The Art of Learning — Summary and Application

Here are my key takeaways from the book The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. The book is essentially a biography of Josh’s life, used as a vessel to deliver a learning process for becoming world-class at any endeavor.

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In this post, I answer five questions:

  1. Why did the author write this book?

Q1: Why did the author write this book?

Most people think of Josh as someone who is just extremely talented at chess and martial arts. While he certainly has talent, Josh emphasizes the role of his learning process, which others can take and apply to their own lives to become world-class at anything.

“What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning. This book is the story of my method.” –Josh Waitzkin

Josh wrote this book to help people learn better, enjoy learning more, and ultimately bring their best to the world.

“It is my hope that you, the reader, emerge from this book inspired and perhaps a bit more enabled to follow your dreams in a manner that is consistent with the unique gifts you bring to the table.” –Josh Waitzkin

There are two main audiences for the book: teachers and learners. For teachers, Josh outlines a proper teaching attitude. For students, he lays out his learning process for achieving excellence in any activity.

Q2: What are the main ideas for teachers?

Let’s start with the main points for teachers since that’s relatively short.

  1. Focus on the student’s effort and process, not results.

1. Focus on the students’ effort, not results.

Some parents like to praise their children. If a child gets an A on an English test, the parent says, “That’s my son! As smart as they come!” But if their child gets a D, the parent says, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you read?

This kind of talk teaches the child to believe that he is either good or bad at English, and there’s nothing he can do to change it. Furthermore, the child learns to associate his self-worth to his performance. If he performs bad, he’s a failure. No wonder he’ll start to avoid challenges as they get more difficult.

The effective teacher will focus on effort and process. If a child gets an A on an English test, the teacher will say, “Great job! You’re really becoming a wonderful writer. Keep up the good work!” If a child gets a D on an English test, the teacher will say, “Study harder next time and you’ll do great. Feel free to ask me questions any time after class. That’s what I’m here for.” This child learns to associate effort with success and feels that she can become good at anything with hard work.

2. Nurture the students’ authentic voice; Don’t force a cookie-cutter approach.

Josh talks about two teachers he had in chess. Both were top chess players internationally, but they had very different teaching styles.

The first teacher focused on helping the student discover his authentic play style and then developing that authentic voice while deepening the student’s knowledge of chess. He noticed Josh was very red-hot passionate in his game, so he helped Josh nurture that strength.

The second teacher developed a comprehensive training system that he believed all students should fit into. He would break students down rather brutally and then stuff them into his cookie-cutter mold. He wanted all students to be cold and deadly like an anaconda. It didn’t suit Josh’s play style at all, and Josh struggled in games when he was forced to use this style.

The first teacher’s method is much better and cultivates world-class performers.

“Champions are specialists who styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction” –Josh Waitzkin

Q3: What are the main ideas for learners?

As mentioned before, Josh lays out his learning process for learning any activity and becoming excellent at it. Here are the key highlights from that learning process:

  1. Sequence learning from simple to complex.

1. Sequence learning from simple to complex.

This sounds obvious but it’s rarely done. That’s because we live in an impatient culture. People just want to “get to it” and see results fast.

In chess, for example, teachers often start by teaching students the beginning positions. Yet the Beginning Game is more complex than the Middle Game and the End Game. Students will get overwhelmed trying to learn all the possibilities of the Beginning Game, so then teachers just focus on making students memorize complex techniques with little foundational knowledge.

Josh’s first teacher taught him by starting with the end game. First, they started with King and Pawn versus King. Then King and Knight versus King. Then King and Bishop versus King. Josh was able to internalize the possibilities and feelings of each piece before layering on another piece. This way, when the game got complicated in middle game, he would be able to figure out his way against opponents. On the other hand, opponents who only studied techniques and never internalized the simple principles struggled when things didn’t go according to their training.

In martial arts, people just want to start punching and jump kicking and launching fancy attacks. But the core principles start with stance, breathing, and relaxation. You have to have a stance that roots you firmly so that your opponent can’t push you off balance. Your breathing has to match your moves to bring full power to them. Your body has to be relaxed to execute moves properly. If you skip the simple foundational things, you’ll just keep struggling.

If you ever are trying to learn something and just jump straight into it, you probably won’t do well. You should stop and ask, “What are those simple, boring, but foundational principles that I need to practice?

2. Internalize new learnings.

To “internalize” means you practiced something so much that your brain can unconsciously do it. Each time you learn something new that can raise the level of your game, internalize it.

