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Last Updated on November 14, 2019

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

Review of Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  New York: Free Press, 2007.

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35.  The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.  Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

    Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

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    The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

    According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

    He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

    Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

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    Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
    where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

    A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

    “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  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.”

    This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

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    Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

    Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

    There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

    Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

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    This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

    There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

    The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.  Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

    The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.  I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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    Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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    Art Carden

    Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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    Last Updated on January 2, 2020

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    Over time, we all gather a set of constricting habits around us—ones that trap us in a zone of supposed comfort, well below what our potential would allow us to attain. Pretty soon, such habits slip below the level of our consciousness, but they still determine what we think that we can and cannot do—and what we cannot even bring ourselves to try. As long as you let these habits rule you, you’ll be stuck in a rut.

    Like the tiny, soft bodied creatures that build coral reefs, habits start off small and flexible, and end up by building massive barriers of rock all around your mind. Inside the reefs, the water feels quiet and friendly. Outside, you think it’s going to be rough and stormy. There may be sharks. But if you’re to develop in any direction from where you are today, you must go outside that reef of habits that marks the boundaries of your comfort zone. There’s no other way. There’s even nothing specially wrong with those habits as such. They probably worked for you in the past.

    But now, it’s time to step over them and go into the wider world of your unused potential. Your fears don’t know what’s going to be out there, so they invent monsters and scary beasts to keep you inside.

    Nobody’s born with an instruction manual for life. Despite all the helpful advice from parents, teachers and elders, each of us must make our own way in the world, doing the best we can and quite often getting things wrong.

    Messing up a few times isn’t that big a deal. But if you get scared and try to avoid all mistakes by sticking with just a few “tried and true” behaviors, you’ll miss out on most opportunities as well.

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    Lots of people who suffer from boredom at work are doing it to themselves. They’re bored and frustrated because that’s what their choices have caused them to be. They’re stuck in ruts they’ve dug for themselves while trying to avoid making mistakes and taking risks. People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.

    It’s time to pin down the habits that have become unconscious and are running your life for you, and get rid of them. Here’s how to do it:

    1. Understand the Truth about Your Habits

    They always represent past successes. You have formed habitual, automatic behaviors because you once dealt with something successfully, tried the same response next time, and found it worked again. That’s how habits grow and why they feel so useful.

    To get away from what’s causing your unhappiness and workplace blues, you must give up on many of your most fondly held (and formerly successful) habits. and try new ways of thinking and acting. There truly isn’t any alternative. Those habits are going to block you from finding new and creative ideas. No new ideas, no learning. No learning, no access to successful change.

    2. Do Something—Almost Anything—Differently and See What Happens

    Even the most successful habits eventually lose their usefulness as events change the world and fresh responses are called for. Yet we cling on to them long after their benefit has gone.

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    Past strategies are bound to fail sometime. Letting them become automatic habits that take the controls is a sure road to self-inflicted harm.

    3. Take Some Time out and Have a Detailed Look at Yourself—With No Holds Barred

    Discovering your unconscious habits can be tough. For a start, they’re unconscious, right? Then they fight back.

    Ask anyone who has ever given up smoking if habits are tough to break. You’ve got used to them—and they’re at least as addictive as nicotine or crack cocaine.

    4. Be Who You Are

    It’s easy to assume that you always have to fit in to get on in the world; that you must conform to be liked and respected by others or face exclusion. Because most people want to please, they try to become what they believe others expect, even if it means forcing themselves to be the kind of person they aren’t, deep down.

    You need to start by putting yourself first. You’re unique. We’re all unique, so saying this doesn’t suggest that you’re better than others or deserve more than they do.

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    You need to put yourself first because no one else has as much interest in your life as you do; and because if you don’t, no one else will. Putting others second means giving them their due respect, not ignoring them totally.

    Keeping up a self-image can be a burden. Hanging on to an inflated, unrealistic one is a curse. Give yourself a break.

    5. Slow Down and Let Go

    Most of us want to think of ourselves as good, kind, intelligent and caring people. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.

    Reality is complex. We can’t function at all without constant input and support from other people.

    Everything we have, everything we’ve learned, came to us through someone else’s hands. At our best, we pass on this borrowed existence to others, enhanced by our contribution. At our worst, we waste and squander it.

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    So recognize that you’re a rich mixture of thoughts and feelings that come and go, some useful, some not. There’s no need to keep up a façade; no need to pretend; no need to fear of what you know to be true.

    When you face your own truth, you’ll find it’s an enormous relief. If you’re maybe not as wonderful as you’d like to be, you aren’t nearly as bad as you fear either.

    The truth really does set you free; free to work on being better and to forgive yourself for being human; free to express your gratitude to others and recognize what you owe them; free to acknowledge your feelings without letting them dominate your life. Above all, you’ll be free to understand the truth of living: that much of what happens to you is no more than chance. It can’t be avoided and is not your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it.

    Final Thoughts

    What is holding you in situations and actions that no longer work for you often isn’t inertia or procrastination. It’s the power of habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about events. Until you can let go of those old, worn-out habits, they’ll continue to hold you prisoner.

    To stay in your comfort zone through mere habit, or—worse still—to stay there because of irrational fears of what may lie outside, will condemn you to a life of frustration and regret.

    If you can accept the truth about the world and yourself, change whatever is holding you back, and get on with a fresh view on life, you’ll find that single action lets you open the door of your self-imposed prison and walk free. There’s a marvelous world out there. You’ll see, if you try it!

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