Bookcover - The Art of Learning

The Art of Learning

by Josh Waitzkin

Rating: 10/10


Mastery is something everybody can achieve if working hard towards it. And the way towards mastery is rewarding and beautiful. A life of striving, is a life well lived and worth living. What we strive towards is not important, the striving itself, the pushing of our boundaries and learning who we are is. This book is about how to do that.

On the way to mastery, we learn about ourselves. That's what makes the pursuit of mastery worthwhile. In a way, pushing yourself, to see how far you can go and grow, is a way of introspecting on the human condition. It's a way of living. It's an art. The Art of Learning.

Main Ideas

Learning is about change. It's about analyzing, where you are, where you want to go, and then implementing the necessary actions to get there. However, that kind of growing and learning is very very painful. Because it involves change. And change is something we want to subconsciously avoid. That's what makes it painful. We like to think of ourselves as already complete, as good enough. That is a lie however. A lie, that stands in the way of greatness. It is a self-protection in that sense that prevents us from growing. Repeatedly becoming aware of this lie, shifting ourselves mentally, to accepting the pain of how much we suck at something is the key to learning. Then we can work towards getting better in an endless upward looping process. This loop is at the heart of learning and mastery. It's what Ray Dalio expresses in his Principles.

Ideas of deep insights can be transferred between subjects. There is something connecting mastery across different fields. Things learned in one, can be subconsciously molten into other areas that we never thought would benefit from those experiences. The experience is the connecting factor. We play chess, while our brain plays Tai Chi. And our chess is great because of it.

Mastery happens when actions becomes instinctual. When we are at our best, we don't think. Our minds are so prepared, that things happen. Actions flow, where we don't quite "know" and "understand" in that particular moment, where they come from. In retrospect, we dissect these moments, trying to understand them on a rational level. Further feeding the subconcious to enable yet more insight experiences, on ever higher levels. This again, is learning, change and growth. And the process of dissecting, how we know, yet don't know, again, is painful. The only thing that allows us to overcome this pain is the love for the activity itself. If we love an activity enough, that the pain, of not being good at it is greater than the pain of change, we can achieve mastery within it. Then we'll do whatever is necessary.

Losing is an opportunity to learn – Anything is an opportunity to learn.

We are never complete, never finished. Mastery is deeper than our time.

Learning moves up from the basics. Understand the basics, really understand them. Dissect them, drill them, be them. Once the basics are subconsciously there, the rest can flow from them.

Solid building blocks build good houses. Hence making good bricks is important.

And so it is with every skill where we want to become truly good at. Make smaller circles.

There are no excuses on the path to mastery. Human minds and bodies can overcome so so many things, there is nothing short of death that can happen to stop you from finding angles of dealing with it and using it as a way to learn more.

Routines are powerful. We can use them to build "triggers". Little rituals that influence the mind in extreme ways. The idea is to always have the same set of behaviors, followed by the state that we want to be in. After some time, the routine will trigger the mental state. Then the routine becomes a trigger. When the routine becomes shortened, a single breath can completely alter the state of mind we are in. Ready to perform, to show mastery, to learn.

This book changed me. It's one of the best I've read, interesting from a philosophical, biographical and personal point of view. And the lessons of learning within it, are inspiring and I think, true. There is a small infinity of wisdom within these pages and I hope my notes do justice to the book, definitely pick up a copy and read the whole thing yourself.

Detailed Notes


Chess was my friend.

In Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect.

All coalesced around the theme of tapping into one and all activities. My growth became defined by barrierlesness.

There is an essence of learning that is shared between all things because we access all things through the same interface - our consciousness. With attention and method we can learn things from very different places and experiences, because we flow and achieve breakthrough insights. We can play world class chess even though we are thinking Tai Chi and it just works, because even though they are different, they are not that different somehow... At least on some level of conscious representation. This method of learning is what this book is about.

Part I - The Foundation

Chapter 1 - Innocent Moves

I was unhindered by internal conflict - a state of being that I have come to see as fundamental to the learning process.

