The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin has mastered the game of Chess — winning his first National Championship at the age of nine — and the physical challenge of martial arts, becoming a World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. One thing Josh is good at is learning to master new skills.

I want to highlight two passages from his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, for readers.

The first one speaks to why Josh could come into a new sport, Tai Chi Chuan, and advance faster than others who had been practicing for years longer than he had. He was willing to lose to win.

It seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When Chen (the master teaching the students) made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked in a need to be correct.

Waitzkin’s philosophy was that if you could maximize the learning from your mistakes and avoid repeating them you would skyrocket to the top of any field. While it’s impossible to avoid repeating every mistake, Waitzkin tried to minimize repetition of them by not letting his ego get in the way.

The second passage I want to share with you is on learning. The theme is depth over breadth.

The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture. We are bombarded with more and more information on television, radio, cell phones, video games, the Internet. The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hungering for something new and prefabricated to keep us entertained. When nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have devastating effect.

… Many “Kung Fu” schools fuel this problem by teaching numerous flowery forms, choreographed sets of movement, and students are rated by how many forms they know. Everyone races to learn more and more, but nothing is done deeply. Things look pretty but they are superficial, without a sound body mechanic or principled foundation. Nothing is learned at a high level and what results are form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value.

Still curious? Josh was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Read The Art of Learning.