On the road to becoming an ‘International Chess Master’ and Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion, author Josh Waitzkin discovered three universal learning principles to reliably rise to the top 1% in any discipline.
Author Josh Waitzkin has mastered two complex, esoteric disciplines: chess and tai chi, a martial art. He won national chess titles as a youth, and national and world championships in “push hands,” or partner tai chi. In this book he presents his theories about learning and high-level performance, using as a case study his own rise to excellence in highly competitive sports. Even without the theoretical speculation his story is engaging – but his theories make the book useful to anyone trying to learn a new skill. We recommend it to those who wish to raise their level of performance, find out about mind-body connections or enjoy a good story.
- Becoming proficient in one disciple will make transferring the experience to other fields easier. Gain a sensitivity to thematic connections between disparate pursuits.
- Aim for depth over breadth. Working on the skills of one discipline improves your learning process across the board.
- Being driven by processes makes you strong; fixating on an outcome makes you weak.
- Don’t attribute your abilities to something fixed or ingrained, like talent. You can master anything if you take it step by step.
- Use the things that inspire you to help you to build a learning and performance strategy.
- Once you’ve internalized the fundamentals, the complex moves will emerge intuitively.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Losing is part of reaching a high level of quality.
- Learn to perform in the face of adversity by incorporating distractions, emotions and other “imperfections” into your process.
- Dissolve mental walls by addressing the technical and psychological aspects of your errors and observing the patterns that connect different aspects of your life.
- Identifying and taking on your weaknesses is a good thing– but don’t make it an obsession. Instead, address your weaknesses through the prism of your strengths.
“You win some, you lose some;” you’ve probably heard the phrase a million times. But even though there might be some truth to it, wouldn’t it be better to not lose at all? This is exactly what The Art of Learning is all about: how to outperform your toughest competition and become a superior performer.
With multiple chess championships and years of martial arts practice under his belt, the author is an ideal source for some great advice on how to improve your performance, including some useful techniques and methods.
In this summary of The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, you’ll discover
- why losing will make you a winner;
- the best approach to the process of learning; and
- how to handle those annoying distractions that impede your performance.
Universal learning principle #1: Feel the fundamentals
Josh learned chess by clearing the chessboard and focusing on King and Pawn positions until he had a good sense of how both pieces moved. Then he added a few more Pawns and a Knight and focused solely on the Knight’s movements. He learned how the Knight moved and internalized basic Knight principles, like looking for double attacks (i.e., attacking two pieces at one time). After gaining an intuitive feel for the Knight, Josh moved to the Bishop, then the Rook, then the Queen.
“Soon enough, the movements and values of the chess pieces are natural to me. I don’t have to think about them consciously, but see their potential simultaneously…I see how each piece affects those around it. Because the basic movements are natural to me, I can take in more information and have a broader perspective of the board. Now when I look at a chess position, I can see all the pieces at once.” – Josh Waitzkin
By isolating a core component (Knight, Bishop, Rook, etc.) and practicing simple variations until each component felt easy, Josh’s mind was free to think through advanced combination attacks instead of being bogged down with basic rules and principles. By going slow at first, he could quickly understand advanced chess principles (go slow to go fast).
Regardless of what skill you’re trying to learn, isolate and internalize the fundamentals; then layer on complexity.
“(A figure skater) should begin with the fundamentals of gliding along the ice, turning, and skating backwards with deepening relaxation. Then, step by step, more and more complicated maneuvers can be absorbed, while she maintains the sense of ease that was initially experienced within the simplest skill set.” – Josh Waitzkin
Universal learning principle #2: Stay true to your style
Josh fell in love with chess after watching Chess Hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. Josh was captivated by their wild, aggressive attacking style of chess. When Josh started formally learning chess, everything he learned was designed to make him a better attacking player, like the Hustlers in Washington Square Park. Josh slowly developed his unique attacking style and thrived in junior chess tournaments.
In his late teens, however, Josh put his faith in a Grandmaster who taught a passive chess style that eliminated opponent moves with perfect positional play. Josh likened it to an Anaconda coiling around its prey, slowly killing it. This style felt foreign to Josh, and his performance suffered. Josh had once loved moving pieces into chaotic positions and then finding a brilliant attack within the chaos by trusting his intuition. Now he was told to think like someone else.
By moving away from his natural inclinations and trying to mold himself to someone else’s style, his love for chess faded, and he stopped competing. Josh realized his mistake years later and made sure not to repeat the mistake in his martial arts training. His path to the top of the Tai Chi Push Hands was paved by building on his strengths and developing a style that felt natural to him.
Stay true to your style by finding teachers whose style you resonate with, then gradually tweak their style to develop your own. When learning to write, write in a style that mimics your favorite writer. Then, over time, make modifications to find your unique voice.