Short introduction into how Josh Waitzkin got into chess, how he learned the game in the park with a bunch of hustlers consumed by the game, broken existences, geniuses living on the street, but in love with it and a certain style of playing chess and the influence of his first teacher, showing him the manners of the game as well.

Chapter 2 - Losing to Win

Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle. We are too smart for ourselves in such moments. We sense our mortality like a cancer beneath the bravado, and when things start to go out of control, there is little real resilience to fall back on.

I have come to understand that these little breaks from the competitive intensity of my life have been and still are an integral part of my success.

When losing, there has to be a time of rebound, of getting away from the whole thing, of seeing the bigger picture, of rest and regeneration from the wounds taken. It's about becoming balanced again and regaining the passion and hunger for the thing one lost at.

Times at sea are periods of renewal, coming together with family, being with nature, putting things back in perspective. I am able to let my conscious mind move away from my training, and to gain creative new angles on the next steps of my growth.

Playing chess competitively as a child has its own consequences, the emotional trauma and stress caused by it can be immense and even when winning there is another child who lost. It is not childs play anymore but serious and somehow harmful to the kids involved. But at the same time it is a giant opportunity for learning and mastery.

I arrived at a commitment to chess that was about much more than fun and glory. It was about love and passion and pushing myself to overcome.

Sometimes in games of chess, the unconscious, can feel situations before the conscious unravels the situation and understands. Those moments are like the primal instincts being tuned onto a game by sheer practice and preparation beforehand.

Chapter 3 - Two Approaches to Learning

Glory is a powerful incentive. Inevitably dreams are dashed, hearts are broken, most fall short of their expectations because there is little room at the top. Of course this dynamic can be found in virtually any ambitious field.

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

-> like a hermit crab, that needs to lose its shell in order to grow, humans have to lose their shells in order to grow and that is painful.

It's a little like developing the habit of stealing the test from your teachers desk instead of learning how to do the math. You may pass the test, but you learn absolutely nothing - and most critically, you don't gain an appreciation for the value or beauty of learning itself.

They try to avoid challenges but eventually the real world finds them. Their confidence is fragile. Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth - if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser.

There are mainly two approaches to learning, just like Carol Dweck describes. On the one side people are focused on who they are and on the other on what they can become. From these two paradigms flow very different behaviors and emotional and psychological responses and stances to different situations. Only the approach that focuses on what one can become, on acknowledging the potential inherent in oneself if worked at persistently can lead to greatness in any subject. That's the character ethic vs. personality ethic again, in a different disguise.

Chapter 4 - Loving the Game

When you win, you survive another day. When you lose, it is as if someone has torn out your heart and stepped on it. No exaggeration. Losing is brutal.

I have seen many people in diverse fields take some version of the process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves.

When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience. It is drifting away even as we inhale. We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.

As adults, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and nurture a healthy, liberated mind-set. We need to put ourselves out there, give it our all, and reap the lesson, win or lose. The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don't try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.

Loving the game - or anything that you do and want to excel at - is the thing that makes you work through the pain of losing, of being bad, that makes you want to improve. It is the inner guiding philosophy that helps keep the mindset tacked to an idea of growth, searching for capabilities and ever expanding outside the safety zones of our hermit crab shells. This fascination/passion/love whatever you want to call it is the thing that matters, because it makes winning or losing somewhat indifferent in the long run, those are not what matters. It's what you learn about the thing that you love, making losses often more valuable than wins in hindsight. That's what it means to have a growth mindset. And the condition for that is the love for the thing you are doing.

Chapter 5 - The Soft Zone - "Lose Yourself"

From one perspective the opponent is the enemy. On the other hand there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly or pushes you to excellence and growth so relentlessly.

I began to lose myself in the variations. It is a strange feeling. First you are a person looking at a chessboard. You calculate through the various alternatives, the mind gaining speed as it pores through the complexities, until consciousness of one's separation from the position ebbs away and what remains is the sensation of being inside the energetic chess flow. Then the mind moves with the speed of an electrical current, complex problems are breezed through with an intuitive clarity, you get deeper and deeper into the soul of the chess position, time falls away, the concept of "I" is gone, all that exists is blissful engagement, pure presence, absolute flow.

