Art of Learning Cover

Art of Learning - By Josh Waitzkin

Date read: 
July 15, 2015
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My Thoughts

A masterclass in the art of (meta-)learning, presented as an autobiography. Offers dozens of lessons and principles Josh used to master chess and tai-chi, but wasn't always as applicable or concrete as I'd like.

Summary Notes

the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. Children who are “entity theorists”—that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner—are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning—let’s call them learning theorists —are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped—step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

when challenged by difficult material, learning theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are more brittle and prone to quit. 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.”

Entity theorists tend to have been told that they did well when they have succeeded, and that they weren’t any good at something when they have failed.

Learning theorists, on the other hand, are given feedback that is more process-oriented.

questions any time after class, that’s what I’m here for!” So Julie learns to associate effort with success and feels that she can become good at anything with some hard work. She also feels as though she is on a journey of learning, and her teacher is a friendly assistant in her growth.

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.

That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can spring from. Someone stuck with an entity theory of intelligence is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.

Bruce began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king—just three pieces on the table. Over time, I gained an excellent intuitive feel for the power of the king and the subtlety of the pawn.

Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight . Then we turned to rook endings, bishop endings, knight endings, spending hundreds of hours as I turned seven and eight years old, exploring the operating principles behind positions that I might never see again.

I learned from the foundation up.

Why not begin from the beginning, especially if it leads to instant success? The answer is quicksand. Once you start with openings, there is no way out.

Many kids like this are quite talented, so they excel at first because of good genes—but then they hit a roadblock. As chess struggles become more intense and opponents put up serious resistance, they start to lose interest in the game. They try to avoid challenges, but eventually the real world finds them. Their confidence is fragile. Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth—if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser.

If a young basketball player is taught that winning is the only thing that winners do, then he will crumble when he misses his first big shot.

The first obstacle I had to overcome as a young chess player was to avoid being distracted by random, unexpected events—by the mini earthquakes that afflict all of our days.

The nature of your state of concentration will determine the first phase of your reaction—if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure. The alternative is for you to be quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face, but inside all the mental juices are churning. You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.

the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have a more resilient concentration. 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.

A few times a week, while studying chess in my bedroom, I blasted music. Sometimes it was music I liked, sometimes music I didn’t like.

My idea was to become at peace with distraction, whatever it was. During this period of time, in my early teens, I frequented chess shops near my home and played speed chess in clouds of smoke, which I have always hated. Of course I also played in Washington Square Park, where consistent kibitzing and a steady stream of chess banter is part of the game. There was no blocking out the noise or smoke, and my only option was to integrate my environment into my creative process.

Opponents felt helpless and wronged—they took on the mentality of victim and so half the battle was already lost.

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.

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.

My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.

At a high level, pressing for wins in equal positions often results in losing.

with improvisations that shine with immediacy and life. Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication.

where the technical and psychological collide, are where I directed my study of the game. In the course of a nine-round chess tournament, I’d arrive at around four or five critical positions that I didn’t quite understand or in which I made an error. Immediately after each of my games, I quickly entered the moves into my computer, noting my thought process and how I felt emotionally at various stages of the battle. Then after the tournament, armed with these fresh impressions, I went back to Vrholvje and studied the critical moments. This was the work that I referred to in the Introduction as numbers to leave numbers . Usually long study sessions went like this: I began with the critical position from one of my games, where my intuitive understanding had not been up to the challenge.

Then I began to move, recalling my attacking ideas in the struggle and how nothing had fully connected. I tried to pick apart my opponent’s position and discovered new layers of his defensive resources, all the while my mind thawing, integrating the evolving structural dynamics it had not quite understood before.

Sometimes the study would take six hours in one sitting, sometimes thirty hours over a week. I felt like I was living, breathing, sleeping in that maze, and then, as if from nowhere, all the complications dissolved and I understood. When I looked at the critical position from my tournament game, what had stumped me a few days or hours or weeks before now seemed perfectly apparent. I saw the best move, felt the correct plan, understood the evaluation of the position. I couldn’t explain this new knowledge with variations or words. It felt more elemental, like rippling water or a light breeze. My chess intuition had deepened. This was the study of numbers to leave numbers .*

I was just having trouble with transitions. It was amazing how clearly this manifested on the chessboard. For a period of time, almost all my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or preceding a big change.

