Book review – The Art of Learning

On the way back from Houston last week, I dug into The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.  Josh was a remarkably gifted former chess wunderkind in his youth whose exploits were chronicled in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer". In an unusual turn of events, Josh changed his focus to tai chi competition in his early 20's and became a world champion there as well.  He now is focused on brazilian jiu jitsu.

The entire theme of the book is essentially that Josh does not feel like he is gifted specifically at chess or tai chi.  He attributes his success to a love of learning and details the specific pieces of it that he has observed throughout his career.

Let's cover a few of the interesting chapters.

Losing to win

Losing is tough.  Nobody really likes it, per se.

On the other hand, you must be willing to lose to win.  It's as simple as that.

Josh tells anecdotes of particular competitors in childhood who collapsed immediately when faced with a truly tough situation or their first big loss.  He also talks about kids who instinctually avoided tougher enemies … partly because the prospect of disappointment from their parents was so daunting.

What Josh did was different.  He sought out unfamiliar competitors and uncomfortable styles of play.  In losing … in exceeding the levels of his comfort and his game … he raised himself up time and time again.

Even in adulthood, he tells the story of a large, dominating individual named Frank who slammed Josh around for months in tai chi training.  Josh willingly submitted to this in order to better himself. In the end, Frank stops practicing with him in just a few fights after Josh finally rises above his level.  Instead of viewing Josh's success as a new opportunity to better himself, he shrinks away.  Frank only likes winning.

To be blunt, I know many people like Frank.  A lot of people derive satisfaction from the act of winning.  I have always felt it is better to appreciate a hard earned victory.  In fact, many of my friends know that I will try certain things precisely because I am terrible at them.  And I have never once been disappointed by my ability to become decent at something with enough effort.

I am freqently disappointed when I see people fail to challenge themselves, even when there is no cost to them at all except a little bit of ego.  If there is nothing to lose, why not try it?  When I truly apply myself to certain problems and find myself overcoming what once seemed incomprehensible and impossible, I feel gratified.  This has ranged from coordination in drumming syncopation to being able to tease out and find a tiny mathematical bug in some MPEG-2 code that was causing red colors to bleed all over the place.  I feel like this lesson is one I've already internalized well, so it was gratifying to see it put to paper. 

Two approaches to learning

This chapter talks about two mindsets to learning.

The first, an "entity" mindset, describes the kind of person that ascribes success to an innate level of ability.  "I am smart at this."

The second, an "incremental" mindset, describes a person that believes success is a result of hard work.  "I should have tried harder" or "I got it because I worked very hard at it".

The research shows that incremental theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game.  Entity types are far more likely to have a learned helpnessless response when encountering failure, to the point where, after hitting a roadblock on a tough situation, the loss affects previously mastered problems.

It should come as no surprise that the incremental approach is the better one.  For yourself and with kids, the idea is to compliment effort and speak of everything as a process of effort and time.  Kids are not dumb and know that results matter as well, so you shouldn't dodge the issue when a setback occurs.  Simply consider losses to be part of the learning process and wins to be enjoyed, but in a transient fashion.

The soft zone

The soft approach embraces adversity.  The hard approach resists potential obstacles.  The author compares it to walking in the rain to your car … do you tense up, scrunch over and run to your car as quickly as possible?  Or do you accept the rain and not let it affect you … perhaps even try to enjoy it as you walk?

This analogy resonated with me significantly because, strangely enough, I had found myself recently thinking about this very issue before I even read this chapter.  Why, I wondered, did I tend to try and cover myself and run to the car when it wasn't going to help much at all?  Running does not really keep much drier, but it certainly makes me feel stressed out.  So lately I've taken to simply walking normally and letting the rain fall on me.

Back to the point.  You are concentrating on an important game.  Suddenly, a jack hammer starts going off outside.  Or perhaps some fans start heckling you.  What do you do?

The best players can take the noise and turn it to their advantage.  Spike Lee, for example, would constantly heckle Reggie Miller courtside.  Seems good, right?  Not when you realized that Reggie Miller was using him as fuel for his fire … blowing out the Knicks time after time.

Adversity doesn't go away.  We don't live in a perfect world.  Becoming flexible, like a reed in the wind, instead of fracturing under pressure, is extremely important.  Turning such events to your psychological advantage is a key element of competitive psychology.

Other notes and conclusion

In recounting his road to the Push Hands Tai Chi world championship, I was shocked at the extreme level of cheating present at the Tai Chi world championships in Taiwan.  Pretty much everything you can think of was done to favor the local teams … from changing the rules right at the beginning of the tournament (of course, the local teams knew well in advance), to trying to wear out the foreign teams with another mandatory tournament, to simply not counting scored points.  It was absolutely disgusting to read.

It is a testament to Josh that his extreme depth made him so far superior to his opponent that he was able to overcome truly staggering levels of dishonesty by the officials and still win.  My parents are from Taiwan, even if I'm not, so I feel some sense of cultural embarassment.

The world Josh has lived in is, in a word, intense.  The extreme levels of intensity required to perform at a competitive level are daunting.  I feel as if I should engage in some sort of competitive activity to keep my mind sharp, but my fear is that it will dominate my time to the exclusion of other activities.  Not to make excuses, but considering it further, that's a completely valid problem to have with the whole thing.  What I need is a way to compete without it sucking up too much of my time.  I'm not sure my mindset can handle that, though!

Many of the concepts in the book rang true as soon as I read them.  We learn by practicing and honing our minds to process patterns, not by memorizing rules.  Our brains are essentially big, giant, pattern recognition machines.  Internalizing those patterns is a matter of repetition, deep analysis, and then taking numerical insights to an unconscious level.

To sum up, I absolutely recommend this book.  It gives you valuable no nonsense insight into the m
indset of a winner, and it demonstrates the importance of a healthy and productive mindset.  Josh is phenomenally attuned to his own psychology and is more capable of expressing those thoughts in the written word than most authors I have read.  Easily worth the money.

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