The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.

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.

My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

Going into the zone is important for highest forms of performance. But going into it requires a certain mind, one that has been trained not to be challenged by the environment but to react and adapt to whatever is thrown at it, softly and gently. It is about becoming malleable, about walking through injuries and unpleasing events, shifting ones own opinion and reaction to them, making them elements of learning and concentration. It is about being proactive and not letting the environment control and disrupt the inner state of focus, but instead to use those disruptive events to enhance the focus even more. It is about truly coping with distractions.

Chapter 6 - The Downward Spiral

Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists and writers all understand, that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, or confusion that muddies the decision making process.

After making an error, it is so easy to cling to the emotional comfort zone of what was, but there is also the unsettling sense that things have changed for the worse. The clear thinker is suddenly at war with himself and flow is lost.

Errors on their are usually not so bad, but the downward spiral resulting from the disruption in focus is. There is a powerful anecdotal story in the book of a woman who steps in front of the traffic in New York, which is her first mistake, she narrowly avoids getting hit by a bicycle by some kind of miracle but then turns over to the bicycle driver and curses at him, that is she becomes emotional and loses the chance to use this signal from the real world, of her mistake, as a wake up call. That is her second mistake. That she leaned into her feelings instead of updating her picture of reality, of resetting and getting back to safety and so she gets hit by a car a second later. That's exactly what happens to competitors in games such as chess as well. The mistake is usually not the problem at this level of performance it is the disruption to the psyche it causes, it leads directly out of the Soft Zone.

Chapter 7 - Changing Voice

I saw the art as a movement closer and closer to an unattainable truth, as if I were traveling through a tunnel that continuously deepened and widened as I progressed.

During intense introspection and learning of any skill there will come a moment, where the theoretical ideas, the memorized rules, become automatic, and integrated deeply within ones psyche. Once this moment has come, mistakes one makes also start to be connected to the psychological side of things, how one feels at the moment affects how good one is at the skill in weird and interesting ways.

Chapter 8 - Breaking Stallions

I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off - no problem, you just get back on But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating.

The human mind defines things in relation to one another - without light the notion of darkness would be unintelligible.

To my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of greyness - of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap.

Part II - My Second Art

Chapter 9 - Beginners Mind

Breathing is important, in a world where we are constantly stressed we acquire bad breathing patterns, combined with our bad postures this makes a lot of our problems. Tai Chi is a way to relax those tensed up muscles, to inhale and exhale again in a natural pattern, loosening the tight stressed body and mind. But to learn from the great masters one also has to be aware, to look closely and not miss the subtle but powerful instructions full of wisdom.

Chapter 10 - Investment in Loss

If a big strong guy comes into a martial arts studio and someone pushes him, he wants to resist and push the guy back to prove that he is a big strong guy. The problem is that he isn't learning anything by doing this. In order to grow, he needs to give up his current mindset. He needs to lose to win.

Periodically, I have had to take apart my game and go through a rough patch. In all disciplines, there are times when a performer is ready for action and times when he or she is soft, in flux, broken down or in a period of growth. Learners in this phase are inevitably vulnerable. It is important to have perspective on this and allow yourself protected periods for cultivation.

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.

Learning lies in noticing mistakes and not repeating them, but to do that one has to be in this safe zone where one can do mistakes and look bad. If the ego is too wrapped up in the activity, no learning can happen because we sense territory that is unknown and where we could make mistakes and then step away from it because we don't want to make errors, we don't want to lose. But that's the point, without investments in loss, there is no growth anymore after a certain point.

Chapter 11 - Making Smaller Circles

The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.

Subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.

Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

The main idea of this chapter can be summed up in one sentence - do one basic thing well, before you move on to the next. Strength in any martial arts pursuit comes from having mastered the deeply nested basic core principles. And mastering takes subtle but hard work. But putting in that work is the idea, making smaller circles is the goal, to have such a deep understanding of a basic idea, that one can take it apart and internalize it I to the unconscious, applying it as a feeling, without having to think about it at all. That's mastery.