My whole chess psychology was about holding on to what was, because I was fundamentally homesick. When I finally noticed this connection, I tackled transitions in both chess and life. In chess games, I would take some deep breaths and clear my mind when the character of the struggle shifted. In life, I worked on embracing change instead of fighting it. With awareness and action, in both life and chess my weakness was transformed into a strength.

Whenever I noticed a weakness, I took it on.

I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off—no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating. While a child can make the beam a playground, high-stress performers often transform the beam into a tightrope. Any slip becomes a crisis. Suddenly you have everything to lose,

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

I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition.

Razuvaev’s point was that the great attacking players all possess keen understanding of positional chess, and the way for someone like myself to study high-level positional chess is to study the way the great players of my nature have integrated this element of the art.

In most everyday life experiences, there seems to be a tangible connection between opposites. Consider how you may not realize how much someone’s companionship means to you until they are gone—heartbreak can give the greatest insight into the value of love. Think about how good a healthy leg feels after an extended time on crutches—sickness is the most potent ambassador for healthy living. Who knows water like a man dying of thirst? The human mind defines things in relation to one another—without light the notion of darkness would be unintelligible

The path to artistic insight in one direction often involves deep study of another—the

creative leaps are grounded in a technical foundation.

A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but not so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.

The martial philosophy behind Push Hands, in the language of the Tai Chi Classics, is “to defeat a thousand pounds with four ounces.”

If aggression meets empty space it tends to defeat itself.

one of the most challenging leaps for Push Hands students is to release the ego enough to allow themselves to be tossed around while they learn how not to resist . If a big strong guy comes into a martial arts studio and someone pushes him, he wants to resist and push the guy back to prove that he is a big strong guy. The problem is that he isn’t learning anything by doing this. In order to grow, he needs to give up his current mind-set. He needs to lose to win. The bruiser will need to get pushed around by little guys for a while, until he learns how to use more than brawn. William Chen calls this investment in loss . 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.

around—Push Hands class was humility training.

I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice—both technical and psychological—he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field. Of course such a feat is impossible—we are bound to repeat thematic errors, if only because many themes are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.

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.

In all disciplines, there are times when a performer is ready for action, and times when he or she is soft, in flux, broken-down or in a period of growth. Learners in this phase are inevitably vulnerable. It is important to have perspective on this and allow yourself protected periods for cultivation.

it is essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in a peak performance state.

The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.

Everyone races to learn more and more, but nothing is done deeply. Things look pretty but they are superficial, without a sound body mechanic or principled foundation. Nothing is learned at a high level and what results are form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value.

I practiced the Tai Chi meditative form diligently, many hours a day. At times I repeated segments of the form over and over, honing certain techniques while refining my body mechanics and deepening my sense of relaxation. I focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving my hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting my feet to my fingertips with less and less obstruction. Practicing in this manner, I was able to sharpen my feeling for Tai Chi. When through painstaking refinement of a small movement I had the improved feeling, I could translate it onto other parts of the form, and suddenly everything would start flowing at a higher level.

This method is similar to my early study of chess, where I explored endgame positions of reduced complexity—for example king and pawn against king, only three pieces on the board—in order to touch high-level principles

Once I experienced these principles, I could apply them to complex positions because they were in my mental framework.

It would be absurd to try to teach a new figure skater the principle of relaxation on the ice by launching straight into triple axels. She 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.

The next phase of my martial growth would involve turning the large into the small. My understanding of this process, in the spirit of my numbers to leave numbers method of chess study, is to touch the essence (for example, highly refined and deeply internalized body mechanics or feeling ) of a technique, and then to incrementally condense the external manifestation of the technique while keeping true to its essence. Over time expansiveness decreases while potency increases. I call this method “Making Smaller Circles.”

First, I practice the motion over and over in slow motion. We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.

The key is to take small steps, so the body can barely feel the condensing practice.

players tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned.

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

all athletic disciplines, it is the internal work that makes the physical mat time click,

If your goal is to be mediocre, then you have a considerable margin for error.

In my martial arts life, every time I tweak my body, well-intended people like my mother suggest I take a few weeks off training. What they don’t realize is that if I were to stop training whenever something hurt, I would spend my whole year on the couch.

there are times when the body needs to heal, but those are ripe opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal side of my game.

You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.

Even people who are completely devoted to cultivating a certain discipline often fall into a mental rut, a disengaged lifestyle that implies excellence can be obtained by going through the motions. We lose presence. Then an injury or some other kind of setback throws a wrench into the gears. We are forced to get imaginative. Ultimately we should learn how to use the lessons from this type of experience without needing to get injured: a basketball player should play lefty for a few months, to even out his game.

