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The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence

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An eight-time national chess champion and world champion martial artist shares the lessons he has learned from two very different competitive arenas, identifying key principles about learning and performance that readers can apply to their life goals. 50,000 first printing.

265 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Josh Waitzkin

5 books331 followers
Joshua Waitzkin is an American chess player, martial arts competitor, and author. As a child, he was recognized as a prodigy, and won the U.S. Junior Chess championship in 1993 and 1994. He is the only person to have won the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships in his career. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based on his early life.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,339 reviews
Profile Image for V..
Author 20 books167 followers
January 9, 2013
Clearly as a chess player and a martial artist, Josh is an accomplished and well regarded expert. As a human being, however, he’s a bit of a dick.

He goes to the Tai Chi Chuan Pushing hands World Championships in Taiwan (their national sport) and through hard work and an obsessive pursuit of excellence, he becomes World Champion despite cheating and rule bending by the Taiwanese.

Only, he never considers that this small nation has hardly anything else to call their own. And with their huge Imperial neighbour squashing their every attempt at a cultural identity, to have their beloved sport taken from them by a cocky, privileged American who’s never done a real job, not surprising they try to cheat.

In fact I was in their corner shouting ‘Sweep the leg!’

He’s so competitive and so self-unaware that the irony of doing a martial art about balance and tranquillity, and using it to go to an incredibly unhinged extreme completely passes him by.

So, anyway, the book is about learning, and there are a couple of useful ideas here, particularly in the third section. But a lot of it is to do with focus and training. Something that comes easy if you’re insanely competitive to an autistic level like the author. And if you aren’t, it’s hard to motivate yourself to do the things he suggests. Like most books of this nature, if you have the ability to be as single-minded as you need to be, you probably don’t need to read the book, and if you don’t have it, the book won’t really help.

A lot of the book is more memoir than insight, and pretty dull. But then I found the memoir parts of Stephen King’s On Writing pretty dull too (although the bits on writing were great).
So I’d say this book is vaguely interesting and you might pick up an idea or two, but that’s about it.

Another example of his spectacularly selective self awareness: In the chess section he describes how he was an attacking player, but as he got older teachers tried to teach him the Karpov way, more defensive etc, but it turned him off the game. Learning is about going with your natural flow, he tells us. Later when training in Tai Chi, he discovers opponents who are stronger and faster, what to do? The Karpov Way! Never occurs to him he’s going against what he said earlier. Whatever works seems to be the lesson. Win at all costs. If you can fool your opponent, who cares how you do it.

The thing is, he’s clearly a bright, focused young man, but natural abilities aren’t as easily transferred as this book might suggest. He claims to have a natural gift for learning, which I think is true, but sadly not for teaching. And he’s so full of himself it’s astonishing. If there’s a chapter where he doesn’t mention there was a film made about him then I must have missed it. Now he’s taken up Brazilian jiu jitsu and I can only hope someone gives him the sound thrashing he so richly deserves.
Profile Image for Timothy Chklovski.
67 reviews23 followers
January 7, 2011
Very good book about achieving world-class mastery of a skill and the attendant phenomena (like slowing down time).
it teeters on mysticism early on, but if you get past that, there are rewards in sound arguments and interesting observations

Some key highlights:
- using simplified/limiting drills to understand key concepts more deeply/fluently
- a very compelling model of skill acquisition as layering, one pass at a time, your conscious understanding on top of automatic mastery, and turning the learned into the automatic
- the concept of "making smaller circles" -- ie mastering something in its slowed-down,
simplified form
- superimportance of the right coaches/environment
- importance of finding new challenge, new depth in perfecting the basic skills
- clear examples of perfecting a throw, or chess intuition
- extreme examples of attention management (slowing down time)
- possible example of "constraints being liberating" (making the best of a broken arm to learn to deflect with one and later attack with another)
- great example of ethos of picking the biggest challenge / toughest opponent
Profile Image for Maxim.
24 reviews
June 3, 2009
If you're interested in gaining insight into the mind of a child chess prodigy turned adult martial arts champion, this is a decent book. It's reasonably readable and has a lot of interesting stories about the author's chess and marital arts careers. As an inspirational or how-to book, though, it falls short. Maybe it would be helpful if you're interested in single-minded, highly-focused training in chess, martial arts, or another highly technical, subtle, and competitive pursuit. But, despite his claims that his road map for learning can be applied to any discipline, the author is unable to illustrate his ideas with examples from outside his own two fields. He also does a poor job of pulling the ideas together into specific, actionable advice. Instead, he goes on at length about the philosophy and abstract principles and how they helped him achieve his chess and martial arts goals. I kept reading, hoping it would get better, but it never did. Overall, a disappointment.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,016 followers
July 17, 2015

A good look into what goes on in the minds of high-performance athletes at the top of their game. A bit spiritualized and fuzzy here and there, but I kept thinking that we are lucky to have this rare athlete writing to us, who combines the qualities of high performance, intense self-observation, intellectualization of development and finally communication of that entire learning experience to the normal people who might go through their entire lives never stretching themselves to those extreme limits where such discoveries about learning and performance always seem to lie.
Profile Image for Ruzz.
106 reviews26 followers
July 27, 2010
it's unaccountably rare to find someone who can perform at the highest levels of human capacity (mentally or physically) who can articulate much meaningfully about how they do it. You can survey top performers, and many have, and most won't have a concrete framework of thought behind that performance and most of it is intuitive. the underlying principals are essentially a mystery.

