Book Reviews

Book Review: The Art of Learning

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The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

Author: Josh Waitzkin

Topic: Skill Acquisition, Learning, Coaching, Psychology

Appropriate for: Anyone interested in learning or helping those who learn!

Overall rating: 4/5


I was given this book for Christmas 2017 (last year) and finally got round to reading it this Christmas (2018)! Much of this was down to the title and the cover putting me off slightly – BUT I have to say this wasn’t warranted. This book gives a really interesting insight into the personal journey of a high performer (Author Josh Waitzkin) in two very different domains: Chess and Tai Chi! Obviously there are some great parallels with sport performance and coaching!

Josh Waitzkin was recognised as a child prodigy in Chess and is an 8 time US National Champion, developing the largest computer chess program in the world and literally writing a book on Chess! He is also the subject of the film “Searching for Bobby Fisher”. Since retiring from Chess, he took up Tai Chi, later winning several titles at the Tai Chi World Cup. He is also a black belt in Brazilian Jui-Jitsu! Personally, I’d struggle to think of someone else who has achieved at a high level in so many disciplines! He does a great job of tying in lessons about learning with his own personal experiences in performing.

The author introduces the concept of entity and incremental theories of intelligence. In short, entity theory suggest people attribute success or failure to an ingrained and unchanging level of ability. They see their overall skill level as unable to evolve or “fixed”. In contrast, incremental theory suggest people who hold the view that with hard work improvements can be made incrementally – step by step. “Incrementally the novice can become the master”. If this sounds familiar, it probably is, because this hails back to the growth mindset proposed by Carol Dweck. Waitzkin proposes that “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.” He also posits that “the real challenge is to stay in a long term focus when under fire and hurting in the middle of war.”

He also suggests successful people:

  • shoot for the stars (set high goals)
  • put their hearts on the line in every battle
  • discover that lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean more than trophies
  • He also posits that “the real challenge is to stay in a long term focus when under fire and hurting in the middle of war.”

A point that really stood out to me was that he highlights how the attitude of winning quickly and easily is effectively teaching performers to win without having to struggle. The issue he suggests is this is “like developing the habit of stealing the test from your teacher’s desk instead of learning how to do the maths. You may pass the test, but you learn nothing and most critically, you don’t gain an appreciation for the value or beauty of learning itself.” How often do we see youth sport coaches apply strategies/tactics for the “easy win”?

An interesting concept he introduces is “Investment in loss”, essentially giving yourself to the learning process. He suggests this requires the ego to be sacrificed to pursue learning opportunities. Allowing ourselves to lose face and eat humble pie while we climb the ladder of mastery, learning from mistakes and practice. He also suggests that this mindset is particularly difficult to maintain when there is pressure to perform. In the domain of Tai Chi push hands training, this was training with people more advanced and allowing himself to be tossed around while learning. How often do we see athletes avoiding areas they are weak in or lack to avoid losing face and protecting ego?

Another interesting area he discusses is the contrast between two chess coaches he experienced. “Dvoretsky wanted to break me – shock and awe- and Razuvaev wanted to bring out my natural shine.” He reflects how the initial coach potentially caused him to distance himself from his natural talent and integrated a particular style of chess, resulting in “losing my centre of gravity in chess.” While the latter believed he was a gifted player who should not be bullied away from his strengths. Again there are interesting parallels to coaching here, how often have you heard of coaches coaching creativity out of a player, adhering to a “system”, rather than giving a platform for them to express their natural instincts?

I would really recommend reading this book. There’s a number of other topics it discusses that I didn’t even mention including:

  • converting distraction to fuel
  • using adversity
  • making smaller circles (another interesting concept)
  • the power of presence
  • building your performance trigger
  • searching for the zone

You can find the book here: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

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