Once we learn how to use adversity to our advantage, we can manufacture the helpful growth opportunity without actual danger or injury. I call this tool the internal solution —we can notice external events that trigger helpful growth or performance opportunities, and then internalize the effects of those events without their actually happening.

my vision of the road to mastery—you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point.

chunking relates to the mind’s ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logically consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were a single piece of information.

The stronger chess player is often the one who is less attached to a dogmatic interpretation of the principles.

Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.

Most people would be surprised to discover that if you compare the thought process of a Grandmaster to that of an expert (a much weaker, but quite competent chess player), you will often find that the Grandmaster consciously looks at less, not more. That said, the chunks of information that have been put together in his mind allow him to see much more with much less conscious thought. So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot. This is the critical idea.*

If the opponent’s movement is quick, then quickly respond; if his movement is slow, then follow slowly.

It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one’s relationship to discomfort? The reaction to surprise? The need for control?

virtually every competitive physical discipline, if you are a master of reading and manipulating footwork, then you are a force to be reckoned with.

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

In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives.

Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for

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.

The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players 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.

If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.

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.

As we get better and better at releasing tension and coming back with a full tank of gas in our everyday activities, both physical and mental, we will gain confidence in our abilities to move back and forth between concentration, adrenaline flow, physical exertion (any kind of stress), and relaxation.

Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice.

or eating pattern, he just couldn’t make it work. Ideally, Dennis said he would like to have a song that slipped him into the zone. What should he do?

My method is to work backward and create the trigger. I asked Dennis when he felt closest to serene focus in his life. He thought for a moment and told me it was when he played catch with his twelve-year-old son, Jack. He fell into a blissful state when tossing a baseball with his boy, and nothing else in the world seemed to exist.

it doesn’t matter what your serene activity is. Whether you feel most relaxed and focused while taking a bath, jogging, swimming, listening to classical music, or singing in the shower, any such activity can take the place of Dennis’s catch with his son.

The next step was to create a four- or five-step routine. Dennis had already mentioned music, meditation, stretching, and eating. I suggested that an hour before the next time he played catch with his son, Dennis should eat a light snack. We decided on a blended fruit and soy shake that he enjoyed making in his kitchen. Then he would go into a quiet room and do a fifteen-minute breathing exercise

Dennis has had a light snack and done some breathing exercises. After these twenty-five minutes, the next step would be a ten-minute stretching routine from his high school football days.

we created the following routine: Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes 15 minutes of meditation 10 minutes of stretching 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan Play ball For about a month, Dennis went through his routine every day before playing catch with his son. Each step of the routine was natural for him, and playing ball was always a joy, so there was no strain to the experience.

Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge.

what good is a thirty- or forty-five-minute routine if you only have minutes or seconds of warning before the big event?

Let’s return to Dennis. Where we left off, his routine was as follows: Eat a light consistent snack for ten minutes 15 minutes of meditation 10 minutes of stretching 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan

The next step of the process is to gradually alter the routine so that it is similar enough so as to have the same physiological effect, but slightly different so as to make the “trigger”both lower-maintenance and more flexible.

Dennis started doing his routine every day before work, the only difference being that he would eat a larger breakfast than the light snack, and he would listen to Dylan during his short drive to the office. Steps two and three took place at home, after breakfast, as originally planned.

Next, for a few days, Dennis meditated for twelve minutes instead of fifteen. He still came out in the same great state of mind. Then he stretched for eight minutes, instead of ten. Same presence. Then he changed the order of the stretch and meditation. No problem. Over time, slowly but surely, Dennis condensed his stretching and meditation routine down to just a few minutes. Then he would listen to Bob Dylan and be ready to roll. If he wasn’t hungry, he could do without the snack altogether. His routine had been condensed to around twelve minutes and was more potent than ever. Dennis left it at that because he loved Dylan so much, but the next step would have been to gradually listen to less and less music, until he only had to think about the tune to click into the zone.

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.

First, we learn to flow with distraction, like that blade of grass bending to the wind. Then we learn to use distraction, inspiring ourselves with what initially would have thrown us off our games. Finally we learn to re-create the inspiring settings internally. We learn to make sandals.

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.

The beautiful thing about this approach to learning is that once we have felt the profound refinement of a skill, no matter how small it may be, we can then use that feeling as a beacon of quality as we expand our focus onto more and more material. Once you know what good feels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.

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