Josh Waitzkin has performed at high levels both mentally (through world class junior chess) and physically (through world class martial arts competition) and has systemized his process and has a very clear understanding of how he's achieved the things he has.

He does a fairly effective job of communicating this to readers. I say fairly effective because quite honestly some of the conceptual stuff is pretty difficult to translate. How would you go about explaining a highly advanced concept built on the backs of hundreds of other highly advanced concepts to someone at the starting point?

in much the same way you can read a book one year and get one subset of points from it that resonate with you then read it again the next and get a secondary set despite the content remaining unchanged, so it is with explaining intricate conceptual information. You will come away understanding only the parts you are ready to understand despite the possibility there's a dearth of additional information there.

on that front, i recommend you read the book and see what you come away with. however, what i think most people will universally come away with is a strong sense that people like Waitzkin are operating on an entirely different plane of experience than most of us.

the level of attention to detail, discipline, commitment and just plain work is far beyond that of the average person and it seems to catapult them to positions where the difference between first place and third is roughly equal to that of third place and not entering a competition, skill wise.

all the advanced conceptual stuff aside it's very hard to come away from this book feeling you've been taking anything at all seriously in your entire life. And quite possibly that insight may bring light to a question some of carry about why some people seem to be so much more productive (apparently naturally) than the average. It also challenges the belief some people are just "better" at something than others.

more likely, some people are more focused and committed. playing the game (whatever game that is) on a level that makes 99% of the population look like dilettantes. this isn't about type 'A' anality and drive, it's about engagement and devotion of the self to some particular thing consistently over long spans of time.

it's not about working yourself to death in the pursuit of something. or labouring endlessly toward a particular deadline, or goal. it's about an intense fundamental focus on minute but critical parts of process which can elevate one person's performance heads above another.

Watizkin makes plain, despite a mild stink of self congratulatory biography, that the thing that separates the best from the rest is generally speaking how serious one takes their pursuit and how engaged they are in improvement.

There's a conception out there that time and experience will trump most everything. Simply enduring and spending large blocks of time specialized in a particular area will separate you from the pack and in some sense this is true. Drawing on my own experience as a programmer I see this at play every day where junior developers make core mistakes because the way the conceptualize problems suffers from a lack of experience. they see the problem wrong from the outset because they've not enough experience with problems in general to unify common structural elements and avoid those problems implicitly.

I have an edge there through experience. However, the order of difference between the work i do and the work people who are changing the programming world do is dramatic, and those inexperience developers will catch up to me and surpass me in time. It's unlikely either of us will catch up to or surpass those few top programmers because we're playing an entirely different game.

One topic that never comes up is how Josh is able to devote himself so entirely to his particular goals without concern for money or facing the distractions and constraints of normal existence costs. And it's an important thing to consider, and an important thing to leave out.

Most of us have obligations that supersede our own focus. many of us are obligated by the constraints of reality to put our focus in a particular place (which may or may not enhance us) whether we want to or not because the consequences of not are felt in very concrete financial terms.

On the whole, the book was insightful and challenging. In interesting look into the motivations, thought processes and experiences of a top level performer, but i fear much of the book is abstract, and impractical for those of us trying to earn our daily bread while improving our selves.

if i took nothing else away from the book, I took a subtle understanding of the mental dynamics involved in being a top level performer which i previously had little insight into. Whether I can (or want to) realistically integrate much of that insight into my own life remains unclear.

The inertia of personality, and habit are great and trying to motivate oneself on rewards that are hard to internalize (but easy to imagine) is slippery ground. Josh had the benefit of beginning living his life in a micro to macro focus from very early on and developed strong habits and techniques as a young chess champion that define his expectations of experience. For those of us with a more normal upbringing and more normal expectation there is the added requirement of throwing off years of habit, experience and perhaps greatest expectation about what a day may contain to qualify as a good day.

none of this was addressed, and perhaps he didn't need to address it. But these are real problems for people who want to take anything from what he's shared and neglecting them makes the book less vital and less engaged to it's own purpose.
Profile Image for Rob.
475 reviews21 followers
May 27, 2014
I picked up this book because it was recommended by Tim Ferriss, who described Josh as the "metalearner's metalearner". A man who had risen to the peak of his field in the world in TWO highly competitive disciplines: chess and push hands (martial Tai Chi).

