5 Lessons From Josh Waitzkin's "Art Of Learning"

The Art Of Learnng By Josh Waitzkin

The Art Of Learning is a semi-autobiography about Josh Waitzkin, the former chess prodigy, and martial artist. The book contains the experiences he accumulated about efficient learning - how to pick up crucial learning skills that will deepen your knowledge of your craft, no matter what it is.

Most of Waitzkin's experiences stem from his time playing chess at the highest level, winning Tai Chi Push Hands championships around the world, and his observation of top competitors like himself. A lot of important life lessons reside in this book, a few of which are: 



After Josh won a couple of prestigious chess competitions his father wrote a memoir titled Searching For Bobby Fischer: A Father’s Story of Love and Ambition (1988). A movie was released based on the memoir (same title) in 1993, drawing attention to the young Josh Waitzkin and his talents. The attention generated by the movie distracted young Josh from what mattered to him and his performance dipped. According to Josh, "After the movie came out I couldn’t go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into the image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the game became alien and disquieting.

"At a young age I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed sense of contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled."


The ability to be aware of your own presence and immediate environment is valuable to high-level competitors. This level of attention fuels self-knowledge as well as the ability to learn from anyone and anything. According to the author, "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 moments become each moment... Presence has taught me how to live."


There is a common notion that anger, sadness, even tiredness are enemies of competition. However, Waitzkin believes these emotions are vital to performance and life if you do not shy away, bottle, or shut them up. He writes, "Once you are no longer swept away by your emotions and can sit with them even when under pressure, you will probably notice that certain states of mind inspire you more than others. For some it may be happiness, for others it may be fear. To each his own. Petrosian was very flexible. Miller, Hernandez, and Robinson worked well with anger. Kasparov and Jordan were intimidators: they inspired themselves by wilting opponents. Once you understand where you lie on this spectrum, the next step is to become self-sufficient by creating your own inspiring conditions."

Situations are never ideal and the world always comes up with unconducive scenarios that make us uncomfortable and distracted. Having said that, Waitzkin believes people who understand who they are will always create conditions that would allow them to survive or thrive. According to him, this is the key to rising beyond difficult circumstances and maintaining sanity where others might wilt or give up. He writes, "Most of us are a complicated mix of greys. We have areas of stability and others in which we are wobbly. In my experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities."

The Art Of Learning is a frank dive into what makes a high-level competitor as well as how to acquire true self-knowledge which seems key to learning of different kinds. Highly recommended.


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