to mind right away is a strong dislike for public speaking and really voicing a controversial opinion or point of view.

Chapter 6 talks about psychological advantage- “momentum” in a sporting event. How do we regain presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error vs. getting flustered and giving up the psychological advantage? Do not let one error lead to a downward spiral. A bunch of good examples in the book, but one about a woman who almost got hit by a biker, so started cursing at the biker then walked in front of a taxi and got hit. One small error of not looking both ways for the biker led to a life threatening injury whereas if she kept her cool and regrouped she would not have made the second, much more serious mistake.

PART 2

Part two enters Josh’s journey into martial arts, Tai Chi, and his path to learning push hands. Chapter 10 is a really good one to revisit one day. It deals with the concept of “investment in loss” – basically that you have to take pride out of the equation and lose… a lot in order to learn something completely. Allow for the times when you are not at peak performance state because this is is where you will grow the most in your incremental approach. The most interesting thing I took from this chapter was the anecdote about one of the better students at the gym named Evan in the book. This story starts on page 110. Evan was much more skilled and larger than Josh was- this was a significant investment in loss. After months of getting manhandled, Josh stopped fearing the impact, he was able to slow down in his mind and sense his attacks before it began. He became much better at neutralizing Evan’s attacks. Soon Evan stopped wanting to work with Josh as they were becoming more even. Eventually, the tables had turned and Josh was able to toss Evan almost easily and Evan stopped working with Josh completely. Josh’s takeaways were that Evan provided him with a priceless learning opportunity – if in the beginning he needed to look good to satisfy his ego he would have avoided practicing with Evan and all the pain and opportunity that came with it. As for Evan- he was held back by his forceful approach that he wasn’t able to learn the subtleties. Even further, he wasn’t willing to invest in loss himself and didn’t raise his game to Josh’s level. Another note was that Josh was fine with investing in loss from a chess standpoint until the movie about him came out. After the movie he felt he needed to win to maintain his elite status in front of his fans. The problem is that it became paralyzing and didn’t allow him to go through his natural progressions of learning from mistakes.

Part III

Part 3 is about how you create these extreme moments of clarity that Josh talks about at several points in the book. Where time slows and you are in a flow state that is hyper-focused and calm. An out of body experience that is triggered by a high stress event. One of these stick out for me personally- driving home in a snowstorm one day there was a car spinning out in front of me in my lane. I hit the brakes, but the road was icy and i didn’t even slow down, so I had one of these sensations of Hyper-focus. I actually hit the gas and turned sending my self into a fishtail which i was able to narrowly miss and regain control of my vehicle. This whole 5 second incident was controlled by my subconscious. Getting into the book, he talks about how when he would go into this flow state he would play his best chess ever, but afterwords he would be emotionally and physically exhausted. In a major tournament, if he had a match after the one he spent all of his emotional coins on it would not go well. Needs to learn how to run the marathon.

Getting into this “Zone” can be difficult, but there are ways to condition yourself into it. Josh worked with a guy to do this on demand. Here were the steps: identify what triggers the moments of complete bliss for you: his example was playing catch with his son. Where time seemed to disappear. Then they put together a routine to go through prior to playing catch -stretching, meditation, listening to a specific song… followed by the activity he loves (playing catch). Think Pavlov’s dogs, except you are the dog and the bell is the routine, and playing catch is your “food”. After you condition yourself to do this, you can start taking time out of your routine: if it starts at 40 minutes, cut section out so it is only 35, then 30, then 20, then 10. This can take months or more.

Controlling anger in competition. At high level competition there will always be people who want to play outside the rules: in chess a guys that would kick him under the table, in Tai Chi a guy that would headbutt, target the neck or other spots. Getting angry will throw you off your game, get your mind in a “that’s not fair” mode that, while righteous, will distract you from your goal of winning the match. What Josh did was purposefully pair himself up with these individuals to learn how to handle the attacks and not get angry. Dirty players were his best teachers. The best competitors in the world turn anger and fear into powerful tools.

Making sandals: “to walk on a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather of we can make sandals”

How to play your best when there is no one around for inspiration? “Cultivate the “soft Zone”- sit with your emotions, observe them, work with them, learn how to let them float away. Then turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no denial of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels into focus. then “make sandals” – become your own earthquake, spike lee, or tailing fastball- Build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.”

Josh’s ability to identify, master, and capitalize on his strengths is a huge takeaway from this books. He says he was not the most athletic, experienced, technical… etc. Tai Chi competitor by a long shot. But he was a master at strategy from his experiences in chess. His greatest strength is being able to identify and take advantage of his opponents current weakness. Ask how can I turn this weakness of mine into a strength, or how can I turn my opponents strength into his weakness?

The rest of the books is not necessarily strategy, but it ties the story together on his training and how the world championships went in 2004 when he won both of his events.

Takeaways:

  • If you are going to be a master at something you need to really peel back all of the layers and put in the hard work. The stuff you do not want to do because it is boring, repetitive, time consuming etc. Big area I struggle with since I am typically a generalist: I am pretty good at a ton of different things, but I have mastered nothing.
  • Start at the end game
  • Losing can be a defining moment
  • Entity vs. Incremental learning: I am definitely in the incremental learner camp, but there are areas of my life that i have given into my natural tendencies. One that comes to mind right away is a strong dislike for public speaking and really voicing a controversial opinion or point of view.
  • There is a careful balance between pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down.
  • Investing in loss- and chapter 10 in general.
  • Create a routine to get you in your “Zone”. Then they put together a routine to go through prior to playing catch -stretching, meditation, listening to a specific song… followed by the activity he loves (playing catch).
  • Learn how to neutralize something that would take you out of your zone/frame of mind. Pair yourself up with the adversity that throws you off your game. (part 3, page 205).
  • Josh’s ability to identify, master, and capitalize on his strengths is a huge takeaway from this books

Actionable Items:

  • Start at the end game- start with what you want to end with in its simplest form. You do not get distracted by all of the other “pieces”
  • Find something to master. Regardless of what it is. What can I become “World Class” at?
  • What is the “hard work” that I need to put in to become more comfortable in public speaking and voicing a controversial opinion or point of view? This is something that holds me back personally and professionally.
  • What aspects in my life can i invest in loss? Yoga, relationships, leadership, starting a business? Need to set the ego aside and not look at the loss as something people will judge you on but a way you can succeed.
  • Create a routine to get you in your “Zone”. Then they put together a routine to go through prior to playing catch -stretching, meditation, listening to a specific song… followed by the activity he loves (playing catch).
  • Pair yourself up with the adversity that throws you off your game
  • What is my greatest strength? How do I use my unique set of skills to do X

 

Overall the book was entertaining, and I was able to get some good actionable items out of it. It was a good storyline that integrated the points Josh was trying to drive home very well. I would be interested in more methods and examples of how to get into the “Zone”. It seems like Josh is extremely talented to begin with.

RG

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