Tag: Life Hack

Josh Waitzkin on Mastering the Fundamentals

Some excerpts from Josh Waitzkin's The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

The best way to launch into the learning process is by breaking down what you are learning into its fundamental building blocks. Mastering these builds your foundation.

Learning Chess

Bruce (his teacher) began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king—just three pieces on the table….Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight….This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning—the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspectives, I learned from the foundation up.

“Most of my rivals, on the other hand, began by studying opening variations … .Once you start with openings, there is no way out … It is a little like developing the habit of stealing the test from your teacher’s 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.”

Tai Chi Chuan

From very early on, I felt that the moving meditation of Tai Chi Chuan has the primary martial purpose of allowing practitioners to refine certain fundamental principles. Many of them can be explored by standing up, taking a stance, and incrementally refining the simplest of movements—for example pushing your hands six inches through the air …

I practiced the Tai Chi meditative form diligently, many hours a day. 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. I focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving my hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting my feet to my fingertips with less and less obstruction … the key was to recognize that the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system of Tai Chi Chuan.

Still curious? Read the book.

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.

When it comes to learning depth beats breadth

When it comes to learning something new, depth beats breadth.

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 …. It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill?

What's the best way to begin to learn a new skill? Is it listening to a lecture? Reading a book? Just doing it?

According to Daniel Coyle in The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, “Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity over and over, until they build a high-definition mental blueprint.”

The key, according to Coyle, is to create an intense connection. You need to be at the point where you can almost imagine the feeling of performing the skill you're trying to learn. For physical skills this is easier. Pay attention to the movements, the timing, the rhythm. But a lot of the skills we want to learn are mental.

For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert's decision patterns. Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by regiving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.

Still curious? Learn how to practice better.

Stretching yourself to learn new things

Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyle, and Noel Tichy all point out that you need to stretch to learn new things.

First, this from Carol Dweck …

My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year.

Second, this passage from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. … the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is “barely.”

Finally, this passage from Deliberate Practice:

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Update: This passage from The Art of Learning fits as well:

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can come from.

A simple tool to help you learn better

You have to reach.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them]. This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

Update: A better idea by way of Nassim Taleb: “Don't write summary, write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.”

Still curious? Discover how to practice; an effective way to learn new things and identify holes in your knowledge; and why some people are so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?