Universal learning principle #3: Invest in loss
“Respond to heartbreak with hard work.” – Josh Waitzkin
The ‘Art of Learning’ is about enjoying the process of learning, but it’s also about putting your ego on the line by competing on a big stage or committing to public performances.
Why? Because the pain of public mistakes provides the fuel to study technical and psychological errors and accelerate growth.
Investing in loss means putting your ego on the line and intensely studying your losses and learning from your mistakes. The return on investment will come in the form of better preparation, effective new strategies, and a renewed drive to practice.
“Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire. Consider Michael Jordan. It is common knowledge that Jordan made more last‐minute shots to win the game for his team than any other player in the history of the NBA. What is not so well known, is that Jordan also missed more last‐minute shots to lose the game for his team than any other player in the history of the game. What made him the greatest was not perfection, but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.” – Josh Waitzkin
In order to win, you have to experience losing first.
Sure, none of us like to lose. Whether it’s a tennis match, the fight for a promotion or a game of Monopoly, losing isn’t something we look forward to. But should we look upon losing so negatively?
The truth is, losing has its benefits. This is a lesson the author first learned when he was ten years old, when he began to compete in adult chess tournaments. He started off losing matches, which was frustrating at first. But he then started reflecting on his performance: why weren’t his skills up to scratch?
The author realized that he was losing matches because of a lack of concentration. In adult tournaments, matches were twice as long. At such a young age, he simply couldn’t match the focus and concentration of his older opponents. Losing helped him realize that endurance was his main weakness, so he began to work to improve it.
If you want to improve your performance, you need to seek out opponents that are better than you. By investing in loss, you can welcome the opportunity to learn. This is true no matter what your specialty or field, and it’s even true for children, too.
These days, many parents and teachers believe that competition is unhealthy for children. But the opposite is true: just the right amount of competition can equip children to cope with obstacles later in life. So how much competition is the right amount? One way to approach it is by using short-term goals to nurture a long-term goal.
If a child loses a sporting match or a competition in a hobby they care about, parents should first make sure to assure their child that it’s okay if they feel sad or disappointed. Parents should also show the child how proud they are of her, and help her identify ways to improve. From this, the child can develop the short-term goal of learning new skills and developing new strengths before the next competition.
Prepare to feel vulnerable during the learning process.
Natural talent can only take you so far. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to be ready and willing to learn, which means facing your own vulnerability and mistakes. This can be a little daunting, but it’s a natural part of the learning process.
When we’re in a learning phase, we often feel weak, exhausted or hopeless, and this is something we can also experience physically. A boxer with a great right hand but a weak left hand will take plenty of punches and go through some tough rounds while learning to use his left side more skillfully.
Although learning through trial, error and slow improvement is tough, we should be careful not to doubt ourselves. This can quickly lead to a downward spiral, in which we berate ourselves for every mistake, and the possibility of achieving our goals seems to shrink at every turn.
Luckily, it’s simple to avoid this vicious cycle; it all comes down to taking a step back each time you make a mistake.
If something goes wrong in your training or practice, find your own personal trick to regain clarity of mind. You could take a few deep breaths, splash cold water on your face or even sprint 50 yards! Whatever it is that works for you, it’s vital to have this technique on hand so you can keep your positive energy flowing.
Stay on track with an incremental approach to learning.
Out of all the motivated and talented people in the world, only a few really make it big. Why? Unfortunately, all too many people veer off their path to success after one mistake that scares them away. This is part of an entity approach to learning, and it’s one to avoid.
When we see our intelligence, skill or talent as a fixed entity, success or failure seems to be the result of how much of this entity you possess. This makes us far more likely to quit when faced with difficult challenges, as we believe that if we can’t overcome them the first time, we simply don’t have the ability to overcome them at all.
In short, an entity approach to learning prevents you from doing any real learning at all. If you want to gain from the inevitable mistakes and shortcomings that you will experience in your training, you’ll need to develop an incremental approach to learning.
By taking the incremental approach, we recognize that we have the ability to grasp any concept or skill, as long as we put in the necessary hard work. Unlike those employing an entity approach, people with an incremental approach are far more likely to rise to a challenge.
The difference between these two learning approaches was revealed in a study where children were given easy math problems to solve. All of them solved the problems correctly and progressed to the next round, where they received much more difficult problems that they were unable to solve.
Children with an incremental approach were excited about the challenge, while children with an entity approach reported feeling discouraged.
In the final round, the children were presented with easy problems once again. Those with an incremental approach solved them easily; in contrast, the children with an entity approach, suffering from decreased self-esteem after the second round, were unable to complete problems they would easily have been able to solve beforehand.
Practice turns learned techniques into intuitive responses.
For most of us, the incredible speed and agility of a martial arts master seems thoroughly unattainable. But is it really? These masters have simply trained so much that they have reached the point of fighting intuitively. You too can get this good at any skill – but how?