“Tactics come easy once principles are in the blood.” –Josh Waitzkin

In chess, each piece has a certain value. The Pawn has a value of 1, the Knight and Bishop are worth 3 pawns, the Rook worth 5 pawns, and the Queen worth 9 pawns. A beginner player may decide whether to trade pieces by consciously counting the values in her head. As she gets more practice, she unconsciously knows the values of each piece without having to think about it. She’s internalized the values. By the time she becomes a Grandmaster, she can see that the value of each piece is actually not fixed but dependent on the surrounding pieces and the situation on the board. Since her unconscious mind can quickly process the values, she can use her conscious mind to direct the processing based on the current situation at hand.

In martial arts, a simple punch uses many principles: foot position, hip position, shoulder position, arm movement. In the beginning, one needs to consciously feel if he is doing each step of a punch correctly. With conscious practice, over months and years, he’ll be able to perform a perfect punch unconsciously in a fast-paced battle.

3. Make smaller circles.

If you’ve learned the foundational principles and are internalizing each subsequent new learning, you are well on your way to becoming excellent at your craft. The next step, making smaller circles, will tremendously up your game.

Making smaller circles means condensing an action to be smaller and smaller while maintaining its feeling and power.

Let’s revisit that punch Josh practiced. He’s already internalized the feeling of a perfectly executed punch. To make smaller circles, he will slowly reduce the range of motion of the punch while maintaining that feeling. He’ll do this over months and years, until eventually, he can deliver a punch that looks like he barely moved at all. This might sound unbelievable, but it’s actually commonplace amongst world-class athletes.

“If you’ve ever watched some of the most explosive hitters in the boxing world, for instance Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali, you’ve seen fights where knockouts look completely unrealistic. Sometimes you have to watch in slow motion, over and over again, to see any punch at all.” –Josh Waitzkin

In chess, a core principle is center control: Whoever controls the center of the board has more power. Yet Grandmasters often have no pieces in the center, seemingly giving up center control to their opponent. What’s happening? The Grandmasters have learned to make smaller circles. They are actually controlling the center from the edges, giving off the illusion that they don’t have center control.

4. Invest in loss.

“Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process.” –Josh Waitzkin

It means letting go of the desire to always be winning, because wins don’t provide nearly as much learning as losses. Investment in loss means constantly seeking out opponents or challenges that are slightly above your level so that you can learn new things and then internalize them to up your game.

This one may be hard if you’ve built a reputation to be good at something, and people have high expectations for you. Josh’s advice is to schedule time for losing to stronger opponents when you aren’t in the public eye. You have to have a healthy amount of wins to maintain your confidence but also a healthy amount of losses to fuel your growth.

“Growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” –Josh Waitzkin

5. Cultivate the Soft Zone (a flexible performance state)

The “Zone” is your performance state. We want to have a Soft Zone, not a Hard Zone. If our performance state is hard and rigid, it will snap under pressure. If our performance state is soft and flexible, it can withstand any amount of pressure.

Josh had a Hard Zone when playing chess in his early teens. He would be thinking hard about his next move, when suddenly, he’d get distracted by loud people talking, or a random song he heard earlier would take over his mind. He’d lose his ability to concentrate and make bad moves.

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

To cultivate our Soft Zone, we need to train with probabilistic unfavourable conditions. For example, Josh trained for chess with loud music blasting in his room, with smokers beside him, and in loud public places. To overcome that earworm problem, he learned to think to the beat of the song. This way, no matter what distractions were thrown at him, he’d be to use it in his creative process.

6. Build a Zone Trigger.

By “Zone”, Josh means flow state. Ideally, a deep flow state.

When he was 16 and in an international championship for chess, there was a sudden earthquake, and it triggered a deep flow state where he felt time slow down, felt distanced from his body and the concept of “I”, and was able to solve an extremely difficult chess problem suddenly with ease. Later, when he was training against a martial artist who went all-out aggression on him, he broke his fist when landing a punch. That triggered the deep flow state again, where time slowed down, he felt no pain, he could see every movement with extreme detail, and he was able to defeat his opponent with just one arm. After these two experiences, he was determined to figure out how to enter deep flow state without relying on an earthquake or breaking a limb.

To build a Zone Trigger, first, we identify an activity that we naturally and easily get into the zone for. Once we’ve identified that activity, we create a pre-activity routine. Then we do that pre-activity routine for months, until the body learns to get into the zone after that routine.

For example, Josh’s friend, Dennis, easily gets into the zone when he’s playing catch with his son. Josh told Dennis to do the following pre-routine:

  1. Eat a light snack for 10 minutes

Dennis did this routine for about a month and it become internalized. Then Josh told him to do that routine the morning of an important meeting (skipping step 5 of course). Dennis did it and came back to Josh raving about how he found himself in a totally serene state in what is normally a stressful environment. Dennis had no trouble being fully present through the meeting.

