This book, “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, is not the ultimate guide to learn how to learn, but a journey. Josh’s journey mastering chess and later in his life mastering Tai Chi (a Chinese martial art). Based on his experience he offers valuable advice on how to master a skill!
Joshua Waitzkin won the U.S. Junior Chess championship two times, and won several other chess competitions during his career.
As an adult, he learned Tai Chi and won several US National medals and also won a champion title (Taiji Push Hands in 2004).
I didn’t know exactly what to expect from this book, but I can say it was a nice surprise.
Even though the book focus mostly on the author’s career and life, he teaches valuable lessons on how to master a skill.
I learnt a lot of different things, techniques and insights that I definitely want to apply in order to master a skill! Here are my favorite lessons learnt in The Art of Learning!
DNA or Hard Work?
Josh referred two examples in order to explain two different types of learners:
1) Let’s imagine you are a kid: each time you bring a test with a good grade your parents will be very happy and will congratulate you. But when you bring a test with a bad grade they will ask you “What happened???”, “I’m seeing you are better at maths than at English”, “You’re just like me. It’s in your DNA. I was also bad at English and a pro at maths!”
Not only your parents will say this, but also some of your teachers.
Those affirmations have a huge impact on kids because they will simply internalise they are good at maths, and bad at English. They will think they were born with this inner capacity to solve math problems, but suck at writing English essays.
They will not put effort to improve their writing skills, they will just think they are less intelligent than their colleagues.
I had this one teacher when I was 11, who literally made me believe I was crap at arts. I’m not saying I’m good, because I’m not, but I also know I could improve a lot if I practised.
Mostly, I’m bad at drawing. Imagine a penguin trying to draw while dancing to the rhythm of an heavy metal song. That’s how I draw. But I’m not that bad painting stuff (1-1).
Thankfully, because of everything I learnt throughout this years, I know I still stuck in a lot of things related to arts. Not because I can’t learn and improve, but because I don’t really feel any excitement to practice. But I feel totally ok with it!
2) On the other side, some parents, when you bring a test with a bad grade will encourage you to work more. They will tell you: “you can do best in the next test if you practise more! I know you can”. Not only parents have this important role but also teachers.
Teachers who encourage their students to work more, and also offer their help, are so important!
These kind of parenting and teaching, will make kids and teens give more importance to hard work and creativity than to the “I was born being good at this and awful at that”.
And yes, it is true that our genetics plays an important role, but that’s something we can’t control. The only variable that depends on us is our ability to work harder in order to master a skill!
The two examples differentiate people who dedicate a lot of time to become better in subjects they find more difficult, and the ones who simply give up because “it’s written in my DNA I’m bad at English”.
Intense Focus in 1 thing to master a skill!
When Josh started learning chess, his master started by teaching him the end of the game. So instead of trying to learn all the different pieces at a time, he focused in only two.
In the chess table there would be only, for example, a king and a pawn vs a king. By practising this way, he mastered each piece individually. He then, progressively, started learning the middle game and the opening.
This chess learning method can be applied to everything you want to learn. It’s more valuable to focus deeply in one or two things (in the beginning) than to try to master everything at the same time (which will make you feel lost).
The less you focus on, the more in depth you go into that experience! Most of the times, this principle is the key to master a skill.
Anyway, when you start progressing and gaining more skill, some obstacles will emerge and it’s important to learn how to go through them.
In times of difficulty, the most valuable asset you can have is: resilience and mental toughness! But those must be practised everyday in order to be good at them.
Soft Zone and Hard Zone!
The ideal state of mind on an important day is relaxed and focused (soft zone). But most of the times, there are things you can’t control and your mind falls out of place (hard zone).
The way to deal with the things you can’t control, is to accept them and to not let them affect your perfomance. Easier said than done, this requires a lot of practise, in order to ignore distractions.
Josh tells he once lost a chess match, because he couldn’t stop thinking about a song. To avoid more situations like this, he started practising chess in undesirable conditions in order to prepare himself for the future. So he would practise chess with music till he could actually align his thoughts with the music rhythm.
