Review: The Art of Learning

Matt | Books: Art of Learning | Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Recently I was reading one of my normal morning round up blogs, Tim Ferris’s Blog,TheFourHourWorkWeek, and something caught my eye that I couldn’t ignore; it was as if a book, an idea was written just for me, just for this moment in my life. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with learning, martial arts, and Daoism (Taoism) how there is a life force that the world flows around. And on Tim Ferris’s blog had an interview with a man by the name of Josh Waitzkin who had learned all these areas and more.

After reading the blog, I had to find out more, so the rest of my morning disappeared as I felt I had to find out everything I could about Josh Waitzkin. I searched every site about him and read or watched just about everything I could and of course I ordered his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

Josh Waitzkin went from mastering chess to mastering Tai Ji Chuan and martial arts, to becoming a world champion of martial arts, has mastered how people learn things and some could say he is mastering the art of writing in his book called The Art of Learning. As an English teacher, who enjoys learning and is very interested in learning martial arts and Tai Ji Chuan, I will look into his book in more detail below.

Josh is obviously a brilliant man, who’s been studying and pushing himself from a young age. He was often called a prodigy, a term he hated because I believe this term cheats him of the reality that he worked his butt off to be the best in the world. He started by following his passion of chess at the age of 6; to studying with the best teachers for over 10 years; to competing against the best; to pushing oneself to the limits and beyond; to learning and becoming a martial arts world champion. Now he’s written a fantastic book, let’s dig in for a deeper look.


“Once he had won my trust (his first chess coach), Bruce taught me by allowing me to express myself. I loved this as a teacher the first step is to earn the trust or respect of your students. Then it’s to help them express themselves in whatever art you’re teaching.


I my opinion, this chapter and book should be read by every educator, coach and teacher before they attempt to teach anyone anything. Here Josh talks about the different way children are raised to believe in either the:

Entity theory of intelligence – that you are “smart at this” or “not good at that”, that you are good at math, sports or music just because you are, or,

Incremental theory of intelligence. That you “got it because you worked very hard at it” or “You should have tried harder”. That the reason you did well was because you practiced harder or smarter than the others.

Josh mentioned that sometimes it’s the subtle differences in the way you are raised or reinforced that makes someone believe in one theory versus the other. But that the outcome is huge. That if someone believes in the entity theory and then fails often they are crushed and pack it in and quit. While if you believe in the life long process, the incremental theory you can adjust and move on, while continually progressing towards your goal.

This chapter hit me like a sledgehammer against my skull. I’ve mostly chosen the entity theory – I’m good at sports and maths – while at times I’d think about why. Looking back the real reason I was good at sports was because I had played hours and hours of sports; I’d often do sports drills, by myself in the backyard for hours on end. Or I’d practice my maths doing my homework for hours, because my folks said I was good at maths. I didn’t realize that it was the time invested, the practice, which made the difference.

… “Enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.”

… “The fact of the matter is there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lives at the outer reaches of our abilities.”


“I took the bull by the horns and began training to have a more resilient concentration…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.” Here Josh was talking about his chess tournaments, but I couldn’t help but be in awe of how aware this kid was at the time he was a teenager, but was preparing like a professional. I guess that’s because he was a pro. He started when he was 6, so by the time he was 16, after 10 years of intense study he was a professional. Still I was amazed at his awareness at 7 or 8 years of age.


In this chapter, he talks about the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. Everyone who’s watched a sporting match has seen this momentum shift. Josh talks of how it’s vital to be present in critical moments and how that can turn losses into wins. His tips that he gave his students were to take 2-3 deep breaths or to splash cold water on their faces to snap out of a bad state of mind, to even going outside and doing 50 yard wind sprints.


At one point, Josh took on some new coaches who tried to change him into a different chess player only to have bad results. He talks of how “it’s critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.” I’ve seen this in sports as well, how coaches will try to retrain players to copy the perfect form. In trying to become something they are not the athlete forgets how to play altogether.


As a lover of martial arts and Asian studies I really enjoyed Josh’s descriptions of him becoming a martial arts world champion. I quite enjoyed how he described how kung fu masters were seen to have mystical powers, but in reality it was simply that they cultivated or practiced their skills to the point where people whose skills were below them couldn’t see why they were so good, so they assumed it was mystical.

Also, he talked about the importance of video-taping progress to self evaluate was shown here, which I also truly believe in.

My big takeaways from this book were:

  • Form leaves form, numbers leave numbers – that one practices the forms, be in blocking and tackling in American football, of verb conjugations in French or, Opening and Closing positions in chess, but when the real thing happens, when you are “ready” you don’t think of the forms, or numbers, but you just flow you just react and that is when you are in the zone.
  • You can learn anything incrementally, not because you are smart or dumb at it, but only if you learn whatever you want to in the best way that you learn; by seeking out teachers/mentors who can bring out your natural talents; by you challenging yourself by competing and learning from people better than you; by you analyzing your wins and losses (preferably on tape) to find out exactly why you won or lost.

From my lengthy review you can imagine that I truly loved the flavor of this book and that I highly recommend it for any of you who want to learn, to mentor or to teach anyone anything.

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