The Art of Learning



ISBN: 978-0743277464

READ: 2015-10

AUTHOR: Josh Waitzkin

Josh Waitzkin was a young chess prodigy, who mastered learning techniques to champion Tai Chi as well. His story inspires anyone who considers learning an essential meta-skill, in order to tackle virtually any area of life.



“There are two types of learning process:

  1. Entity theorists (learned helplessness orientation)

  2. Learning theorists (mastery-oriented response)” p.31

You would find the same types in The Wisest One In The Room, at page 228. I’m switching from the first to the second. It’s hard, but is worth the effort. Almost everything could be learned, once the framework of learning has changed. It might be easier to look for our ‘thing’ and try to master it, because the passion would fuel the learning process. Bear in mind, although, that passion should be a long-term goal, and it usually follows hard work and discipline.

Identity is something that should be mainly fluid, in order to embrace change as it may be to your advantage. Mindfulness is a great way to develop it. See how preeminent contemporary thinker Maria Popova expands on the flowing process of identity and its arduous gifts.


“Very smart kids with entity theories tend to be far more brittle when challenged than kids with learning theories who would be considered not quite as sharp.” p.31

I usually feel brittle when challenged, and that makes me think that I still have much to work about myself to switch to the learning approach.


How do you transform axioms into fuel for creative insights?

“What we really need: the difficult questions that remain unanswered.” Seth Godin


“One of the most critical strengths of a superior competitor in any discipline is the ability to dictate the tone of the battle.” p.42

My battle is to be responsible for everything that happens inside myself, to take care of it, and to strive for better and better solutions.


“While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy.

When it comes down to it, the only way to learn how to swim is by getting in the water.” p.44

I wondered: is process-first philosophy an excuse for never putting myself on the line and pretending not to care about results?

No. I care very much about results.  I pretend a lot from myself, but I dealt poorly with short-term goal setting. I journal every day and ask myself what I liked and what I learned from the day. The next step is to make progress a little more measurable, setting metrics that could boost the confidence that I’m heading in the right direction.

Right now, I prefer to use social interactions as little tests, and I’m changing relationships as I’m getting confident about surrounding myself with the right people. I alternatively go back and study the process of learning, to produce meaningful contents and develop deep thought connections, with the main purposes of doing good and find tricks that make me definitively stand out of the crowd.

So, I’ve got to learn faster, and the only way to do that is to study and sharpen my thought process through an unstoppable willing to learn and do things better and better. Hungriness at work.


“When we have worked hard and succeed at something, we should be allowed to smell the roses.” p.46

Perfectionism really kills that moment. We should show respect for us taking action, and take a break. I’ve tried to hack perfectionism with hippiey statements, like “I’m successful every time I wake up, because I am alive”. It works.


“There will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance.” p.47

Physical training follows the same rule. My major challenge now is to condense principles, over and over, to have a better grasp on what ‘reality’ is.


“Performance training:

  1. Learn to flow with whatever comes.

  2. Learn to use whatever comes to my advantage.

  3. Learn to be completely self-sufficient and create my own earthquakes, so my mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.” p.54

So, take the good and throw away everything else! I link the last part of the training to characters like Thoreau, who has been living quietly in the countryside while producing groundbreaking crafts. Dedicating continued attention is an increasingly rare skill. I do challenge myself, maybe even too often. Then I stop because I think something important is going on in the world, and I might be developing something that has been done already.


“Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.” p.60

Avoiding the trap of conformity and developing oneself autonomously, mostly requires mastering aloneness. Find out more about this rare, invaluable art at this link.


“The truly great ones can make the moment work for them, heightening performance with improvisations that shine with immediacy and life.” p.63

The promising, awkward field to exercise improvisation for me is relationships. That is the playground where no stiffness is allowed. Misunderstandings are tricky, they might suggest that adopting some general rules, and then further limiting them, may be a solution to the messy world. It is not. Thought and communication require permanent effort to be enhanced, and they need to be practiced especially while messing up with everything. That’s the only way I see to increase the odds of being understood. Sometimes people would just be not interested in what you have to say. How did you came up hanging out with them in the first place?

Winners are those who make mistakes, and go further.


“The more I knew abut the game, the more I realised how much there was to know.” p.77

Complement the quote with Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary concept.


“It is critical to integrate new information in a matter that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a centre of gravity to balance us.” p.80

It is better to recognise that I still haven’t understood, instead of making something up to seem smart. Try to false who I am will never pay off. An issue I’ve been struggling with was to be genuine and express my negative feelings as well. Not everyone is able to handle that, and I learned to expose myself with people who can understand me and refrain from judging me.


“The path to artistic insight in one direction often involves deep study of another – the intuition makes uncanny connections that lead to a crystallisation of fragmented notions.” p.85


“Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process.” p.107

Ever heard about that motto “Give away what you need”? That’s what Josh is talking about.


“If a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice, he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field.” p.108

Because “Learn from your failure and it’s not failure. Do it again and it is.”

Has any self-help advice been stated more boldly?