As the cliché goes, practice makes perfect. Any technical information, from patterns to strategies to techniques, can feel like natural, instinctual intelligence if you practice and apply them enough. For example, every chess beginner learns that the pieces have numerical equivalents – a bishop, for instance, is worth three pawns.
At first, players will count the equivalents in their heads, but this eventually stops once they manage to improve their skill level. What happens? Well, something that was once seen mathematically is now felt intuitively. And once certain patterns become intuitive to you, that’s when the fun really begins.
Skilled chess players are able to play with patterns, making small adjustments to confuse their opponents and gain advantages. One fundamental pattern or principle in chess is central control, whereby a player who dominates the middle of a chessboard has the strategic advantage.
But, if you’re a chess star like Michael Adams, you can win even when all your pieces are along the sides of the board, having twisted the classic central control pattern to your advantage. The greatest benefit of training your intuition, however, is being able to free up your conscious mind. When you don’t have to remind yourself of how certain patterns work, you can zoom in on different details.
A superior martial artist can use his extra focus to look for the subtlest weaknesses in his opponent’s position, or even monitor their book summarying in order to attack at just the right second. Yes, these are things that the human mind really is capable of!
Embrace disruptions as opportunities to cultivate resilience.
Picture this: you’re in a state of perfect concentration – and suddenly, your phone rings. Or your child comes to play with you. Or your partner has to ask you an important question about something. Would you get annoyed?
When we react to disruptions with irritation, stress or anger, it means we’re in the hard zone. In these situations, we feel that the world should cooperate with us and our current state of mind. But the world simply doesn’t work that way! We should be able to function even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
By entering the soft zone. This means rolling with the punches and accepting whatever circumstances we face, no matter how frustrating they might be. This, in turn, allows us to cultivate resilience when disaster strikes.
For example, the author once lost an important chess tournament because of a song that was constantly distracting him – it wasn’t playing in the background, but it was stuck in his head. Even this was enough to shake the supreme concentration required to manage calculations during a match.
Recognizing this as a problem, the author started playing music while practicing at home. But rather than trying to block them out, he learned to think within the rhythm of the songs instead! This boosted his concentration so much that he even started singing songs in his head on purpose during tournaments, just to keep his mental energy up.
You can cultivate your mental resilience like the author by deliberately putting yourself into situations that challenge your concentration. If you’re a writer, why not open a window and welcome the sound of your neighbors mowing their lawn as you work? By challenging your brain, you can only make it stronger.
Learn efficient recovery techniques to boost your performance.
We all know that we perform at our best after a good night’s sleep. Despite this, it’s often too tempting to sacrifice some shut-eye and study late into the night instead. Resist it!
Insufficient rest leads to repetitive, inefficient and imprecise thinking. Why? Because our mind is only able to stay focused on one thing for a limited time. After resting, our minds are better able to snap back into powerful concentration. The more able you are to clear your mind within a break, the better your performance will be upon returning.
Superior performers can actually make full mental recoveries in short periods of time, as short as one minute breaks between chess match rounds. Psychologists at the Human Performance Institute (HPI) in Orlando discovered that training the ability to relax in short moments of inactivity is a decisive factor in progress toward becoming a leading performer.
So how can you practice your recoveries? Consider taking up cardiovascular interval training. This means performing a series of short, high-intensity workouts with regular rests distributed throughout. HPI discovered that there is a physiological connection between cardiovascular interval training and the ability to quickly release stress and recover from mental exhaustion.
You can even practice cardiovascular interval training on a stationary bike. First, ride with high resistance, which will rocket your heart rate. Then slow down for a minute on low resistance, thus lowering your heart rate. Then sprint again until your heart rate is high. Then slow down again. And repeat!
The more you do it, the longer it’ll take to raise your heart rate and the quicker you’ll be at lowering it. With intensive training you will have better endurance, helping you relax more effectively when you need it most.
Create a routine to get into the zone.
Do you have problems getting into the zone? Do you find yourself easily distracted in important meetings or when faced with a deadline? These situations can be incredibly frustrating. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a switch you could flick that instantly took you into peak performance mode?
Good news: that’s not as impossible as it sounds! By creating and practicing a routine, you can summon your best performance. Think of a moment, situation or activity during which you experience complete and serene focus – moments that make you feel like nothing else in the world exists.
Suppose this moment for you is swimming. Keep this in mind as you create a four- or five-step routine to precede this activity. Let’s say you eat a light snack, do a 15-minute breathing exercise or other meditation practice, stretch for ten minutes and listen to your favorite song. Then go swimming!
If you repeat this routine everyday, you create a powerful physiological connection between the routine and the performance you give afterward in the swimming pool. As this routine becomes completely natural to you, you can transplant it from swimming to work, practicing it before important meetings or crucial tasks.
Finally, once you’ve got your routine down, you can condense it into a shorter time frame. Often, we don’t have an hour before any important moment to go through our routine. But we can make our routines more flexible, by altering the steps a little.
