The Art of Learning

I think we can learn something from a chess nerd and a master in martial arts. Josh Waitzkin’s has deconstructed learning in a way that few people has done. The Art of Learning outlines a systematic or methodical approach to learning.

Approaches to Learning

  1. Entity Theory of Intelligence – People belief that you are born with a skill, or sets of skills, and that those skills are unalterable.
  2. Incremental Theory of Intelligence – People belief that any concept can be grasped and mastered incrementally.

Highly intelligent people that embrace their Entity Theory of Intelligence are obligated to maintain the illusion of perfection. Therefore, they don’t do anything that might challenge them or they don’t face a concept that they can’t master immediately. Eventually, they stop learning.

Waitzkin recommends us to embrace the Entity Theory of Intelligence and master the fundamentals before moving further. Most young chess player begin learning complex open variations, instead of learning how a king moves against another king.

The Incremental Theory of Intelligence teaches us that grow comes when we get out of our comfort zone. Learn the fundamentals, then learn more complex things and adapt! We need to pursuit excellence!

Here we can see a correlation with Charlie Munger’s Mental Models, when he talked about that big ideas don’t change a lot. Once you learned those big ideas, then you can build on them. Don’t be incentivize in winning now, be incentivize with leaving a legacy.

Loving the Game

Waitzkin shares with us things that he did to achieve excellence:

  1. He developed a style that expresses the core of his being: Don’t try to change your personality or traits. On your job or sports, know your traits and use them to your advantage.
  2. Waitzkin said: When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses. The key, in my opinion, is to recognize that the beauty of those roses lies in their transience.” Small wins should be celebrated, because they build confidence. However, you can’t lose focus from the ultimate goal, which is to leave a legacy as the master of your craft.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself: If you fall in a plateau, make sure you internalize the necessary information and then move to the next level of learning. Practice under stress. One of the shots that basketball players simulate when they are practicing, is that last free throw shot that will determine if the game is going to be won. They simulate the stress among themselves. That way they will be more comfortable and familiarize, with the stress and crowd, if they get to that scenario. Napoleon Hill calls it visualization.
  4. Play in another world: The majority of the time, Waitzkin practiced chess with adults. That gave him another sets of skills that other kids didn’t have. It is clear that this gave him an advantage. This reminds me about the multidisciplinary approach that Charlie Munger is always emphasizing.

The Soft Zone

In this chapter Waitzkin outlines the process that he used for learning:

  1. Learning to adapt to any situation or circumstance in your life or field.
  2. Learning to use those situation or circumstances to your advantage.
  3. Learn how to be self-motivated and self-sufficient. Don’t depend on external stimulus.

Sports psychologists have a term for the first process: “the soft zone”. The zone is simply a mental state of total focus in the present moment. They call this being “immersed” as it indicates you don’t worry about outcomes or are not distracted when you perform. You trust your skills and react without worry, doubt, or fear about results.

The Downward Spiral

Using unfavorable events to your advantage is hard. In this chapter Waitzkin explains how disastrous tunnel vision can be. If a player is committed to his dominant position and don’t use every possible move to his/her advantage, even if are moves that will leave him/her in a equivalent position, it will restrict the number of possible moves. Putting him/her in a disadvantage.

One error might not be disastrous, but the psychological effect that has in a player can easily transform in a downward spiral. Use errors to your advantage.

Changing  Voice

Parallel learning or mental models – learning skills that apply to multiple areas –  is a useful efficiency technique to learn more in less time, but it is also more than that; it is a way to overlap the various areas of your life, recognizing the principles that connect them and learning to smoothly navigate those connections.

Breaking Stallions

[themify_quote]“I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition… By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.”[/themify_quote]

This is the principle that says that you need to capitalize on your strengths rather than trying to fix your weaknesses. If you expand on your strengths you are building on your natural voice or talents and your existing neural networks.

When a student have a mental model of a system, is better not to fit that student to a mold. Except if the student is a beginner.

Have a balance between creativity and practical awareness. Now your limits. Stretch your mind and yourself (physically) but don’t lose confidence. You need those small wins to keep confidence up, but at the same time look for stronger opponents or challenges, that is the only way you will grow.

Investment in Loss

[themify_quote]“I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice – both technical and psychological – he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field.”[/themify_quote]

The principle that Waitzkin want to teach us in this chapter is that we need to make mistakes, or take losses, in order for us to learn and not to repeat the same mistake again. He uses his own experience to teach us the Push Hands lesson: “not to clash with the opponent but to blend with his energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness.”

This is a very interesting method of learning, sometimes we have to deconstruct our learning and experience in order to learn from the loses of trying all over again. A basketball player that dribbles with the right hand, but has trouble dribbling with the left hand; has to go back and learn how to dribble effectively with the left hand. If not, he will not perform at the level that he is suppose to perform. This is a difficult task, because is a mental challenge. In order to achieve excellence, you will need to let other people see you fail.

Making Smaller Circles

Waitzkin teaches us that we need to master the micro before understanding the macro. How do you pretend to understand the economy, which is a complex system, without having a basic understanding on financial statements. Waitzkin says that the path to greatness is to truly and completely master the essentials at the deepest level possible.

Using Adversity

The best way to explain this chapter is by doing a sport’s analogy. A tennis player that is more proficient with his/her forehand, might intentionally play using his/her backhand during a game. Just to improve his/her performance. Remember, the subtitle of this book is “A Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”. You must face and overcome the psychological effects of your non-dominant area in order to achieve your optimal performance.

Slowing Down Time

Chunk the information and learn it until it becomes second nature. Intentionally, seek improvement everyday and you will see how your conscious mind will refine that skill with a lot of precision. This might take time.

The Illusion of the Mystical

In sports if your opponent see a deficiency, either psychological or physical, he/she is going to exploit it. They only way your opponent knows about your deficiency is because you told them.

Mental Programming is what Waitzkin uses to get an action/reaction from the opponent. Then he used that action/reaction against them.

Building Your Trigger

The key here is to do the few activities that you most enjoy before getting into a stressful situation. Those things that you most enjoy will put you in a state of serene or relaxed focus. Do this for a period of time, before going into any stressful situation, and your mind will start to make a connection.

Making Sandals

Emotions can lead us to mistakes. In order to take advantage of your emotions, you must know from where they are coming from. Don’t let your emotions control you. If happiness, anger, confidence, or fear inspires your best performance, you might want to build your trigger process to set up that particular mood.

Bringing It All Together


“In my experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities. The real art of learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.

At the highest levels of any kind of competitive discipline, everyone is great. At this point the decisive factor is rarely who knows more, but who dictates the tone of the battle. For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction.”