“We must take responsibility for ourselves, and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best we can become.” p.113

To anyone who expects very much from himself, it is extremely important to bear in mind that there is no one else who could judge our behaviour and effort. We speak the last word.


Learning principle:

“To plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro thick.” p.116

Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablet are enduring the grip of time. To plunge into details requires patience, resilience, and the understanding that drawing smaller circles has a direct impact on our ability to draw bigger ones. Monks who dedicate their life to pursue the perfect drawing of an ideogram choose to practice that way. The pattern is to maintain the feeling while refining the technique.

“It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week.” p.123


“A deep mastery of performance psychology involves the internal creation of inspiring conditions. p.”127

“Once we learn how to use adversity to our advantage, we can manufacture the helpful growth opportunity without actual danger or injury. I call this tool the internal solution.” p.133

Waitzikin offers an insight about the hard world of sport competitions. He perfectly knows that adversities lay entirely within our brains.


Soon enough, learning becomes unlearning.

“The stringer chess player is often the one who is less attached to a dogmatic interpretation of the principles.” p.141


“We cultivate [the slow-time experience] by converting all the other surrounding information into unconsciously integrated data instead of ignoring it.” p.148

Slow-time experience usually relates with a sense of flow. It is frustrating to see it dampen without any power to resume it. But slow-time experience is possible only after patiently taking care of every surrounding piece of information, through the practice of presence. These data cannot be stored in the unconscious mind without discerning them into what’s useful and what’s useless. Our brain is hardwired to protect us from dangers. If we cannot neutralise everything we previously catalogued as “dangerous”, we won’t be able to set it on the background. That is why it is so important to get to know everything that comes to visit our mind.


How do you move before someone you are following?

“The deepest form of adherence or shadowing involves a switching of roles, where the follower becomes the followed in a relationship in which time seems to twist in a tangle of minds.” p.150


“There is nothing mystical about controlling intention or entering the mind of the opponent. These are skills to be cultivated like any others.” p.163


“To be cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. […] In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge.” p.172


“The better we are at recovery, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress.” p.180

The best thing I can do in the mornings is to sit down and have my meditation. No one could ever take me away from sitting there and practice. But it is essential to find little time for recovery throughout the day as well. Monitoring is very important, it allows to catch ourselves before we fall too deep. I find very useful the following exercise, took from Headspace exercises: to focus for 10 seconds on a little pebble, then relax 10 seconds, and come back for a few times. To get used to the practice of focus and release in short time is vital especially now that we are constantly under the fire of notifications; we can’t afford to take 5 minutes every time to get back into the zone.


“The unconscious mind is a powerful tool, and learning how to relax under pressure is a key first step to tapping into its potential.” p.184


“The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.” p.187

Nature elements inspire a fundamental behaviour. If fire supplies us with energy and explosiveness, water brings steadiness and resilience. When I walk beside the river, I know that although I might think to anything, the river would have a calming and strengthening effect on me.

Another hey aspect of incremental growth is that when changes unfold slowly, we are more likely to embrace the new habit because it has more similarities than differences comparing to the last version.

I’m sometimes impulsive, and that might be a threat on the path of incremental change. Especially in the past, I tried to embrace a big change, but was able to stand it for a little time before I quit. Take it easy and change small. Check out Leo Babauta‘s work on habit change to elaborate on the topic.


“I had to develop the habit of taking on my technical weaknesses whenever someone pushed my limits instead of falling back into a self-protective indignant pose.” p.206

I sometimes feel at the early stage of the idea progression. Given this feeling, chances are: I am mistakenly repeating myself, or I am right and just need to push myself a little further.


“The greatest performers convert their passions into fuel with tremendous consistency.” p.207


“We are built to be sharpest when in danger.” p.211


“The difference between numbers 3 and 1 is mountainous.” p.224

Which is not a mere 80-20 principle. The tail here is much longer.


“Once we have felt the profound refinement of a skill, no matter how small it may be, we can then use that feeling as a beacon of quality as we expand our focus onto more and more material.” p.225

My approach to learning has never been quite systematic; I recognise although that there is a profound value when I am able to internalise some principles, test them in the chaos, and break up that complexity to resonate with the original essence of the principle. The assumption is that the essence, if true, won’t change its nature, rather modulate on the surface.


“When I think about creativity, it is always in relation to a foundation. We have our knowledge. It becomes deeply internalized until we can access it without thinking about it. Then we have a leap that uses what we know to go one or two steps further. We make a discovery. Most people stop here and hope they will become inspired and reach that state of “divine insight” again. In my mind, this is a missed opportunity. Imagine that you are building a pyramid of knowledge. Every level is constructed of technical information and principles that explain that information and condense it into chunks. Once you have internalised enough information to complete one level of the pyramid, you move on to the next. say you are ten or twelve levels in. then you have a creative burst. In that moment, it is as you are seeing something that is suspended in the sky just above the tp of your pyramid. There is a connection between that discovery and why you know – or else you wouldn’t have discovered it – and you can find that connection if you try. The next step is to figure out the technical components of your creation. Figure out what makes the “magic” tick.” p.231



“In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.” p.262