You could exchange the light snack for heavier breakfast to have more energy for longer, or shorten the meditation or stretching outside by a minute, and listen to the song on your way to work.
By slowly and gradually adjusting the routine, you can condense it to few minutes. And with constant practice, the masters of this technique reach a state where only thinking about a part of the routine triggers their high-performance state.
Chess and Martial Arts: They’re Not as Different as They Seem
At first glance, chess and the tai chi practice of push hands – practicing with a partner – have few similarities. Chess is a densely intellectual board game of European origin in which various pieces move and interact in complex patterns. Tai chi is a Chinese system of movement training that improves spiritual and physical health and enables practitioners to defend themselves. However, beyond these surface differences, the two practices have much in common, especially the lessons they teach about how to learn.
“Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle.”
Both push hands tai chi and chess are stylized abstractions of combat. In chess, the pieces move like troops, and the players must think as strategically as they would on a battlefield. In push hands, each opponent tries to upset the other’s balance, within defined limits. Both distill competition down to its essence. In the games’ limited fields of engagement, players can analyze their interactions with their opponents, identifying and improving their tactics and techniques.
Investing in Loss
The best way to improve in both chess and push hands is by playing with superior opponents. You must “invest in loss,” or be willing to lose, if you want to sharpen your skills. Thus, your opponents are in many ways your benefactors: they help you get better.
“Once you know what good feels like, you zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.”
For beginners, though, losing can feel devastating. One loss can lead to another and another, creating a “downward spiral” that corrodes performance and ultimately even ruins the careers of some players – especially young ones. Once they realize they’ve miscalculated, they fall apart, even though they could probably save the situation if they keep a cool head. The pressure disrupts their focus, and they end up making larger and larger errors.
“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.”
Thus striving for perfection and trying to control everything leads to loss of composure and focus. By obsessing on your failures you create worse ones. Instead, learn to break the psychological downward spiral. Some people can do it simply by taking a few deep breaths; others may need to retrain themselves to respond to stress differently.
Even the best players of both chess and tai chi often have a characteristic tell, an unconscious action or reflex that lets their opponents know what’s going on inside them. And since players at the highest levels of both games play from their essences, their tells reveal their entire game strategies. If you’re aware of your opponents’ tells, you can manipulate them. For example, you may perceive that a push hands opponent is accustomed to being powerful. Give your challengers what they want. By setting them up to push too hard, you can throw them off balance. Of course this sort of reading and manipulation applies to far more than push hands tournaments or chess matches. You can approach any negotiation this way. The more aware you are of both your own patterns and those of your counterparties, the greater your advantage in closing a deal.
“I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.”
Chess masters often sink deeply into their own minds, clicking through moves and countermoves until they find the best choices. Conversely, in push hands, the best players act and react kinesthetically, faster than thought. However, the intellectual and intuitive skills of each discipline apply to the other. For example, good chess players don’t only analyze the flow of the game intellectually; they feel it. And push hands players know inside out the vocabulary of moves their opponents may use. Even more important, though, is the fact that mastering any discipline teaches you the experience of excellence. You know what you must do to succeed and how success feels once you attain it.
The “Art of Learning”
Learning one discipline teaches you how to cultivate others. These two principles apply to just about any field:
1. “The study of numbers to leave numbers”
In chess, beginners memorize how each piece moves and how many points it’s worth: a bishop is worth three times as much as a pawn, for example, so if you get a chance to swap a pawn for a bishop, you take it. Early on, you do this counting consciously, and because you’re constantly adding up numbers, you tend to focus on individual exchanges. Later, however, you see the entire board at a flash, and you know intuitively whether a move is good or bad. Similarly, beginners at tai chi learn forms – sequences of moves – and practice them over and over. Even when they move on to working with a partner in push hands, they start with limited, basic exchanges. In time, though, the forms go away. The moves flow intuitively.
2. “Making smaller circles”
To learn how to punch in tai chi you start with a big gesture. You move your arm in a large and obvious circle. Initially your gesture has no power. You hit the punching bag and nothing happens. So you work on your form, correcting your “body mechanics” and making sure your feet are always in the right place. Soon, you can transmit force through your body and hit the bag hard every time. But you’re not done yet. Once you’ve learned the structure of the gesture, miniaturize it. Edit out all unnecessary movement and make it as efficient as possible. Once you’ve found its essence, you can punch with little external movement but great power.
Systems and Styles
Broadly speaking, you can take one of two routes to learning a discipline such as chess. One is to train according to a rigid system. The teacher forces each student into the same mold, with the goal of developing all talents comprehensively and methodically.
“Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.”
The other method is to find your own style and to study those who have styles like yours. The goal is the same, but the approach is different. This path is more organic. However, it doesn’t mean that if you can’t follow your usual habits, you’re lost. Sometimes circumstances force you to change and to develop skills you never thought possible; for example, an injury to your right hand may force you to use your left.