“The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes. Dennis was always present when playing ball with his son, so all we had to do was set up a routine that become linked to that state of mind…Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge.” — Josh Waitzkin

After building your trigger, the next step is to make smaller circles with it. After all, Dennis won’t always have 45 minutes to prepare for an important meeting.

As recap, the process of making smaller circles has to be gradual. You have to slowly condense the steps while maintaining that feeling of perfect execution. Dennis wanted to do the routine every morning before work. So he replaced the light snack with a larger breakfast. He would listen to his favorite song only during his short drive to work. He meditated for only 12 minutes; same presence, same feeling. Over time, he condensed his meditation to only a few minutes. If he wasn’t hungry, he could skip the food. His routine had been shortened to only 12 minutes and it was more potent than ever.

7. Build in efficient recovery.

“In virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. People who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line.” –Josh Waitzkin

Chess and martial arts competitions are mostly a marathon. Competitors have to been able to sustain themselves through out the entire competition to have a shot at winning. Many of life’s endeavors are like that too.

When it comes to recovery, there is a connection between physiological recovery and mental recovery. That is, well we physically recover from being physically tired, we also mentally recover from mental tiredness. Therefore, if we train our physical recovery to become faster, we also make our mental recovery faster.

The training will take some form of interval training, where we do high intensity for a short time, then rest for a short time, then repeat. Here are some examples:

  • Biking: sprint then rest

Then make smaller circles with your recovery: Over time, increase the intensity and condense the rest time. Then you are on your way to fast and effective recovery!

For example, Josh trained to do weights with exactly 1-minute rest intervals. Over time, his body had become used to almost fully recovering for the next set in just 1 minute. Not only that, but his mind was also refreshed in that 1 minute. This short recovery period is crucial in a martial arts tournament, where there’s 1 minute of rest in between each round. Josh knows he can go all out during the round, lie on the ground to recover for 1 minute, and be fully recharged for the next round.

If you don’t want to do physical training for whatever reason, you can at least learn to take breaks when your productivity is dropping.

“If you are at work and find yourself running out of mental stamina, take a break, wash your face, and come back renewed.” –Josh Waitzkin

8. Use adversity.

We’ve already talked about flowing with distractions and unideal conditions in the Soft Zone.

Adversities are at a whole different level. Adversities cripple people. If you lose because of a distraction, people will laugh at you. If you quit because of an adversity, people will give you their sympathy. But world-class performers don’t quit because of adversity. Instead, they channel it to hone their game even more.

For example, earlier, I mentioned that Josh broke his fist while training. What I didn’t mention was that this was 2 weeks before his national championship. The doctor told him his right arm, which was his dominant arm, would need to be in a cast for the next two weeks, and he’s not allowed to compete in the championship; it’d be too risky, and his right arm would be heavily atrophied. How did Josh respond to this adversity?

He started training with weaker martial artists using only his left arm. Soon, he learned to control two of his opponent’s limbs with just his left arm. He was then able to move on to trusted partners of equal skill level, again using only his left arm. He eventually moved on to people who really wanted to hurt him, and he was able to take them on using only his left arm. During this time, he also worked out his left arm and intensely visualized working out his right arm in the cast. When the doctor took off his cast a day before the competition, there was barely any atrophy. The day after, he won the National Championships slightly favoring his left arm. He used his adversity to up his game to a whole new level.

Another example is dealing with cheating and bad sportsmanship. Josh had gone to compete in the international Tai Chi Quan competition in Taiwan three times. He had learned from the first two times that while Taiwan allows foreigners to compete, they really don’t want the foreigners to win. Judges would flat out ignore points that Josh scored on his opponent. His opponents may cheat and aim for the neck or groin area, and his team would be shouting at the referee and judges, but they would just pretend they didn’t see it. This was infuriating to Josh (and as a reader it infuriated me that such bad sportsmanship was allowed at the International Championships, where one would expect the highest level of integrity).

But getting angry is counter-productive. It makes you lose your focus and make risky moves, which is just what the opponent wants. A second option is to ignore it. To suppress the feeling of anger. But that cultivates a fragile zone, which will crack if the pressure gets high enough. The only effective way to deal with such a strong emotional adversity is to channel it into determination and focus.

“Handling dirty tricks is a part of the game.” –Josh Waitzkin

So how did Josh make use of the unfairness thrown at him by the Taiwanese judges and competitors? First, he trained with dirty martial artists. He learned how to protect himself from dirty tricks like neck attacks or groin attacks. Second, he focused on his steeling desire to win fairly, and if judges ignored his points, he’d become even more focused to score clean shots that were undeniable to the whole audience.

