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A Review of “The Art of Learning”

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

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

    art-of-learning-cover

      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.

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      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.

      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.

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      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.

      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.”

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      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).

      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).

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      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.

      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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      Last Updated on July 23, 2019

      5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

      5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

      In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

      Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut, only to get back into another one.

      How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

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      • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
      • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
      • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
      • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
      • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
      • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

      When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnation, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help. Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

      1. Realize You’re Not Alone

      Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths. Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

      2. Find What Inspires You

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      Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation. What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

      On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem. If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

      3. Give Yourself a Break

      When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

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      Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave. Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future. These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

      4. Shake up Your Routines

      Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

      Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’s 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

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      When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

      5. Start with a Small Step

      Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

      Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward. Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years. On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

      More to Help You Stay Motivated

      Here are some resources that will help you break out of your current phase:

      Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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