The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin

Highly recommended. Many of us make mistakes in their approach to learning. As someone who struggled with perfectionism, this book helped me realize I was more concerned with how I looked to others, more than my actual performance. It was the breakthrough I needed in business, health, and other pursuits.

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Key points

Highlights and notes

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.

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.

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.

The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning.

Children who associate success with hard work tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situations, while children who see themselves as just plain “smart” or “dumb,” or “good” or “bad” at something, have a “learned helplessness orientation.”

In fact, some of the brightest kids prove to be the most vulnerable to becoming helpless, because they feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered.

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. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

If a businessperson cultivates a perfectionist self-image, then how can she learn from her mistakes?

One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline—whether we are speaking about sports, business negotiations, or even presidential debates—is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.

A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication.

Her reaction was a perfect parallel to the chess player’s downward spiral—after making an error, it is so easy to cling to the emotional comfort zone of what was, but there is also that unsettling sense that things have changed for the worse. The clear thinker is suddenly at war with himself and flow is lost.

The more I knew about the game, the more I realized how much there was to know.

A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.

Razuvaev’s method depends upon a keen appreciation for each student’s personality and chessic predispositions. Yuri has an amazing psychological acumen, and his instructional style begins with a close study of his student’s chess games. In remarkably short order, he discovers the core of the player’s style and the obstructions that are blocking pure self-expression. Then he devises an individualized training program that systematically deepens the student’s knowledge of chess while nurturing his or her natural gifts.

I was told to ask myself, “What would Karpov play here?” and I stopped trusting my intuition because it was not naturally Karpovian.

If aggression meets empty space it tends to defeat itself.

Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process. In Push Hands it is letting yourself be pushed without reverting back to old habits—training yourself to be soft and receptive when your body doesn’t have any idea how to do it and wants to tighten up.

While I learned with open pores—no ego in the way—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 made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked up by the need to be correct.

So the aim is to minimize repetition as much as possible, by having an eye for consistent psychological and technical themes of error.

It’s clear that if in the beginning I had needed to look good to satisfy my ego, then I would have avoided that opportunity and all the pain that accompanied it. For his part, Evan was big and strong, and to an inexperienced martial artist he was terrifying, but his forceful approach held him back from internalizing some of the more subtle elements of the art. Most critically, Evan was unwilling to invest in loss himself. He could have taken my improvement as a chance to raise his game, but instead he opted out.

The secret behind this style of play is a profound internalization of the principles behind central domination.

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.

I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.

Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

The importance of undulating between external and internal (or concrete and abstract; technical and intuitive) training applies to all disciplines, and unfortunately the internal tends to be neglected.

They had two hands, I had one, and they intended to exploit the advantage. Clearly, I had to approach these situations with openness to being tossed around. If I wasn’t prepared to invest in loss, there would be no way to do this work.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

But I was off-balance and once again resorted to using my will to block everything out. Instead of rolling with the new vibe of my life, I handled the pressures by putting huge amounts of energy into each chess game.

Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen.

regardless of the discipline, the better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress.

So, if you are reading a book and lose focus, put the book down, take some deep breaths, and pick it up again with a fresh eye. If you are at work and find yourself running out of mental stamina, take a break, wash your face, and come back renewed.

The unconscious mind is a powerful tool, and learning how to relax under pressure is a key first step to tapping into its potential.

Interval work is a critical building block to becoming a consistent long-term performer. If you spend a few months practicing stress and recovery in your everyday life, you’ll lay the physiological foundation for becoming a resilient, dependable pressure player.

This tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive.

Some fighters keep themselves in a state of feverish alertness, always poised for action for fear their moment might come and they won’t be ready. The more seasoned competitors relax, listen to headphones, and nap. They don’t burn through their tanks before stepping on the mats.

Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin.

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on.

The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.

The ideal for any performer is flexibility. If you have optimal conditions, then it is always great to take your time and go through an extended routine. If things are less organized, then be prepared with a flexible state of mind and a condensed routine.

The first step I had to make was to recognize that the problem was mine, not Frank’s. There will always be creeps in the world, and I had to learn how to deal with them with a cool head.

order to make those steps I had to recognize the relationship between anger, ego, and fear. I had to develop the habit of taking on my technical weaknesses whenever someone pushed my limits instead of falling back into a self-protective indignant pose. Once that adjustment was made, I was free to learn. If someone got into my head, they were doing me a favor, exposing a weakness. They were giving me a valuable opportunity to expand my threshold for turbulence. Dirty players were my best teachers.

The only way to succeed is to acknowledge reality and funnel it, take the nerves and use them. We must be prepared for imperfection. If we rely on having no nerves, on not being thrown off by a big miss, or on the exact replication of a certain mindset, then when the pressure is high enough, or when the pain is too piercing to ignore, our ideal state will shatter.

Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their initial gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration.

Once we build our tolerance for turbulence and are no longer upended by the swells of our emotional life, we can ride them and even pick up speed with their slopes.

But how do you play your best when there is no one around to provide motivation? There is no cookie-cutter mold to inspiration. There is, however, a process we can follow to discover our unique path. First, we cultivate The Soft Zone, we sit with our emotions, observe them, work with them, learn how to let them float away if they are rocking our boat, and how to use them when they are fueling our creativity. Then we turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no denial of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels into focus. Next we discover what emotional states trigger our greatest performances. This is truly a personal question. Some of us will be most creative when ebullient, others when morose. To each his own. Introspect. Then Make Sandals, become your own earthquake, Spike Lee, or tailing fastball. Discover what states work best for you and, like Kasparov, build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.

In my experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities.

The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.

When I think about creativity, it is always in relation to a foundation. We have our knowledge. It becomes deeply internalized until we can access it without thinking about it. Then we have a leap that uses what we know to go one or two steps further.