“A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.”
Pay attention to your responses to external events. Determine which help you improve and put yourself into similar situations. Learn and grow from crises rather than allowing them to consume you or make you fall apart.
Two Theories of Learning
Psychologist Carol Dweck says people fall into two broad categories based on what they believe about learning:
- “Entity theorists” – These people think intelligence is innate; they say things like “I am smart at this.” When they run into trouble, their self-image may shatter: They’re not as “smart” as they thought. They blame themselves. Even challenges that once seemed simple seem hard.
- “Incremental theorists” – These people acquire subject mastery through practice. They expect success to come through work, so a new situation is just another means of developing mastery. Even if they fail, they feel confident that they’ve learned something along the way.
“The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.”
Of course, no matter which intelligence theory you subscribe to, failure hurts. If you’ve tried really hard and you lose, you’re right to feel downcast. So, if you have children, don’t wave away their losses as meaningless. Instead, help them learn through experience.
When you’re learning a discipline, whether it’s chess, tai chi or business, you go slowly, one move or concept at a time. However, real life moves quickly. You must process huge masses of information instantly, with a lot on the line. This can be daunting. To improve your processing, access your intuition. These two concepts will help you understand time perception:
- “Chunking” – Your mind handles masses of data by grouping it into clusters. Find unifying principles and identify relationships.
- “Neural Pathways” – When you practice the same thought sequences, as in chess, or moves, as in tai chi, you create a smooth path that you can navigate faster and faster. Your subconscious responds before your conscious mind even recognizes the situation. Practice creates a pathway for intuition, producing “the illusion of the mystical” that many associate with martial arts masters.
Entering the “Soft Zone”
Greatness requires practice. However, even more important than practicing any particular technique is practicing “presence.” When you face someone across the chess board or the negotiating table, you cannot just walk through predictable steps.
“Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”
Instead, you must be completely alive and ready for anything. Your opponents will pressure you and attempt to drive away your essential self, so that only your fears are left. Never allow yourself to be thrown off balance by “random, unexpected events.”
In the “hard zone,” you’re fighting yourself and the world. Your movements feel stiff and brittle, and even a bit of pressure from the outside can push you over. To prepare for real-life encounters, enter the “soft zone,” a feeling of flow. When you’re completely and smoothly integrated, you’ll flex with change like a blade of grass in the wind.
“In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world.”
Entering the soft zone requires physical training. Even in an intellectual discipline such as chess, players train physically so their bodies won’t break down. Learn to expend an appropriate amount of energy, so you don’t surge to a victory in a single battle only to lose the war due to exhaustion. Commit entirely to a crucial clash, then relax completely. Build a “rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.”
Find Your “Triggers”
While having a private, quiet place to meditate is great, you can’t take off for your meditation room in the midst of active combat. So, you must learn to find a calm state of mind no matter where you are or what you are doing. Develop triggers that tell you to relax.
“In virtually every competitive physical discipline, if you are a master of reading and manipulating footwork, then you are a force to be reckoned with.”
To create your personal trigger, identify a moment when you were performing at your best, so you can carry that feeling into difficult situations. For example, playing with your child may make you feel your best, but you also need to perform well at the office. To prepare for high performance, focus on what you feel like when you are at your best. Capture that state by building a sequence of associated actions – relaxed breathing, favorite music, light exercise – that you go through before the peak state. This is your trigger. Practice this sequence for weeks, so the routine is well-established. Then work on shortening each step, so reaching your peak state takes less and less time. Aim to get to the point where you can enter it almost at will.
“The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.”
Because your competitors’ goal is to disrupt your inner calmness and focus, maintaining your peak state is difficult. Take distractions into account. For example, in a negotiation with someone who knows how to push your emotional buttons, trying to resist your counterparty’s annoying habits will only divert your attention to the negative emotion. Instead, find a colleague who will engage in the same sort of needling, and practice maintaining your cool in a less charged situation. Once you’re able to stay positive no matter what’s happening around you, you’ll have taken away your opponent’s best weapon. Rather than trying to fight your emotions, use them to fuel your performance.
To train for excellence, stay rooted in reality. Don’t listen to the other side’s hype or to your own fears. Instead, learn about every aspect of your discipline. Chess players study the games of the best players as well as those of their likely opponents. Tai chi competitors videotape themselves and their opponents, and study the videos frame by frame.
“The only way to succeed is to acknowledge reality and funnel it, take the nerves and use them.”
Practice defining the conflict. Make your challengers play your game; don’t play theirs. When you enter the arena, use the knowledge of your opponents that you gained through studying their tells and techniques. Get inside their heads; that’s where you’ll ultimately win the contest.
The key message in this book:
Anybody can achieve superior performance with the right mind-set, perseverance, dedication and strategy. Using performance psychology methods, you can learn to manage your ability to focus and relax, switching between them as needed.