I was expecting a book that spends a tremendous amount of time on philosophies about learning with examples from his life and others.

There are some thoughts about learning, but they feel more reflective than prescriptive, since this book is really a memoir.

Frankly, the only *real* think he says about learning is to do so incrementally and to encourage students to think about it as an incremental process vs. something that works because either you're good or bad at it. He goes through great pains in his own life to separate ego from failure, and treats failure as an essential part of the learning process vs. a problem in itself. He even goes so far as to push this as a life philosophy (it's the journey not the destination that is life kind of thing), which I completely agree with.

All of this is part of the incremental theory of learning, which is very simple but powerful, and he spends very little of the book talking about it.

However, he has a lot to say about what it means to become export/world-class at a thing, and he says those things while basically giving his life story to age 29. I really enjoyed reading about his tournaments in both chess and Tai Chi, but here's the problem about using those examples on how to learn.

Both of his careers were illustrative of what happens if you take incremental learning to its absolute limit (for example, chess is what he did with the vast majority of his time for more than a decade, and then Tai Chi is what he did with his time). Most of us have jobs, kids, key relationships to nurture, etc., that together preclude spending many hours a day on any one thing.

In general I'm much, much more interested in Tim Ferriss's minimum-effective-dose, 80/20, fast path to success style than to Waitzkin's obsessive, singleminded, one-thing-for-years-at-a-time depth. Just a personal style as I'd rather do 20 things pretty well than 1 thing world class. It's more fun!
189 reviews
August 16, 2009
Part I: The Foundation

Chapter 1: Innocent Movies
Josh discovers chess in the park. Lessons with Bruce: first lessons establish camaraderie.

Chapter 2: Losing to Win:
Loses first nat'l championship. Summertime is off to the sea -- the little breaks from competition are important for success, since they allow a new perspective and new energy.
Back to life, he's a mess. Bruce realizes he needs fun more than chess. Wins national tournament.

Chapter 3: Two Approaches to Learning
Entity theorists (innate ability, skill can't evolve) vs. incremental theorists (hard work). Josh began by focusing on endgame (first focus = king + pawn vs. king), opponents on opening variations (= winning fast and easily -> entity theorists, big fish in small pond afraid of breaking illusion of excellence). Analogy: if gymnast always thinks that must have perfect body ready for performance, how to handle injuries or life after gymnastics career?

Chapter 4: Losing the Game
Style on chessboard is direct expression of personality.

Chapter 5: The Soft Zone: "Lose Yourself"
Earthquake -> "in the zone"/higher state of consciousness. He starts looking at nuance pyschology, or how to trigger states of creative flow. His first step is learning to avoid getting districted by random events.

Chapter 6: The Downward Spiral
Don't let mistakes end up in a spiral of more.

Chapter 7: Changing Voice:
Started training with a new teacher who wanted him to become more conservative. After tournaments where he had positions he didn't understand or where he made mistakes, he'd enter the moves into a computer, note thought processes and emotions at the time, and analyze these positions.

Chapter 8: Breaking Stallions
Child has no fear -- if you fall off, just get back on. AS you get older -- fear of injury, falls are humiliating. Key to high-level learning is a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child's playful obliviousness.
Relationship to your pursuit must stay in harmony with your disposition. Parallel: how for lifetime rock guitarist to learn classical music? 1) From classical composer who despises rock n' roll, or 2) ex-rocker who fell inn love w/ classical music? Mind defines things in relation to 1 another (e.g., what's light w/o dark?)?

Part II:

Chapter 9: Beginner's Mind
Reads On the Road, The Dharma Bums -> meditation, Tao Te Ching, Tai Chi -> Push Hands.

Chapter 10: Investment in Loss
"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. For example, in my chess career I didn't realize I was faltering in transitional moments until many months of study brought the pattern to light. So the aim is to minimize repetition as much as possible, by having an eye for consistent psychological and technical themes of error."
Allow yourself not to be at peak performance, so that you can learn/try new things to improve.

Chapter 11: Making Smaller Circles
Depth >> breadth. Complete mastery of basic skill set.

Chapter 12: Using Adversity
Breaks right hand -> forced to cultivate weaker side.

Chapter 13: Slowing Down Time
Importance of really knowing the fundamentals, to internalize them as building blocks.

Chapter 14: The Illusion of the Mystical
Psychological manipulation/battles. You can take advantage of your opponents' blinks, e.g., by noticing (perhaps subconsciously) that his cheek twitches before he blinks.

Part III: Bringing it all Together

Chapter 15: The Power of Presence
Always be clearheaded.

Chapter 16: Searching for the Zone
Learns how to maintain long-term, healthy, self-sustaining peak performance. Don't have to hold state of feverish concentration every second of chess game -> renewed energy. Just need brief recovery period/improve ability to recover.
Stress + recovery. Interval work.

