February 26, 2020

Book notes from the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is a look at his life and his road to excellence. He was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, became a master of Tai Chi and has applied his learning techniques to brazilian jiu-jitsu.

One thing that struck me about Josh was the fact that when he was younger, there was an intense study and focus on end game positions. In chess, there are three phases of the game, the opening, the middle, and the end game. I played a bit of chess when I was younger, and I remember trying to memorize different openings to catch my opponent off guard. Josh had a very different approach to the game: instead of memorizing openings (and there are many, many different kinds of openings so memorizing openings is a bit of a rabbit hole), his teacher and him focused on end games. What happens with a king and a pawn versus a king? What happens with a king and a queen versus a king and a rook? As there are many fewer pieces in the end game than in the opening, this meant that there was less to memorize, but these types of scenarios helped to solidify a number of principles for Josh that could be applied to wider situations.

Here is what I learned from Josh on how to learn:

Two approaches to learning

Josh calls these two approaches as ‘entity’ and ‘incremental’. If you see yourself as an ‘entity’, you see yourself as someone that cannot evolve. If you see yourself as an ‘incremental’ learner, it means that you took steps to improve and grow. This is why you may have heard that when you praise kids, you praise them not at the skill that they are displaying “Oh you are so good at math”, rather, you praise them for the hard work that they put in “Oh you worked so hard on your math assignments”. In the first scenario, kids may start to see themselves as ‘good at math’ and so when they receive a bad math grade, they think to themselves that no matter how much work they put in, they will receive a bad math grade because they have always been told that they are good at math. In the second scenario, the kids have a better understanding of why they got a bad grade at math. They did not put in enough work. Do you see yourself as an ‘entity’ or an ‘incremental learner’?

Simplify

When Josh first learned chess, his teacher taught him how to play with a king and a pawn against a king, and how to win. Through these very basic positions, he was taught more complex concepts such as zugzwang, which is the idea of using the fact that the opponent has to make a move against them. Let me try to explain a bit further. Zugzwang occurs when your opponent has reached a good position on the board, but any move that they make weakens their position. The fact that chess is a turn-based game, and that they have to move, means that they would rather not move than to move. And since they do have to make a move, it makes their position weaker on the board. He was also able to learn other complex concepts due to the simplicity of these practices. As I mentioned, many beginners to chess start by memorizing openings, but a better way is to start simple. Currently, I am trying to learn how to swim through the Total Immersion (TI) method and the key concept there is ‘balance’. The very first drill is to float on your black and find your balance, because finding your balance will help you in all future drills. You do not learn swimming in TI through leg movements, arm movements or other simple movements that you have to later integrate. The first drill strips away everything except laying on your back and kicking your legs gently.

Losing to win

Losing is tough, but unfortunately, the only way to get better is to increasingly challenge yourself, whether it is lifting heavier and heavier weights, shaving down times on your runs or taking on increasingly difficult work where the work is just beyond your expertise and knowledge. Winning and being a success is always going to feel better than losing or failing, but to really grow, you need to be comfortable with challenging yourself sometimes and not succeeding. Josh calls this ‘investment in loss’. When he was learning tai chi and pushing hands, the natural response to someone pushing you is to resist or to push back. In pushing hands however, the concept is to ‘float’ away so that there is nothing for your opponent to push on. Imagine if you and your friend are trying to push each other over. Your friend pushes you and so rather than resisting, you try to take a step back. Your friend steps forward and their momentum combined with the fact that you may run out of room means that you will eventually have to resist and push back. Rather, Josh says that we need to be okay with falling over to learn not to resist, otherwise we end up always pushing back and not learning the right concepts. When I am challenging myself with heavier weights than I have ever done, I first practice my form on lighter weights before attempting the same movement on a heavier weight. I make it safe to fail, but I try to make sure that my form is correct, otherwise I will end up hurting myself in different ways if I try to compensate through other movements.

Controlling your state of mind

Josh, when he was playing tournaments, would often be exposed to stimuli that would get him out of his element. A song in the background for instance (and mind you, he was a child) that he did not like would play and it would be stuck in his head and frustrate him to the point of him making a bad move and losing the chess game. Or one of his opponents subtly tapping a chess piece at critical moments in the chess game to make Josh lose his rhythm and flow. Josh decided that he would try to expose himself to these external stimuli as practice to make sure that he could continue to concentrate. He would play chess games where smoke was blown in his face. He would try to concentrate on positions while blasting music that he liked and that he did not like. If you are a world class athlete or performer, do you want to be interrupted or lose your concentration from somebody yelling your name or otherwise distracting you?

Use adversity to your advantage

When Josh was in a pushing hands competition, his opponent broke his hand during one match. This forced Josh to train without his dominant hand. He found that he had actually done a lot of things that compensated for his weaker left side that he only discovered after he was forced to use his weaker side. When he came out of the injury, it made him that much stronger because he had strengthened his weaker side. Similarly, there may be things that you do when learning and growing where you may be relying on your strengths to cover up your weaknesses. Not a strong writer, but a better visual designer? You may have slides with more images than writing. Not into sales, but good at delivering and executing projects? You keep yourself on projects rather than try to network with customers.

What do you think about some of these principles by Josh? How will you apply it to your life to help you grow and improve?


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