There’s more to appreciate your personal best!
Many of us make the mistake of only celebrating moments of peak performance; the rest of life becomes a waiting period between competitive events and opportunities to strut your stuff. But it shouldn’t be this way! Enjoy life as we’re meant to by engaging with the quieter, simpler moments in everyday situations. This will keep you grounded and focused throughout your journey to honing your skills.
About the author
Josh Waitzkin is a national chess champion and a world champion in tai chi push hands.
Josh Waitzkin, an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth, was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. At eighteen, he published his first book, Josh Waitzkin’s Attacking Chess. Since the age of twenty, he has developed and been spokesperson for Chessmaster, the largest computer chess program in the world. Now a martial arts champion, he holds a combined twenty-one National Championship titles in addition to several World Championship titles. When not traveling the country giving seminars and keynote presentations, he lives and trains in New York City. He can be reached at www.joshwaitzkin.com. For more information about Chessmaster visit www.ubi.com.
Chess Players, Personal Transformation, Self-Help, Memoirs, Psychology, Personal Development, Education, Biography, Philosophy, Productivity, Business, Exercise, Learning, Meditation, Psychology of Education, Tai chi, Sports, Outdoors
Table of Contents
1. Innocent Moves
2. Losing to Win
3. Two Approaches to Learning
4. Loving the Game
5. The Soft Zone
6. The Downward Spiral
7. Changing Voice
8. Breaking Stallions
MY SECOND ART
9. Beginner’s Mind
10. Investment in Loss
11. Making Smaller Circles
12. Using Adversity
13. Slowing Down Time
14. The Illusion of the Mystical
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
15. The Power of Presence
16. Searching for the Zone
17. Building Your Trigger
18. Making Sandals
19. Bringing It All Together
About the Author
In his riveting new book, The Art of Learning, Waitzkin tells his remarkable story of personal achievement and shares the principles of learning and performance that have propelled him to the top—twice.
Josh Waitzkin knows what it means to be at the top of his game. A public figure since winning his first National Chess Championship at the age of nine, Waitzkin was catapulted into a media whirlwind as a teenager when his father’s book Searching for Bobby Fischer was made into a major motion picture. After dominating the scholastic chess world for ten years, Waitzkin expanded his horizons, taking on the martial art Tai Chi Chuan and ultimately earning the title of World Champion. How was he able to reach the pinnacle of two disciplines that on the surface seem so different? “I’ve come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess,” he says. “What I am best at is the art of learning.”
With a narrative that combines heart-stopping martial arts wars and tense chess face-offs with life lessons that speak to all of us, The Art of Learning takes readers through Waitzkin’s unique journey to excellence. He explains in clear detail how a well-thought-out, principled approach to learning is what separates success from failure. Waitzkin believes that achievement, even at the championship level, is a function of a lifestyle that fuels a creative, resilient growth process. Rather than focusing on climactic wins, Waitzkin reveals the inner workings of his everyday method, from systematically triggering intuitive breakthroughs, to honing techniques into states of remarkable potency, to mastering the art of performance psychology.
Through his own example, Waitzkin explains how to embrace defeat and make mistakes work for you. Does your opponent make you angry? Waitzkin describes how to channel emotions into creative fuel. As he explains it, obstacles are not obstacles but challenges to overcome, to spur the growth process by turning weaknesses into strengths. He illustrates the exact routines that he has used in all of his competitions, whether mental or physical, so that you too can achieve your peak performance zone in any competitive or professional circumstance.
In stories ranging from his early years taking on chess hustlers as a seven year old in New York City’s Washington Square Park, to dealing with the pressures of having a film made about his life, to International Chess Championships in India, Hungary, and Brazil, to gripping battles against powerhouse fighters in Taiwan in the Push Hands World Championships, The Art of Learning encapsulates an extraordinary competitor’s life lessons in a page-turning narrative.
“This is a really superb book, one I wish someone had given to me long ago. The title is accurate — at a profound level, it’s about real learning from hard conflict rather than from disinterested textbooks. It will take a ferocious interruption to make you put this book down.” — Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance
“We all remember the portrayal of Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. He was a very impressive child who continues to impress with The Art of Learning. Through a unique set of experiences, Waitzkin has formed an original and outstanding perspective. From chess to Tai Chi, he provides tools that allow all of us to improve ourselves every day.” — Cal Ripken, Jr., 2007 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee
“Waitzkin’s in-depth look into the mental side of his success in both chess and martial arts is an inspiring and absorbing read. I strongly recommend it for anyone who lives in a world of competition, whether it’s sports or business or anywhere else. It’s also a great training tool for kids aspiring to reach the pinnacle of their chosen fields.” — Mark Messier, 6-time Stanley Cup Champion
“Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning is a testimonial to the timeless principle of ‘do less and accomplish more.’ Highly recommended for those who want to understand the power of consciousness.” — Deepak Chopra
“Absolutely brilliant immersion into the phenomenon of human mastery. Waitzkin brings laser clarity and penetrating insights into the delicate mind, body, spirit interactions fundamental to extraordinary achievement in most any area of life. This is a journey worth taking.” — Jim Loehr, Chairman and CEO, The Human Performance Institute, and coauthor, The Power of Full Engagement
“The Art of Learning succeeds on every level, combining a truly compelling auto-biography with profound philosophical and psychological insights all wrapped in a practical how-to framework. This is a must-read for anyone wishing to achieve that rare combination of success and fulfillment.” — Paul Blease, SVP, Director, Team Development & Consulting, Citigroup Smith Barney
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One has to investigate the principle in one thing or one event exhaustively . . . Things and the self are governed by the same principle. If you understand one, you understand the other, for the truth within and the truth without are identical.