Chapter 17: Building Your Trigger
Being able to trigger moments of intense concentration/performance.

Chapter 18: Making Sandals
Convert passions/anger into fuel.

Chapter 19: Bringing it all Together
At the highest levels of any competitive discipline, everyone is great. So you need to take advantage of your unique specialties.

Chapter 20: Taiwan
Competition details.
Profile Image for Sid Hancock.
19 reviews1 follower
December 25, 2012
Most people seem to love this book. It was enjoyable but it felt more like an autobiography than a book about the learning process. You could essentially break his points down into a quick-reference card and have just as much scientific/analytic support for them.
56 reviews24 followers
October 29, 2018
Alternate title: "How Amazing Some of My Chess and Tai Chi Matches Have Been. Oh, and Some Interesting Anecdotal Tips on Mentally Preparing for Some Esoteric Things."

The only reason I continued reading the book is because he describes chess matches and Tai Chi fights captivatingly -- but that is not what I read the book for.

A crappy, pseudo-scientific, self-praising autobiography.

Horrible book. Might change my review to one star after re-evaluating my highlights.

EDIT: Without having reviewed my highlights, I'll change my rating to 1 star. This was by far the worst book I have ever read. I would not ever, ever, ever recommend reading this to anyone I like.

What a humongous waste of ink, paper, and time.
Profile Image for Bartosz Majewski.
292 reviews217 followers
March 10, 2019
Around 10 years ago i've read a book by Polish author Jacek Santorski. It was called "Humans against humans". I vaguely recall it now but one idea stuck with me throughout the years.

He digressed into it by saying (i'm paraphrasing) that economic reserves in developed countries are shrinking so there will be less room to manouver for people that are focused on experiencing without contribution. The rest of us will have to embrace something he called "The way of the Samurai" with much more uncertainty and performance expectations for business executives that were reserved to top athlethes. The book was published in 1997. That's impressive foresight.

This thought came back to me multiple times when i've read Waitzkin's book. It was one of my most meta-readings in recent years. Waitzkin is trying to synthesise his competition and performance experience from Chess and Martial Arts so that it becomes universal and applicable to other areas of life in which we need to perform on highest levels. He knows what he is talking about. He was among the best in the world in both those areas.

If you are just starting out this is probably not the right time to read this book. But if you have 3,5,10 years of experience and looking for new frames on how you can be better at what you do - this is the right book for you. I bet that people who are into chess or martial arts (i'm not) would get even more value and fun out of it.

Thank you, Bartek Pucek for recommending me this one.
Profile Image for Reya.
Author 1 book3 followers
March 7, 2016
As someone who has been seriously involved in a highly mental competitive sport since the age of nine, I deeply related to so many of Josh Waitzkin's experiences and mental strategies he's developed. While the level of fame I have realized (so far!?) is very small when compared to Josh's, and only exists within a small circle of competitors and enthusiasts, my struggle to excel in competition parallels so much of what Josh describes, from the mistake of denying emotions completely (leading to collapse of technique under pressure) to breakthroughs of thought (when success feels easy). There is a dynamic flow of energy, emotion, and thoughts that one becomes very aware of when involved in high-level competition, and is very difficult, if possible, to ever master. It is a skill that requires constant evaluation and effort to move toward the focus and confidence that will allow a competitor to win. This book provides excellent stories and philosophical tools that will assist one's progress on that endless path of learning any skill, by learning about yourself, and improving your ability to win. It doesn't matter whether it's in chess and Tai Chi like Waitzkin, or anything else competitive in your life! I believe this is a highly worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Bon Tom.
856 reviews55 followers
September 30, 2020
Very down to earth and logical. Written by intelligent and self reflective person, which of course is the key to succeed in anything and to improve oneself longterm. I resonate with every written word, maybe not because I honed all these qualities to shoe shine, but because the author managed to achieve accessibility for average person at the same time. Achievement in and of itself.
Profile Image for Jason Ray Carney.
Author 26 books48 followers
February 25, 2022
Such a wonderful book, deeply profound. I read this twice a year. I've probably read it 10+ times. Its thesis is that optimal performance is the result of acute presence in activity. How do we cultivate presence while practicing a skill? Understanding our unique psychology and transformong learning into an incremental form of self-expression, a creative enterprise. How do we discover our unique proclivities and design a learning program that harmonizes with and expands our identity? All sorts of ways. Meditation. Introspection. Journaling. Accepting the truth about ourselves. Coming to terms with reality as it is rather than what we want it to be. We also do this by mastering fundamentals (in various pursuits) and then proceeding to advanced elements that fundamentals constitute. E.g. mastering the Pawn before trying to understand the Rook, the Bishop, the Knight, the Queen, and Checkmate. Waitzkin also emphasizes the importance of understanding our emotions and bodies in order to cultivate productive embodied states. He suggests that we can trigger a state of optimal performance if we look inward and grasp those embodied states. When are you most awake? Most serene? Cultivate those conditions. He also offers the insight that our performance can be sharpened by leveraging our distinctive and unstable emotional idiosyncrasies. Are you agressive? How do you read "aggressively"? Are you nostalgic? How do you incorporate "nostalgia" into learning Danish? There is so much here in ths compressed book. A truly valuable read, thoughtfully written, about how to cultivate mastery.
Profile Image for Brent.
348 reviews144 followers
August 16, 2019
An autobiography presented as a reference on peak performance. The stories are interesting, but it is not clear how to replicate the author's success.
Profile Image for Mark.
69 reviews20 followers
April 24, 2020
This book was virtually unbearable to read. Yet, through an act of sheer willpower and reading off-and-on over a period of 3 years, I finally made it through to the end. Let me first address why I started and stubbornly persisted in finishing this book, and then I’ll discuss why I didn’t like it.