In his national championship battle, he was winning, and the time was up. But the referee refused to press the bell. Josh had calculated when the round would be finished and expended his energy accordingly. But because the judge refused to press the bell, his opponent had extra time to score on him. Is this fair? Of course not. Is it infuriating? Very much so. Is it analogous to other aspects of life? Yes. Josh didn’t let it weaken his resolve. He still went all out in the final round, and in the end, got a tie and achieved his ambition of becoming an International World Champion in Tai Chi Quan.

Q4: How have I applied this book in my life?

In my life, I am primarily a student but also a teacher.

As a teacher, I now careful phrase my praise to focus on a student’s effort. For example, I won’t just say “Good job.” I’ll say, “Good job. You tried very hard.” I also tutor children, and in the position of a tutor, it’s tempting to say to a parent that her child is smart. But instead, I’ll say to the child and/or parent, “You worked hard today. Keep up the hard work and you’ll become great.

As a student, I want to learn wisdom. To me, wisdom is about how to live a good life. It means conquering relationships, work, and health. There is so much to learn, and a primary way of learning for me is reading. So if I can improve my reading speed and comprehension, I will be a much better student.

I’ve applied this book to speed reading, and I still need to execute on my plan and report back later. But for now, here’s the plan:

1. Start with the simple principles.

In speed reading, the two principles are focus and reducing eye movement. If you are focused, you retain more, and you don’t lose track of where you are on the page. If you reduce eye movement, you intake more and waste less time readjusting your focus.

2. & 3. Internalize new learnings and then make smaller circles.

I will start by using a pen as a pacer to track my focus point. Once I get the feeling for that, I’ll move the pen further away from the page. Eventually, I shouldn’t need a pen at all.

For reducing eye movement, I’ll go slowly at first, picking 3 focus points on each line. For each focus point, I’ll try to improve my peripheral vision. Slowly, I can go faster and faster with my eyes. Eventually, I want to move quickly across two focus points on each line.

4. Invest in loss.

This doesn’t directly apply to my speed-reading endeavor, but the core idea here is to constantly push yourself into your challenge zone. I’m currently pushing my comfort zone right now by experimenting with social media and trying to build a following. It’s something I’m totally not comfortable with, but it’s important if I want to share wisdom to others.

5. Cultivate the Soft Zone.

Back to the speed-reading endeavor. I can practice speed reading in unideal conditions, like at a loud coffee shop or on the subway.

6. Build a Zone Trigger.

This is an interesting one for me because I’ve already built a Zone Trigger for doing work. I have certain music that I listen to when working. These songs signal to my brain that it’s time to get into the zone, and it keeps me in the zone if I start getting distracted. For example, as I’m writing this now, I just noticed that I’ve been writing for the past 3 hours with no break. It’s been 3 hours of high productivity.

When going to sleep, I trained myself to listen to a certain soundtrack. Now, I’m at the point where I can just imagine the song in my head and use that to help me fall asleep. I’ve made smaller circles with it.

I’d like to build a quick, maybe 5 minute zone trigger that I can use for anything, like a meeting or an interview or a class. For that, I’m planning to start with this trigger routine:

  1. Eat a light snack (like a handful of nuts) for 5 minutes.

I’ll start out by practicing this 23-minute routine before doing intense work like writing, where I’ll naturally get into the zone. Then, slowly, I’ll reduce how much I eat until I don’t even need to eat. I’ll reduce the meditation time gradually to 2 minutes. And I’ll reduce the song time to 4 minutes and then to just imagining the song in my head. The goal is to get into the zone extremely fast. I’ll report back later.

7. Build in efficient recovery.

I don’t really do any high intensity activities so I don’t see the need for really fast recovery in my life right now. But I do see the importance of sustaining myself through long activities like writing or reading or teaching classes.

So I’ll keep light snacks nearby and when my energy levels get low, I’ll snack on them as a break.

8. Use adversity.

This is a big one that I really want to internalize. I’m someone that really cares about justice and fairness. But this idealism is not practical. It doesn’t help me or the people I care about because it’s often just denying reality.

I need to learn, like Josh did, to channel anger into determination to overcome the challenge. For example, if someone unfairly criticizes me, I need to practice not reacting right away. I need to give myself time to calm down, then decide whether or not it’s even worth replying. And then to act with determination to be the better person. That might mean accepting the criticism because I realized it’s true. Or accepting I might accept it to advance harmony. Or it might mean not replying and just continuing to act with integrity.

Q5: What is my opinion of the book?

Would I recommend this book?

If you are a focused reader who is willing to have a thoughtful dialogue with the book, then yes, this book is great for you. If you are a casual reader who just wants information presented in your face, then no, this book is not in that style.

Personally, this book was a page-turner for me. His life was very interesting to me, and he has a conversational style of writing that engages me. I enjoyed the process of taking notes and synthesizing his learning process in a way that made sense to me.

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.