— Er Cheng Yishu, 11th century
Finals: Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships
Hsinchuang Stadium, Taipei, Taiwan
December 5, 2004
Forty seconds before round two, and I’m lying on my back trying to breathe. Pain all through me. Deep breath. Let it go. I won’t be able to lift my shoulder tomorrow, it won’t heal for over a year, but now it pulses, alive, and I feel the air vibrating around me, the stadium shaking with chants, in Mandarin, not for me. My teammates are kneeling above me, looking worried. They rub my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The bell rings. I hear my dad’s voice in the stands, ‘C’mon Josh!’ Gotta get up. I watch my opponent run to the center of the ring. He screams, pounds his chest. The fans explode. They call him Buffalo. Bigger than me, stronger, quick as a cat. But I can take him — if I make it to the middle of the ring without falling over. I have to dig deep, bring it up from somewhere right now. Our wrists touch, the bell rings, and he hits me like a Mack truck.
Who could have guessed it would come to this? Just a few years earlier I had been competing around the world in elite chess tournaments. Since I was eight years old, I had consistently been the highest rated player for my age in the United States, and my life was dominated by competitions and training regimens designed to bring me into peak form for the next national or world championship. I had spent the years between ages fifteen and eighteen in the maelstrom of American media following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on my dad’s book about my early chess life. I was known as America’s great young chess player and was told that it was my destiny to follow in the footsteps of immortals like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, to be world champion.
But there were problems. 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.
I recall one tournament in Las Vegas: I was a young International Master in a field of a thousand competitors including twenty-six strong Grandmasters from around the world. As an up-and-coming player, I had huge respect for the great sages around me. I had studied their masterpieces for hundreds of hours and was awed by the artistry of these men. Before first-round play began I was seated at my board, deep in thought about my opening preparation, when the public address system announced that the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer was at the event. A tournament director placed a poster of the movie next to my table, and immediately a sea of fans surged around the ropes separating the top boards from the audience. As the games progressed, when I rose to clear my mind young girls gave me their phone numbers and asked me to autograph their stomachs or legs.
This might sound like a dream for a seventeen-year-old boy, and I won’t deny enjoying the attention, but professionally it was a nightmare. My game began to unravel. I caught myself thinking about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some of them treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.
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.
Then when I was eighteen years old I stumbled upon a little book called the Tao Te Ching, and my life took a turn. I was moved by the book’s natural wisdom and I started delving into other Buddhist and Taoist philosophical texts. I recognized that being at the pinnacle in other people’s eyes had nothing to do with quality of life, and I was drawn to the potential for inner tranquility.
On October 5, 1998, I walked into William C. C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan studio in downtown Manhattan and found myself surrounded by peacefully concentrating men and women floating through a choreographed set of movements. I was used to driven chess players cultivating tunnel vision in order to win the big game, but now the focus was on bodily awareness, as if there were some inner bliss that resulted from mindfully moving slowly in strange ways.
I began taking classes and after a few weeks I found myself practicing the meditative movements for hours at home. Given the complicated nature of my chess life, it was beautifully liberating to be learning in an environment in which I was simply one of the beginners — and something felt right about this art. I was amazed by the way my body pulsed with life when flowing through the ancient steps, as if I were tapping into a primal alignment.
My teacher, the world-renowned Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, spent months with me in beginner classes, patiently correcting my movements. In a room with fifteen new students, Chen would look into my eyes from twenty feet away, quietly assume my posture, and relax his elbow a half inch one way or another. I would follow his subtle instruction and suddenly my hand would come alive with throbbing energy as if he had plugged me into a soothing electrical current. His insight into body mechanics seemed magical, but perhaps equally impressive was Chen’s humility. Here was a man thought by many to be the greatest living Tai Chi Master in the world, and he patiently taught first-day novices with the same loving attention he gave his senior students.
I learned quickly, and became fascinated with the growth that I was experiencing. Since I was twelve years old I had kept journals of my chess study, making psychological observations along the way — now I was doing the same with Tai Chi.