At the time I discovered this book, I was looking for some insight into being successful in one-on-one competition (specifically Brazilian Jiu-jitsu competition) and the author, Josh Waitzkin, knows a thing or two about winning one-on-one competitions: He was a multiple-time Junior National Chess Champion and later a Tai Chi “Push Hands” multiple-time National Champion and one-time World Champion.

I’ve always been fascinated by the overlap between chess and martial arts, and here is someone that has excelled in both. Lastly, and perhaps most relevant for me, he was the first ever American to receive a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from the famed Marcelo Garcia (a legendary martial artist who has a reasonable claim on the title of greatest BJJ athlete of all time).

How was Waitzkin able to succeed in all of these areas of one-on-one competition? Could I learn something from his journey that would help me in my own journey in martial arts? I dove into this book with enthusiasm and a strong desire to learn something to make me better at jiu-jitsu competition. Hoping for an insight, I continued reading this book to the end. Hope springs eternal, but alas the insights never came.

The book, despite the title “The Art of Learning”, was more an autobiography than a manual for learning. And in his autobiography, Waitzkin portrays his life as if it’s an action movie and he is the consummate hero at its core.

Recollecting things in chronological order, Waitzkin begins with his years as a child chess prodigy. Waitzkin grew up in an affluent Manhattan neighborhood. He attended the Dalton School, an elite private grade school whose annual tuition is higher than most 4-year universities (an outlandish price for a grade school education). In NYC he had access to some of the world’s greatest chess teachers (including world-famous Pandolfini himself).

Later, his story moves on to his career in Tai Chi competition, again being tutored by a Push Hands Grand Master living in NYC. His Brazilian Jiu-jitsu experiences came after this book was written, to my disappointment, so they were not included. But in that case, too, Waitzkin had access to a world-champion teacher in Marcelo Garcia, who’d moved from Brazil to Manhattan to open his jiu-jitsu school. Waitzkin is the paragon of privileged.

I found his recollections about chess somewhat interesting because I previously knew very little about chess competition. But when he gets to the part about Tai Chi and martial arts competition, I have a lot more first hand experience and, to me, Waitzkin sounds like a storyteller that has bought into his own hype. For some context, Waitzkin was hailed as a “child prodigy” in chess. A movie ("Searching for Bobby Fischer") was made about Waitzkin (based on a book written by his father, incidentally, who surely offers a biased view). Waitzkin is one of those unfortunate souls that experienced childhood fame and the reverence of crowds of strangers from a very young age, and so it probably shouldn't be a surprise that self-adoration was woven into his worldview from the outset.

Back to his description of martial arts competition, Waitzkin at one point goes into significant detail about how he is able to “make time slow down” during a martial arts match. He talks about being rooted to the ground yet flexible, like a tree that sways and can’t be budged, and how he made his opponents “fly through the air” in the “blink of an eye”. As a martial artist myself, this whole thing comes off like a fish tale: something somewhat similar probably did happen, but now it's being retold via the extremely rose-colored language of the author’s recollections.

If I took any lesson about winning competition from this book, it’s that Waitzkin’s message is: “To succeed, you have to be amazing. Like me.”

If you want to experience all of this for yourself, try this: Find the book’s Introduction (a free download on Amazon) and read it. Then ask yourself if you want to read nearly 300 more pages of the same.