Chapter 12 - Using Adversity

A deep mastery of performance psychology involves the internal creation of inspiring conditions.

If the opponent is temporarily tied down qualitatively of energetically more than you are expending to tie it down, you have a large advantage. The key is to master the technical skills appropriate for applying this idea to your area of focus.

If your goal is to be mediocre then you have a considerable margin for error. You can get depressed when fired and mope around waiting for someone to call with a new job offer. If you hurt your toe you can take six weeks watching television and eating potato chips. On line with that mindset, most people think of I kitties ad setbacks, something they have to recover from or deal with.

When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles sour you to creative new angles on the learning process. Let setback deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.

States of hurt or danger or loss can provoke a profound amount of learning, heightening the sense of focus the mind can achieve in an instant. The goal is to be able to trigger this type of mental state without requiring the hurt or loss beforehand. Also when one has an injury, the damage done by the injury itself is often less than the damage done to the professional pursuit by how the injured person deals with the situation. Using injuries as excuses is lame. Excuses are lame. If you want to strive for the top, strive, no matter what. Become creative in doing so, because constraints like an injured limb will make you find new angles and solutions.

Chapter 13 - Slowing Down Time

Intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick.

The road to mastery: you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point.

The chunks of information that have been put together in the mind of a grandmaster allow him to see much more with much less conscious thought. He is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot.

The idea is to offload chunked processing of information to the unconscious. A fast but unconcentrated kind of processing of data, that after years of practice can automate things and lets humans operate on seemingly super powers. In the sense that the more chunked the information is, somebody who sees less can still process more, because what he sees is an abstract interpretation of what is going on, chunked away on a higher level of abstraction, and processed by the subconscious. Numbers to leave numbers. Making conscious effort disappear is what mastery is about. Time can slow down in moments of intense focus, because we reduce the amount of information taken in and process on it much more, creating seemingly longer memories of those events.

Chapter 14 - The Illusion of the Mystical

When competing at a very high level, everything becomes a kind of psychological battle. Getting into the opponents mind and controlling and manipulating it subtly by being very perceptive is the key in those situations. The idea being to move first at the slightest move of the opponent, in other words to make the opponent move predictably enough, to prepare a trap in advance. Playing games of psychology, using blinks and subconscious reflexes to gain a slight advantage in martial arts situations.

Part III - Bringing it all Together

Chapter 15 - The Power of Presence

In the absence of continual external reinforcement we must be our monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We can not expect to touch excellence if "going through the motions" is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richnrdd that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment's creative potential - for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line. The secret is that everything is always on the line.

The story of a Jaguar waiting for its attack on a guy with a machete, eroding his presence before the attack is about that same kind of focus, of presence. For humans to achieve their potential, to operate at their most capable, they have to be there, truly concentrated, in flow, present.

Chapter 16 - Searching for the Zone

Building mental resilience is hard, but a way to do it is by being able to relax at will. And that is something that can be trained - the ability to recharge and mentally readjust and refocus is something that distinguishes the best from the great in the end. And even though it is a mental feat, it can be trained by physical responses. I.e. getting the heart rare back down after running repeatedly, focusing on reducing the break time between sprints is an effective training for getting clearer mental focus back in times where it matters. By breathing, concentrating, closing the eyes and then letting go. Recharging to continue at full potential.

Chapter 17 - Building your trigger

So how do we step up when your moment suddenly arises? My answer is to redefine the question. Not only do we have to be good at waitingy we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn't even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it.

If there is nothing in your life that feels serene, meditation is the perfect hobby to help you discover a launching point in your search for a personalized routine.

In essence, if you ignore the concrete strengths of the various postures, Tai Chi meditation is the practice of ebb and flow, soft and hard, yin and yang, change.

Once a simple inhalation can trigger a state of tremendous alertness, our moment to moment awareness becomes blissful like that of someone half blind who puts on glasses for the first time. We see more as we walk down the street. The everyday becomes exquisitely beautiful. The notion of boredom becomes alien and absurd as we naturally soak in the lovely subtleties of the "banal". All experiences become richly intertwined by our new vision, and then new connections begin to emerge. Rainwater streaming on a city pavement will teach a pianist how to flow. A leaf gliding easily with the wind will teach a controller how to let go. A housecat will teach me how to move. All the moments become each moment.

