The Art of Learning (Book Review)

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is a great book on how to achieve peak performance. It mixes together his personal journey in chess and push hands with frameworks he discovered during his life. In my summary below, I will pick apart the principles and see how I can apply them in my own life. The main question I have is how to apply these things that are applied to the relative or very short timeframe, with learning and performing over longer periods of time without those competition moments.

Incremental Learning

Josh argues that there are two ways of learning. The first is the entity theorists (fixed mindset). The second is the incremental theorists (learning, hard work).

I think most people are aware that we can learn new things (just think back to when you were a baby). Yet that many also think that we can’t become better at many things we do (e.g. chess, tennis, baking).

He argues that the incremental learning approach (of course) is better. And that you can always learn more, especially with the techniques listed below.

Simplify

In chess, Josh applied the simplification by starting with the endgame. This meant he only had to deal with 2-3 pieces on the board. He then also practised with other pieces alone, to get a deep understanding of how they work. This in contrast to learning everything about chess with a full board.

Personally, I see the application of this in many things. One example is learning weightlifting. The Snatch, for instance, is quite the complex movement, but if you focus on one part each time or break it up during warm-up, you learn over time to do the whole movement better and better.

Layering

From this simplified version, can you add extra layers of complexity? Here Josh mentions how he builds up chess positions or tai chi movements again to their full form. Each time with a deep, intuitive, understanding of the layer(s) below.

I guess I already touched upon this a bit with the simplifying example. I can also see this work in business. With Queal we started with just one product, then added flavours, variations, other products, dashboard, etc. Each time building upon the foundations of the layer before.

Making Smaller Circles

A duality or mix of both simplification and layering is ‘making smaller circles’. Here Josh means that you can have an expert understanding of a move or position, but make it even smaller than before.

An example he uses is that of ‘controlling the centre’. Grandmasters in chess can apply this at other places on the board too. For push hands, it means making your moves smaller and smaller so that can outwith your opponent (imagine a boxer’s left hook versus a drunk swinging his arm around).

For myself, I can imagine this applying to the techniques in the Snatch. Or to better understand what entrepreneurial things to work on (versus not). But I don’t have the best example/understanding here yet.

Lose Yourself

Losing yourself touches upon that deep/intuitive understanding of a topic and executing at ‘superhuman’ speeds/levels. I understand it as being able to connect things without having to deliberate about it (using your prefrontal cortex, or ‘talking’ to yourself).

It reminds me of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I’ve experienced flow (as described in the book) sometimes but not very often. I think you can apply it to entrepreneurship, but here you also need a lot of research, doing excel, and meetings. Not always the best for flow.

Examples/Coaching

You need a coach (see Triggers). A coach can help you see what is the right way to do something. And together with a coach you can improve faster than if you’re doing it on your own.

I’ve seen this both at Queal and with weightlifting. It’s hard work and sometimes not too much fun, but a coach does really help you learn quicker. Of course, do find someone who can match your learning style and knows how to get the most out of you.

Constraints

At our office we have a ‘game’ in which you are give certain constraints and then have to apply that to your idea. It can help idea new ways of solving the problem, find costs saving, find what the core of an idea is.

Josh mentions that he couldn’t use one of his hands in the lead-up to a tournament, so he had to learn how to defend his body (and attack the other) with just one hand. This led to many creative insights and a technique that was harder to combat by his opponents.

I also remember a story of Toyota (true or not), that they don’t allow debt within each division, which triggers each one of them to think of the best way to make what they need in the most efficient way possible (the company has enough money/ability to borrow, so it’s a voluntary constraint).

Opponents

Find the biggest guy in the room, pick a fight. Ok, that is not exactly how Josh described it, but having good opponents is key. It’s someone (or another company) from which you can learn, someone who has something to teach you.

At Queal, we learn from moves that other companies make. And that includes opponents, but also others outside our space (I don’t remember if he mentions this much, but I think you can learn a lot from other disciplines).

Losing to Win

When you’re facing a bigger/better/faster opponent, be prepared to lose. Here Josh argues that you should check your ego at the door. Don’t be disheartened by loss, but learn how to extract lessons from it.

In the world of business, I think a good example is sales people. Some go home and worry, others see what 1% did go well and try to make that 2%. The most difficult thing here (for me) is to know what is information/signal from all the noise. If our sales go down, can we learn what to do better, or was it just random fluctuations?

Losing to win is definitely something where a coach is very helpful.

Pause to Accelerate

If you keep throwing yourself at something, you may get a breakthrough. More likely you will burn out. So pause once every while and recover (even recover in between sets, or when working 8 hours). And on a large scale, take a summer break and come back with new ideas.

In this fast-paced world, I think this is a great principle to adhere to and something I hold dear. I can’t keep on working and working (maybe unless in the flow for a few hours) and taking a step back is, in many cases, the best thing to do.

Find the Zone

Many people can’t do good work at home. Too many distractions, too many patterns that you trigger that aren’t related to work (doing dishes, tv around, hi neighbour). Josh has found that you should always trigger yourself to find ‘the zone’.

The trigger could be a mediation, a jog outside, your favourite song (a combination of these and more). If you do this every time before you want to do your best work, then eventually this can become the thing that gets you to do your best work.

Josh also combines this with another one of the skills, making smaller circles. What if you don’t have time now for the 15-minute meditation? Try and (over multiple sessions) make the meditation shorter and shorter. So that when there is a situation when you can’t do the full ritual, you can still get in the zone.

His personal example of this smaller circle was a breath. Before he got on the mat to do push hands, just one breath could centre him.

Making Sandals

If you’re walking on glass, you can be angry and pained. Or you can make sandals. Here Josh argues that you can use your passion/anger as fuel to build something better. Is the other guy cheating, don’t break out in a fit, show the a-hole that you’re better than him.

Another way of looking at this is sandals vs not taking the path at all. In our world, we face many problems and we can’t solve everything, but that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes. I personally try and be very rational and see where we could have the biggest impact (e.g. malaria).

Be Unique

At the highest level, everyone is technically adept. Here you need to distinguish yourself by bringing everything you’ve learned, by being unique. That is the thing that others can’t replicate. And the way you might become push hands champion or a chess grandmaster.

Applying this to my own life

During this review I’ve tried to find some examples where I’m applying the techniques/lessons to my own life. I see several places where it could be useful and one thing that it reminds me of is another term: deliberate practice. Not just going through the motions, but being in the presence/zone and actively learning how to do something better.

Weightlifting is what comes to mind, but how to do my work at Queal, how to eat right, and how to do all other things in life, are all places where I can apply some of the lessons above. Again, a recommended book that teaches some great lessons.

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