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Last Updated on March 17, 2020

A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

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: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance 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.

    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.

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    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.

    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):

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    “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).

    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).

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    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 February 11, 2021

    20 Unusual Uses for Coca-Cola That You’ve Never Considered

    20 Unusual Uses for Coca-Cola That You’ve Never Considered

    Coca-Cola is an adored product the world over. While keeping yourself in good health means moderating how often you enjoy this drink, Coca-Cola lovers will be happy to hear that there are plenty of uses for the soda pop that don’t involve ingesting it. Impressively, Coca-Cola can be used to help you clean, get rid of rust, and even help maintain your garden. Whether you are looking for a way to finally get rid of those pesky stains, or just want to find new ways to love this drink, these 20 jaw-dropping and unusual uses for Coca-Cola will blow you away.

    Kill pests in your garden

    Coca-Cola is also an effective pest control method for your garden. To rid yourself of plant munching slugs and snails, pour a small bowl of Coca-Cola and place it near your garden or flowerbeds. The smell will attract these crawling bugs and the drink’s acidity will kill them.

    Defrost your windshield

    Incredibly, Coca-Cola can also defrost your windscreen in the wintertime. Simply pour Coke liberally across your windshield and wait about a minute. The ice should turn to slush for easy removal.

    Clean your pans

    Coca-Cola is also useful in the kitchen, especially on burnt pans. For any pan with burnt on messes, pour a can of Coke into the pan and simmer. The mess should easily wipe away. You can also soak kettles and other kitchen items in Coca-Cola to remove scale and build up.

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    Clean bugs from your windshield

    Another way Coca-Cola can aid in your car care is by removing bugs and gunk from your windshield. Soak a cloth in coke, then rub across your windshield. Just be careful not to get any on your paint job.

    Remove rust from your car

    Coca-Cola is also useful when removing rust. The simplest method is to dip crumpled tinfoil in Coca-Cola, then give the item a scrub and you should be rust free.

    Loosen rusty bolts

    Similarly, use Coca-Cola to loosen up a rusty bolt. Simply unscrew the bolt half a turn and pour on Coca-Cola. Let it sit, then give the metal a wipe. The bolt and screws will be one hundred percent in no time.

    Remove stains from your fabric

    Surprisingly, Coca-Cola is incredibly helpful when removing stains from clothing and fabric. Coke will easily remove grease stains, as well as blood spots. Remember that Coca-Cola itself is brown, so stains on light fabrics might be better removed another way.

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    Remove oil spots

    Another way to use Coca-Cola is to remove oil stains from cement. Whether it’s your garage or your driveway, soak the stain in Coca-Cola for a few hours then hose off.

    Relieve jellyfish stings

    Should you be unwilling to neutralize a jellyfish sting the traditional way (with urine) pouring Coca-Cola on the sting will also do the job.

    Clean your car engine

    Coca-Cola is also an effective ways to clean your car engine. Believe it or not, Coke distributors have reportedly been a fan of this technique for ages. 

    Use it in cooking

    Coca-Cola is also a fantastic addition to many recipes. Using Coca-Cola to cook pot roast or steaks in will easily tenderize the meat for you. Mixing Coke with ketchup or barbecue sauce also makes for a delightfully sweet glaze.

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    Clean your old coins

    Another way to use Coke to clean is to soak tarnished coins in the soda. About ten minutes should be enough to get rid of the muck.

    Clean your tiles

    Incredibly, Coca-Cola can also be applied to tiles to effectively clean grout. Let Coke sit on the tiles that need cleaning for a few minutes, then wipe away.

    Supercharge your compost

    Coke is also an impressive way to speed up your compost. The sugar in Coca-Cola feeds micro organisms, plus the acidity will help your compost break down faster.

    Remove gum from your hair

    Coca-Cola can also help you avoid a major hair disaster. If you have gum stuck in your hair, dip the gum into a small bowl of Coke and let it sit for a few minutes. The Coca-Cola breaks down the gum, allowing you to wipe it off.

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    Fade unwanted hair dye

    Similarly, if you made a mistake with your hair dye, Coca-Cola comes to the rescue. It’s probably best to get in the shower first, then pour Diet Coke over your hair. Let the soda sit for a few minutes, then wash your hair like normal. This method is effective in removing temporary hair dyes, but will likely only fade professionally applied dyes.

    Clean marker stains

    Coca-Cola is also an easy way to remove marker stains from carpet. Apply a small amount of Coke, scrub the spot, then clean with soapy water. Again, remember that Coca-Cola is brown, so removing stains on white or light-colored carpets might be better achieved with another method.

    Clean your toilet

    Coca-Cola can also help you clean elsewhere in the house. To easily clean a toilet, pour Coca-Cola all around the bowl and let it sit. There’s no need to scrub, simply flush and your toilet should be sparkling clean.

    Feed your plants

    Coca-Cola is also a surprising way to add a little extra life to some flowering plants. Particularly with azaleas and gardenias, adding a small amount of Coca-Cola to the soil can deliver nutrients your plant may be low on.

    Get rid of bugs at a picnic

    The last of our unusual uses for Coca-Cola is to safeguard your picnic or outdoor lunch from pests and wasps. Simply pour a small cup of Coca-Cola and set it out about a half hour before you start to eat. By placing the cup away from your site, bugs will be drawn to the soda and not your lunch.

    Featured photo credit: Omer Wazir via flickr.com

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