The name of this chapter - Building your Trigger - describes the contents spot on, a trigger is a routine people can use to get into their zone, it is a specific set of things that they have physically and mentally connected to a state of performance. The idea is that one can build such a routine by having something that is predictably feeling good for oneself and then doing the routine each time prior to doing that thing. Then after some time the routine will trigger the serene state on its own because one has conditioned the two together. Mental state now follows the conditioned trigger of the routine. Now the last important idea is to condense the routine to take up smaller and smaller times. But so slowly and incrementally that the brain doesn't notice the reconditioning happening. Until eventually just thinking of going through the steps of the routine will be enough. At that point it is a trigger and powerful enough to transform almost every waking moment. Whenever attention is needed, do the trigger.

Chapter 18 - Making Sandals

To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.

First we learn to flow with distraction, like that blade of grass bending to the wind. Then we learn to use distraction, I spiring ourselves with what initially would have thrown us off our games. Finally we learn to recreate the inspiring settings internally. We learn to make sandals.

If someone got into my head, they were doing me a favor, exposing a weakness. They were giving me a valuable opportunity to expand my threshold for turbulence. Dirty players were my best teachers.

The only way to succeed I'd to acknowledge reality and funnel it, take the nerves and use them. We must be prepared for imperfection.

First, we cultivate the Soft Zone, we sit with our emotions, observe the work with theme learn how to let them float away if they are rocking our boat, and how to use them when they are fueling our creativity. Then we turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no fenjal of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels I to focus. Next we discover what emotional states trigger our greatest performances. This is a truly personal question. Some of us will be most creative when ebullient, others when morose. To each his own. Introspect. Then Make Sandals.

The main idea of the Making Sandals chapter is summarized in that last quote. But the stories told - of fighting against people fair and square, even when they don't play by the rules, of being so much above them emotionally that it doesn't even touch you and instead makes you perform even better is the truly hard thing. Truly internalizing this idea and going the extra mile, to make the effort and acquire the right to wear sandals is the bloody hard part and in the end it is what distinguishes the best from the merely great again. One question that comes up over and over and over again in all of this though - why this intense focus on competing? What is in it, when he is denouncing a dog-eats-dog world by his philosophy, yet thinks of everything in terms of how to win competitions? The hypocrisy is not lost on him, and he doesn't seem to be bothered because to him it is about personal growth only - but is it ?

Chapter 19 - Bringing It All Together

Learners and performers come in all shapes and sizes. Some people are aggressive, others are cautious. Some of us like questions, others prefer answers. Some bubble with confidence, always hungering for a challenge, while others break into a sweat at the notion of taking on something new. Most of us are a complicated mix of greys.

Once you know what good feels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.

The technical afterthought of a truly great one can appear to be divine inspiration to the lesser artist.

Internalizing technical concepts and making them come together in the subconscious over and over is what mastery is about. It is applying the lessons of building sandals, the soft zone, numbers to leave numbers, slowing down time and investment in loss, combined together and can yield incredible results. But is tough work, mentally and physically exhausting, no matter the discipline. And in the end this whole learning process has to flow out from oneself, because at the highest levels this personal touch of creativity, of instinct, is what makes the difference. Then breaking down that instinct, understanding it, learning and putting everything to a higher level, to be able to form a new, better instinct is the goal of the loop. Breaking free of old limitations, over and over again, learning.

Chapter 20 - Taiwan

One of the craziest descriptions of a martial arts tournament I have ever read. The experience just drips from the pages...


If I have learned anything over my first twenty-nine years, it is that we cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end.

The only thing we can count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives we'll be in unfamiliar terrain. Conditions might not be calm or reasonable. It may feel as though the whole world is stacked against us. This is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing. I believe the key is to have prepared in a manner that allows for inspiration to have laid the foundation for us to create under the wildest pressure we ever imagined.

If my approach feels right, take it, hone it, give it your flavor. Leave my numbers behind. In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.

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