Finished Reading: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

The main reason I read so much is to learn. So I couldn’t pass up a book with the title The Art of Learning. The author, Josh Waitzkin, was as chess champion and the subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his years in chess he moved into tai chi and its martial form, push hands. He became a world champion there as well. In the book, part memoir, part a distillation of Josh’s analysis of his own performance and how he tried to learn from it over the years. This is the art of learning to which the title refers.

When I read, I’m usually on the lookout for two things. The first is pure education: what I can I take away from my reading that I can use to improve myself. Sometimes these are concrete ideas. One example was the way Tom Kelly, in his book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, talked about how he used notebooks to capture his work and thoughts on the development of the lunar lander while working for Grumman. I read that book in 2001, and it changed the way (to say nothing of the volume) I take notes. Sometimes the takeaways are more abstract. A books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, one the surface, a history of a scientific and engineering marvel (or terror). Beneath the surface, my biggest takeaways were all on how manage large scale projects. It is why I consider it one of the best books on project management I’ve come across. Finally, education is sometimes just that: filling in gaps in knowledge of whatever subject I might be reading about.

The second thing I lookout for is affirmation. When I read something and recognize that it is something I do that seems to work for me, it often affirms my methods. This is what I found most of in The Art of Learning.

Early in the book, Josh breaks down intelligence into two types, entity and incremental intelligence. He writes,

Children who are “entity theorists”… are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a think that cannot evolve.

Incremental theorists, or “learning theorists”,

are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped–step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

The latter definition was the first affirmation I encountered because this is very much my style of learning, even today. The best example I have of this was when I was learning calculus. I remember trying to break the problems in the book into categories: these one use this rule, these other ones are special exceptions to that rule, and so on. Once I had a set of problem types, I didn’t try to just tackle each problem outright. Instead, I tried to develop a set of steps that would work for any problem of that particular type. First do x, then y, then z. When I studied for tests, I would first go through a set of problems and classify them into the types I had identified; then I could attack each one using the method I’d come up with for that type.

Another affirmation came when Josh discussed how he had to adapt his study methods for chess. Noise had bothered him, and could throw him off his focus, and take his mind down a rabbit hole away from the particular chess problem he was trying to solve. Rather than get frustrated and try to eliminate all noise, Josh took the opposite approach:

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have more resilient concentration. I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.

This has also been my approach. In my post productive years of writing (in terms of variety of what I wrote and where I sold stories) I wrote every day for 825 consecutive days. I never missed a day. At the time, the Little Man was 4 and the Little Miss was two. The house was a constant flurry of activity and noise. One of the things I had to get used to was working while sitting in the midst of all of that noise. I had to get used to interruptions in the flow of my writing. Up to that time, I always told myself I needed quiet to write, but I had no choice. I forced myself to adjust and that adjustment allowed for some of my most productive writing. Being adaptable was important. I wrote about this for Adobe’s 99U when I had passed 350 days of my streak.

Later in the book, Josh describes his competition for the world push hands championship in Taiwan. Reading his descriptions of the event can be frustrating: he describes how the rules are continually changed (or ignored) to favor the local heroes as opposed to the foreigners. Some of this is tactical. If you can get under your opponent’s skin, you have a clear advantage. So Josh had to learn to anticipate these antics and deal with them without losing his cool. It reminds me of what we have tried to teach the Little Man.

When he loses points on a test for something that he considers unfair (“the teacher said this wouldn’t be on the test”) the Little Man can get worked up. What we have tried to teach him is that life constantly throws curves. Preparing for anything is often more than preparing for just what you expect. You have to prepare for the unexpected as well. When something goes sideways, you have to do your best not to let it rattle you. Good preparation goes a long way here, but even the best preparation can’t anticipate everything. That’s when you sometimes have to let things go. It is actually a great lesson in equanimity.

I enjoyed Josh’s book. His insights are keen and valuable, but most of the lessons in the book seem geared to the highest performers, the elite few who are already close to the top of their game and are looking for that edge to bridge the gap to the top. I am certainly not in that category, but I found many things in the book that affirmed practices I already had, and that much felt good.

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