Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Chris Lovejoy

Josh Waitzkin has been an national chess champion and world martial arts champion. While becoming elite in these two separate entities, he realised a number of principles which are true of elite performance in any area. Josh uses his experiences to take the reader on a journey through the most important insights that he has acquired. The result is fantastic; an enjoyable, engaging read abound with sagacious insights into learning and elite performance. After a first read-through, I am confident this book is one that should returned to repeatedly with new insights to be obtained each time.

Some key concepts from the book (far from comprehensive):

  • Fixed vs growth mindset – encourage growth in others by praising process rather than results
  • Develop the ability to concentrate in different situations – Josh learnt to play chess in noisy streets but then got used to playing in quiet competition rooms. He started to get bothered by small sounds. To overcome this, he created artificially noisy situations during training so that he no longer thought about it.
  • Fame is not a benefit – if anything, it makes it more difficult to perform. Josh found this after becoming famous (after the movie ‘In Search of Bobby Fisher’ was made about him); he transitioned from an intrinsic to extrinsic motivation (“I stopped immersing myself in the game and found myself imaging how I looked while playing”) and found his performance suffered.
  • The benefit of a state change – sometimes in a game he would go outside for a quick sprint up and down then re-join the game and find his focus much improved. This is similar to the ’30-second ice-cold shower’ recommended by several people. The principle is that physiological change leads to psychological change, much like a ‘reset’ switch.
  • Maintaining a connection to primal inclination – to perform at your best you must stay true to yourself. Josh found this when a world-renowned trainer encouraged him to use the trainer’s style of chess which was very different to Josh’s. Josh’s style of play related to his love of complex situations – he loved having an open board with lots of possibilities but the trainer encouraged him to play more closed. Again, his performance dipped until I realised this and re-connected to his primal inclinations.
  • Creating a routine to enter a state of deep, intense focus – for use before an important event (competition, exam, important interview, etc) This routine should be things that naturally puts you into a good state. The case study used is a guy who loved playing catch with his son, so his routine started as 30 minutes meditation, 15 minutes music then playing catch with his son. It can start long but with practice will be able to do it shorter (gradually less time meditation/music/other), until you have conditioned yourself to be able to enter that state on command. For example, Josh can now take one big inhalation or a quick visualisation and enter this state, which he used before competitive martial arts fights.