After about six months of refining my form (the choreographed movements that are the heart of Tai Chi Chuan), Master Chen invited me to join the Push Hands class. This was very exciting, my baby steps toward the martial side of the art. In my first session, my teacher and I stood facing each other, each of us with our right leg forward and the backs of our right wrists touching. He told me to push into him, but when I did he wasn’t there anymore. I felt sucked forward, as if by a vacuum. I stumbled and scratched my head. Next, he gently pushed into me and I tried to get out of the way but didn’t know where to go. Finally I fell back on old instincts, tried to resist the incoming force, and with barely any contact Chen sent me flying into the air.
Over time, Master Chen taught me the body mechanics of nonresistance. As my training became more vigorous, I learned to dissolve away from attacks while staying rooted to the ground. I found myself calculating less and feeling more, and as I internalized the physical techniques all the little movements of the Tai Chi meditative form started to come alive to me in Push Hands practice. I remember one time, in the middle of a sparring session I sensed a hole in my partner’s structure and suddenly he seemed to leap away from me. He looked shocked and told me that he had been pushed away, but he hadn’t noticed any explosive movement on my part. I had no idea what to make of this, but slowly I began to realize the martial power of my living room meditation sessions. After thousands of slow-motion, ever-refined repetitions of certain movements, my body could become that shape instinctively. Somehow in Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect.
This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied techniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside Tai Chi and chess couldn’t be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into Tai Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying Tai Chi. Once I was giving a forty-board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai Chi. I wasn’t calculating with chess notation or thinking about opening variations . . . I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess.
Similarly, I would be in a Push Hands competition and time would seem to slow down enough to allow me to methodically take apart my opponent’s structure and uncover his vulnerability, as in a chess game. My fascination with consciousness, study of chess and Tai Chi, love for literature and the ocean, for meditation and philosophy, all coalesced around the theme of tapping into the mind’s potential via complete immersion into one and all activities. My growth became defined by barrierlessness. Pure concentration didn’t allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.
As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences. I remember sitting on a Bermuda cliff one stormy afternoon, watching waves pound into the rocks. I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions. Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments. After several years of cloudiness, I was flying free, devouring information, completely in love with learning.
Before I began to conceive of this book, I was content to understand my growth in the martial arts in a very abstract manner. I related to my experience with language like parallel learning and translation of level. I felt as though I had transferred the essence of my chess understanding into my Tai Chi practice. But this didn’t make much sense, especially outside of my own head. What does essence really mean anyway? And how does one transfer it from a mental to a physical discipline?
These questions became the central preoccupation in my life after I won my first Push Hands National Championship in November 2000. At the time I was studying philosophy at Columbia University and was especially drawn to Asian thought. I discovered some interesting foundations for my experience in ancient Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Greek texts — Upanishadic essence, Taoist receptivity, Neo-Confucian principle, Buddhist nonduality, and the Platonic forms all seemed to be a bizarre cross-cultural trace of what I was searching for. Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language — when I spoke about intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning. The need for precision forced me to think about these ideas more concretely. I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, quality, principle, intuition, and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it.
As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery. Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a “C” while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost. The problem is that if you want to write an instructional chess book for beginners, you have to dig up all the stuff that is buried in your unconscious — I had this issue when I wrote my first book, Attacking Chess. In order to write for beginners, I had to break down my chess knowledge incrementally, whereas for years I had been cultivating a seamless integration of the critical information.
The same pattern can be seen when the art of learning is analyzed: themes can be internalized, lived by, and forgotten. I figured out how to learn efficiently in the brutally competitive world of chess, where a moment without growth spells a front-row seat to rivals mercilessly passing you by. Then I intuitively applied my hard-earned lessons to the martial arts. I avoided the pitfalls and tempting divergences that a learner is confronted with, but I didn’t really think about them because the road map was deep inside me — just like the chess principles.
Since I decided to write this book, I have analyzed myself, taken my knowledge apart, and rigorously investigated my own experience. Speaking to corporate and academic audiences about my learning experience has also challenged me to make my ideas more accessible. Whenever there was a concept or learning technique that I related to in a manner too abstract to convey, I forced myself to break it down into the incremental steps with which I got there. Over time I began to see the principles that have been silently guiding me, and a systematic methodology of learning emerged.
My chess life began in Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village, and took me on a sixteen-year-roller-coaster ride, through world championships in America, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, and India, through every kind of heartache and ecstasy a competitor can imagine. In recent years, my Tai Chi life has become a dance of meditation and intense martial competition, of pure growth and the observation, testing, and exploration of that learning process. I have currently won thirteen Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Championship titles, placed third in the 2002 World Championship in Taiwan, and in 2004 I won the Chung Hwa Cup International in Taiwan, the World Championship of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands.
A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else. After so many years of big games, performing under pressure has become a way of life. Presence under fire hardly feels different from the presence I feel sitting at my computer, typing these sentences. 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.