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The Art of Leaning by Josh Waitzkin.
Image credit: Lou Levit

Book Summary: The Art of Leaning by Josh Waitzkin

Imagine being a nine year old child playing chess against fully grown men. Now imagine competing in a martial art that is a nation’s pride and officials trying every thing they can to stop you from winning at their sport.

This is exactly what Josh Waitzkin has done. He was a child chess prodigy and the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was based on his life. After this he went on to become a TaiChi push hands world champion and later obtain his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt.

But why should any of this matter to you?

Well Josh has detailed his learning process in his book: The art of learning.

This book goes in to his struggles as a child, dealing with his sudden found ave after the movie was released. His learning process in chess and Tai Chi, which is probably not what you expect or what you are doing if you want to learn a new skill.

The book is also brilliantly written with some truly captivating personal stories.

I shot a short video to summarize only 3 of the key take aways:


Some excerpts from the book that are worth remembering:

“In my opinion, the answer to both questions lies in a well-thought-out approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and day-to-day enjoyment of the process. The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning. They fall frustrated by the wayside while those on the road to success keep steady on their paths.”

“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.”

“The problem is that when I got angry, I was thrown off my game. I tried to stay level-headed, but this one rival of mine had no limits. He would push me to the point of utter exasperation and I would often self-destruct. I have come to believe that the solution to this type of situation does not lie in denying our emotions, but in learning to use them to our advantage. Instead of stifling myself, I needed to channel my mood into heightened focus— and I can’t honestly say that I figured out how to do this consistently until years into my martial arts career when dirty opponents tried to take out my knees, target the groin, or head-butt me in the nose in competition.”

“When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.”

“A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but not so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents.”

“In order to grow, he needs to give up his current mind-set. He needs to lose to win. The bruiser will need to get pushed around by little guys for a while, until he learns how to use more than brawn. William Chen calls this investment in loss. Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process.”

“The theme is depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick……. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

“Once we reach a certain level of expertise at a given discipline and our knowledge is expansive, the critical issue becomes: how is all this stuff navigated and put to use? I believe the answers to this question are the gateway to the most esoteric levels of elite performance. When I started thinking about how I could consistently make my perception of time be different from my opponents’, I realized that I had to delve into the operating mechanism of intuition.”

“It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one’s relationship to discomfort? The reaction to surprise? The need for control?”

“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. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.”

“I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.”

“My answer is to redefine the question. Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday— the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness— is where success, let alone happiness, emerges.”

“But far more critical than these rare climactic explosions, I believe that this type of condensing practice can do wonders to raise our quality of life. Once a simple inhalation can trigger a state of tremendous alertness, our moment-to-moment awareness becomes blissful, like that of someone half-blind who puts on glasses for the first time. We see more as we walk down the street. The everyday becomes exquisitely beautiful. The notion of boredom becomes alien and absurd as we naturally soak in the lovely subtleties of the “banal.” All experiences become richly intertwined by our new vision, and then new connections begin to emerge. Rainwater streaming on a city pavement will teach a pianist how to flow. A leaf gliding easily with the wind will teach a controller how to let go. A housecat will teach me how to move. All moments become each moment. This book is about learning and performance, but it is also about my life. Presence has taught me how to live.

To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.

“In Making Smaller Circles we take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power, until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal.”

“In Slowing Down Time, we again focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, we can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down.”

I truly hope that you will read this book. Each person will learn something different from its pages and I am sure that I will walk away with different takeaways the next time that I read it.