Based solely on how he has told his story here, it appears that Waitzkin has lived a charmed existence in which he was born into a world of extraordinary privilege and has had only to pursue his passions in life. This book is about that charmed existence and the author’s favorite topic, himself. If that sounds interesting to you, go for it, but I’ll repeat my earlier suggestion: Read the Introduction first (it’s free!) and know that the introduction is an accurate representative sample of the whole rest of the book.
Profile Image for Marcus.
311 reviews299 followers
June 17, 2008
Despite not being very interested in either chess or the martial arts, this is one of the most interesting and insightful books I have read. Josh is one of the few people that has become an expert at something and maintained the ability to understand and share exactly the process that led him to expertise, then abstract the process to make it applicable to learning almost anything. His writing style is clear and engaging. He's a great teacher--he subtly reviews as he goes along without making the book seem repetitive. The concepts are simple and powerful. Already I've been able to apply them to endeavors in my own live and I've seen results.
Profile Image for Milan.
275 reviews2 followers
September 19, 2020
Josh Waitzkin is a master learner but this is not a great book about learning. It's more of a memoir focused on chess and martial arts. It does have a few good thoughts about how to approach learning. The stories of his life are interesting and it gives a nudge to think about learning as the process itself. My main takeaways are –

• enjoy the journey you are undertaking
• go deeper
• introspect regularly
• take risks
• meditate
• keep yourself fit for the challenges
• involve the unconscious mind in the learning process
• keep honing your skills
102 reviews3 followers
December 17, 2015
Didn't finish. I should have known what I was getting into when the author said in his interview with Tim Ferriss that his all time favorite books were Shantaram and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Those books are required reading for pretentious self-unaware douchebags.

I'm being meaner than I should be. I just felt cheated because I thought this book would teach me something rather than tell me about Mr. Waitzkin's young life as a chess prodigy and a world class martial artist. You may like this book if you're looking for a memoir that's been written in a pseudo-fancy high school style that uses lively image inducing words to sound artistic. This book was written with the thesaurus open on the other half of the screen.
Profile Image for Deniz.
1,145 reviews100 followers
September 27, 2018
2.5 Stars

While I really enjoyed most of the biographical bits, I expected a self-help and way more insight into learning than I got.
I think this is a case of marketing gone wrong.
For me, this is a recall of a man's paths of self-discovery and success. His path of learning. At times it was very spiritual, very small amount about practical learning and at times a bit emotional. But mostly it's Waitzkin's autobiography.
I did enjoy his recount of the chess scene during the nineties. His heart is clearly in the game.
I took from this, that the way we look at ourselves is key to what we can achieve. If we limit ourselves to a simplistic view of our abilities, we end up blocking possible success.

Profile Image for Ioana.
153 reviews
October 28, 2019
A well organised account of the strategies surrounding a child prodigy chess player and later on, a world martial art champion and his search for balance - balance of skills, of thought, of ego and about learning.
Profile Image for Jim Ament.
47 reviews1 follower
March 16, 2012
The Art of Learning - A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence, by Josh Waitzkin (2007)

My wonderful guitar teacher, Brian Lewis—whom I haven't seen in months, but I still call him "my teacher"—recommended this book:

Josh Waitzkin was a boy chess genius, winning his first national championship at age nine, then was the subject of his father's book Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was turned into a 1993 Hollywood film. Following his stellar chess career, at age nineteen he took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands and became world champion. It is indeed remarkable that this bright young man excelled at a world class level in two very different disciplines. He says, "I've come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning."

Early in the book, he describes how some developmental psychologists distinguish theories of intelligence—between entity and incremental theories. Simply put, "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...Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning...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 a master." The author describes how fragile the entity theorists can be under pressure, even though gifted, compared to the incremental theorists. "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. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety."

Waitzkin addresses the caveat about being process oriented to the point of not caring about results—that winning or losing doesn't matter. It does matter and losing hurts, but it can also be a valuable learning experience. "While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do."

He discusses the problem of distractions, the random unexpected events, the "mini-earthquakes that afflict all of our days" and the need to "flow with whatever comes" and "to use whatever comes to our advantage." To actually accomplish this, one has "to attain what sports psychologists call The Soft Zone." A good way to explain it is to define The Hard Zone, a state of mind that "demands a cooperative world for you to function." But the world is not always so cooperative. The Soft Zone is quiet, intensely focused, relaxed: "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." One has to learn to deal with bad conditions. Brian learned how to achieve this state by playing in bars for fifteen years —he concentrated on the playing, not the obnoxious drunks, the fights, the noise, or other distractions of the environment. One learns to tune it out; and it is a learned discipline. Most people cannot just will it, including the author. Waitzkin says, “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."

Waitzkin tells the story of how he ultimately became frustrated with chess. I won't go into the details but he says, "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...it is critical to integrate...new information in a manner that does not violate who we are," which gives a hint of why he moved on to other things. Later, finishing up on the last years of his chess career, he says, "To my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of grayness—of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down...A competitor needs to be process-oriented...but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence...Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness." In other words, it is a tricky balancing act requiring self-awareness.

As he explains the genesis of his martial arts career, Waitzkin gives some insight to his thinking by giving kudos to Jack Kerouac's On the Road and The Dharma Bums, which probably influenced his dabbling in Zen Buddhism. My book review of The Dharma Bums gives a slightly different perspective than Waitzkin (on both books), but I won't dwell on this aspect of his book. I just found it interesting that he gives credit to Kerouac's influence.