I think this is a really interesting approach on learning how to deal with unpredictable obstacles and distractions, by using those same distractions during your practise.
This way, you get from the hard zone to the soft ideal zone (reaching the flow mode), whatever the external conditions might be.
Turning disadvantages into advantages
When Josh was already pretty good in Tai Chi, he broke his right arm. As you can imagine this event would be a tragedy for most athletes. Well, Josh fought this adversity with courage, resilience and patience!
His doctor said he needed to recover for 6 weeks. Did he stayed in the sofa for 6 weeks? No!
In the next day of the event, he showed up to train. For 6 weeks he tried to fight his opponents with only his left arm. This become a huge advantage for him, because he mastered some techniques with only one hand.
Every time he did exercises with his left arm, he would visualize himself doing the exact same thing with his broken arm. He didn’t exactly knew if this would change anything, but he did it anyway everyday during the 6 weeks of recovery.
After the 6 weeks, his doctor was surprised with his quick and effective recovery. And Josh was able to compete again.
When you find yourself in a challenge situation, staying in the sofa is not the best way to deal with it. The chess player recommends us to do the exact same thing he did (practicing with only his left hand) even if you don’t have any injury.
So if you are a football player practise the kicking with your less skilled feet. If you play basketball use your weaker hand to score. This is an excellent way to practise and improve our abilities.
I know some people who do this type of practise in their everyday life, by brushing their teeth and by eating with the opposite hand they are used to.
I have done this in the past but not very frequently, because I would just forget. But after reading this book, I want to make sure I include this practise in my everyday life. Because of the way it strengths my resilience muscle! I wrote in my mirror “LEFT-HAND”, to remember to brush my teeth with my left hand! And I’m also putting butter in my bread with my left hand, it’s weird and funny.
Simple practises can become huge advantages in the future!
What separates the best from the good is their ability to remain calm in stressed environments.
Josh brings the recovery concept to teach the importance of learning how to deal with stress and lack of focus.
He would fight the best he could for a specific amount of time, and then he would recover for 1 minute, and come back to fighting again.
This method of recovery can be applied to pretty much everything you do in life! And it should be practised in order to gain the ability to recover quicker (which again can become a huge advantage if you are competing).
If you are doing physical exercise, you should give your very best during a period of time, and then recover for a few minutes, and come back to exercise and give your very best, again!
If you are reading and you are losing focus, stop for a minute, recover your focus (doing for example breathing exercises), and come back to continue reading effectively.
Create a trigger to get in the zone!
This technique was one of my favourite parts of the book, because I found it really unique and useful. It consists on creating a routine that will put you in a desired mood. I’m going to use the example Josh gives in the book in order to explain his method, but shorten it a little bit:
A man created a routine to execute everyday before playing football with his son (which he did everyday). It consisted on a few practises, such as: eating breakfast (10 minutes), meditating (15 minutes), stretching (10 minutes) and listening to a Bob Dylan’s song.
He practised this routine everyday for one month, before playing football with his kid, which was something he loved!
He then did the same routine before going to work meetings. Those meeting were always stressful and suffocating for him.
But because he did this routine before going, he felt much more relaxed and in a good mood during the meetings! This happened because his brain associated the routine with a playful and enjoyable mood.
This technique can be used, for example, before doing any kind of stressful activity (meetings, presentations, competitions, etc).
Each person should create their own personal routine by first associating it with an enjoyable activity, and then using it before a more stressful event.
But it’s also important to adapt your routine to some unpredictable adversities, because you won’t always have the right conditions to complete your routine. That is why you should, progressively, apply small changes to decrease the time of your routine.
The father started reducing his meditation from 15 to 12 minutes, the stretching from 10 to 8 minutes, and he listened to the Bob Dylan’s song while eating his breakfast. This type of changes should not affect negatively your mood if you do them progressively.
After a long time mastering his routine, by only thinking in the lyrics of the Bob Dylan’s song, he would feel in the zone (which means the desired mood).
Wouldn’t it be great to think about a specific song and immediately feel more relaxed and focused?