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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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      The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

      The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

      Ah, Inbox Zero. An achievement that so many of us long for. It’s elusive. It’s a productivity benchmark. It’s an ongoing battle.

      It’s also unnecessary.

      Don’t get me wrong, the way Inbox Zero was initially termed is incredibly valuable. Merlin Mann coined the phrase years ago and what he has defined it as goes well beyond the term itself.

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      Yet people have created their own definition of Inbox Zero. They’re not using it with the intent that Mann suggested. Instead, it’s become about having nothing left in immediate view. It’s become about getting your email inbox to zero messages or having an empty inbox on your desk that was once filled with papers. It’s become about removing visual clutter.

      But it’s not about that. Not at all.

      Here’s what it actually is, as defined by Mann:

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      “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” – Merlin Mann

      The Fake Inbox Zero

      The sense of fulfillment one gets from clearing out everything in your inbox is temporary at best, disappointing at worst. Often we find that we’re shooting for Inbox Zero just so that we can say that we’ve got “everything done that needed to be done”. That’s simply not the case.

      Certainly by removing all of your things that sit in your inbox means that they are either taken care of or are well on their way to being taken care of. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is often applied to clearing out your inbox. But unless you’ve actually done something with the stuff, it’s either not worth having in your inbox in the first place or is still sitting in your “mental inbox”. You have to do something with the stuff, and for many people that is a hard thing to do. That’s why Inbox Zero – as defined by Mann – is not achieved as often as many people would like to believe. It’s this “watered down” concept of Inbox Zero that is completed instead. You’ve got no email in your inbox and you’ve got no paper on your desk’s inbox. So that must mean you’re at Inbox Zero.

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      Until the next email arrives or the next document comes your way. Then you work to get rid of those as quickly as possible so that you can get back to Inbox Zero: The Lesser again. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, then you get there. But if they require more time, then soon you’ve got more stuff in your inboxes. So you switch up tasks to get to the things that don’t require as much time or attention so that you can get closer to this stripped down variation of Inbox Zero. However, until you deal with the bigger items, you don’t quite get there. Some people feel as if they’ve let themselves (or others) down if they don’t get there. And that, quite frankly, is silly. That’s why this particular version of Inbox Zero doesn’t work.

      So what’s the ultimate way to get to Inbox Zero? Have zero inboxes.

      The inbox is meant to be a stop along the way to your final destination. It’s the place where stuff sits until you’re ready to put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it. So why not skip the inbox altogether? Why not put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it? Because that requires immediate action. It means you need to give the item some thought and attention. You need to step back and look at it rather than file it. that’s why we have a catch-all inbox, both for email and for analog items. It’s allows us to only look at these things when we’re ready to do so.

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      The funny thing is that we can decide when we’re ready to without actually looking at the inbox beforehand. We can look at things on our own watch rather than when we are alerted to or feel the need to. There is no reason why you need an inbox at all to store things for longer than it sits there before you see it. None. It’s a choice. And the choice you should be making is how to deal with things when you first see them rather than when to deal with things you haven’t looked at yet.

      Stop Faking It

      Seeing things in your inboxes is simply using your sight. Looking at things in your inbox when you first see them is using insight.

      Stop checking email more than twice per day. Turn off your alerts. Put your desk’s inbox somewhere that it can be accessed by others and accessed by you when you’re ready to deal with what’s in it. Don’t put it on your desk – that’s productivity poison.

      If you want to get to Inbox Zero — the real Inbox Zero — then get rid of those stops along the way. You’ll find that by doing that you’ll be getting more of the stuff you really want done finished much faster, rather than see them moving along at the speed of not much more than zero.

      Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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