In a chapter called, Making Smaller Circles, the author delves into the theme of "depth over breadth." He says, "The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture" bombarded with a "constant supply of stimulus" which has a devastating effect on our learning...unless we can keep our focus on working on the micro fundamentals of our endeavor, incrementally refining the simplest of movements and thought. This is a key point stressed by my guitar teacher—get this one simple movement perfected, then this one, then add them, then another, and build a pattern of sound that is built on these small perfected technical movements. The author writes of "subtle internalization and refinement" as being more important than trying to learn everything...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...because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential."

In the chapter, Using Adversity, Waitzkin delves further into performance psychology and says there are three steps in a "resilient performer' s evolving relationship to chaotic situations." (1) "First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection." (2) "We learn to use that imperfection to our advantage." (3) We need "to learn to create ripples in our consciousness...to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring."

The author debates the question of intuition and whether it exists, concluding that it "is our most valuable compass in this world." He gives a summary: "For much of this book I have described 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 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. The question of intuition relates to how that network is navigated and used as fuel for creative insight." He refers to chunking which "relates to the mind's ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles..." As one evolves in their endeavor, he or she discovers organizing principles of information and "new patterns of movement. This new information gets systematized into a network of chunks that" can be accessed with increasing ease as one's "navigational function improves." He further says, "Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of 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... the idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide." Brian considers the great jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, a good example of someone utilizing this process; he has boiled down playing music to its simplest forms—into chunks of basic approaches that are filled with huge amounts of information learned over the years but are buried within his mind; not lost, but known to him as bits of critical information that have been put together in such a way that allows him to see much more with less conscious thought. The author would say," So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot." And guess what? "The key, of course, is practice." Indeed.

He writes about presence, and the critical nature of it in "solitary pursuits, such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning" where "we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often our 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...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...Presence must be like breathing."

There is also great value in understanding the sport's psychologist's concept of Stress and Recovery—a player's ability to completely relax in brief moments of inactivity. The best I ever saw able to do this—up close and personal—was tennis great Pete Sampras, a remarkable athlete that the author mentions. There are many more in the sports world who learned this and learned it well—those who have become completely attuned to the qualitative functions of their thought processes because they fully understand what it means to their performance. Also, on a personal level, from my marathoning days, back in the 1980's, I knew full well the value of stress and recovery in my training, both the physical and the mental, i.e. it is not a foreign concept. (I was clearly an amateur. In my forties then, my best time was 3:13:30 or 7:23 per mile in the San Francisco Marathon, 1987.) The author, however, suggests that one should incorporate "the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of...life." In other words, apply interval training approaches to everything we do, making it a habit, so we can become "a resilient dependable pressure player...To have success at crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep flowing when everything is one the line."

The author discusses channeling anger and mentions unethical chess players, like the guy who kicked him under the table repeatedly during critical moments, or the few dirty Tai Chi Chuan competitors. It isn't about denying one's passion at such moments; it is about channeling the anger to achievement rather than self-destructing behavior. I remember one of his examples well because I watched it many times on television: Huge New York Knick's fan and movie director Spike Lee would sit on the sidelines and taunt the Indiana Pacer's Reggie Miller unmercifully during NBA games at Madison Square Garden. Reggie responding by draining shot after shot; he fed off of it. It didn't bug him; it inspired him! The best thing Lee could have done was shut up. "The lesson learned—don't piss off Reggie."

To bring this to conclusion, Waitzkin says, "When I think about creativity, it is always in relation to a foundation. We have our knowledge. It becomes deeply internalized until we can access it without thinking about it. Then we have a leap that uses what we know to go one or two steps further. We make a discovery... There is a connection between that discovery and what you know—or else you wouldn't have discovered it—and you can find that connection if you try." One has to "figure out what makes the 'magic' tick" on his own—to take our "pyramid of knowledge up" to another level, solidifying a "higher foundation from new leaps."

Like many have said before: "Practice, man, practice." Or as coach Vince Lombardi once said: "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."
Profile Image for Jacek Bartczak.
196 reviews59 followers
August 15, 2020
Learn how to learn. If you spend a lot of time boosting your skills and want to "audit" how you can learn more efficiently - then "Art of learning" may help you.

It is not a book that will change your life - it will rather help you think about learning as the process itself (only if you already spend a couple of years in your profession and basics are obvious for you). A book doesn't discover new things - it rather decomposes and explains well-known tips about learning. I mean things like:
- bad effects of "I do only those things in which I'm good at",
- how weak points of our lives are reflected in our professions,
- what really change after hundreds of repetitions,
- etc.

Those tips helped the author achieve the international level in 2 completely different disciplines - chess and Tai Chi. So I bet they will be helpful even if "our industry/company is unique" ;)

Some parts of the book seem to sound like coaching tips like "test yourself with challenges!". Sometimes that feeling is unfortunately correct (at least for me). But "Art of learning" is about regularity and small steps not about mindblowing discoveries
Profile Image for Chetan.
283 reviews5 followers
October 12, 2022
There are some books in life you read just when you need them. This was one of those books for me. There was something in Josh Waitzkin's method of explaining his thought process when learning things that clicked in my mind. How to systemize the data packets of memory that we absorb to one's advantage. Seeing the correlating flow between different processes. Understanding it through a systematic process. Creating an ability to remember more in great detail.
Profile Image for Nicole Glaros.
19 reviews11 followers
November 19, 2020
Absolutely fantastic. I am putting this on my “should read once a year” list.
Profile Image for Fei.
78 reviews
January 25, 2023
Dunno why this is marketed as a how-to-learn-better guide. It's pure autobiography. Granted, it's quite engaging autobiography, but due to the marketing, I feel lied to. Also, it's clear that this guy has no idea how to teach people how to learn. It's telling that he says this book is meant to take you from being great to excellent. He's never been less than great (as a 9 year old, he had the concentration to spend hours every day studying chess), and it shows in his tips. A lot of the book was just "I spent 8 hours a day learning to do this thing". But not all of us have that kind of concentration (and that's ok!), and he doesn't seem to get that.
38 reviews
August 31, 2020
Let me get this straight, Josh Waitzkin is a pure genius.

Having said that, I think the book is not for everyone. If you lack the imagination, you'll find it too boring or about chess or tai chi ONLY. Also, you won't like it if you want to read it casually. It's not that kind of book. Trust me, you'll most likely hate it.

Now, having given all the warnings, I will still give this book 5 stars. I think what Waitzkin has done (and now even after 15 years after writing this book), is sheer brilliant. He gives you a peek into what it means to operate in the 'zone' or at the world's best level. This is not how to become a good learner, although you'll learn that in a good sense. But it's a much more subtle study into what it takes to become the world's best.

Waitzkin's understanding of inner reflections astounded me. The ideas he tells are so deep, that you'll have to understand it again & again to really understand. Numbers to leave numbers. Form to leave form. One of the most beautiful concepts to achieve brilliance.

I think the core of the message Waitzkin tries to give is, being true to your self through your art. Most people give up on that inner self for something larger, they try to mold & fit themselves into other people's mental models. When you express your art (work, business, product, whatever you do) through your 'true self' that is by being grounded to your believes & what you think is right for you, you'll be able to undergo that pursuit of mastery much much more deeply & rigorously.

Obviously, this is one larger message, but another reason I picked up Waitzkin's book was to understand what it means to have good intuition, how it works, what can you do to improve it etc. The understanding which I got from Waitzkin was very profound and must have taken deep introspections to really understand what it takes to build up intuitions.

He brilliantly demystifies what it takes to be the world's best (.01%) in your field. And what further surprises me (still does) is that he has done it consistently again & again & again. Cross-application of his learning models & principles to completely different domains- Chess, Tai Chi Chuan, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, surfing, foiling, hedge funds, etc.

During reading this book, I was reminded of a line from Zen mind, beginners mind: 'When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try to understand everything, you will not understand anything.' This is also, in essence, another message which Waitzkin gives of 'depth over breadth'.

I really loved most of the concepts laid out in this book & will probably reread again & again. It's a great read, just not everyone's cup of tea though.
Profile Image for Calley.
42 reviews
April 6, 2011
At first it seemed like Waitzkin was writing this book as a weird way to satisfy his ego. After the first few pages written about how great and successful he has been in not one, but two realms of competition, I started to get a little irritated with him.

I found it a little suspect that he "invented" all of the moves he mentions in his learning process and fine-tuning his martial arts. The traditions have been around for thousands of years, and some twenty-something from New York. BUT after reading a bio on him, maybe he could have... hat's what the book is about. He is successful because of this approach he has learned, trusted and implemented with care.

By the end of the book, I was glad he had done so, because I trusted his methods- hell- it worked! He's somewhat humble, but does not discredit his success. In fact, sharing his techniques of learning and performance, he shows his scientific approach down his road to success. The book is narrow and doesn't try to cover or explain too much- it is well focused.
Profile Image for David.
124 reviews24 followers
July 24, 2010
The two ideas from this book that made the biggest impression on me were incremental learning (the stance that says "I could have done that differently" rather than "I'm no good at this") and investment in loss (seeking out difficulties as learning opportunities--a manifestation, I'd say, of Socratic wisdom). Peak performance is inspiring, and the book got me wondering how I could apply the learning principles it describes in my spiritual life, or in my teaching. And the journey from being a chess prodigy to a champion martial artist makes a decent story.

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