"…there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities."
The Art of Learning is a heavily anecdotal, borderline philosophical work with its sights set on flattening the learning curve. Chalked full of theories and concepts, author Josh Waitzkin is on a quest to ‘hack’ our ability to acquire, condense, and apply knowledge; how to perform under intense pressure; and how to cope with the multitude of distractions that surround us on our quest for mastery. Waitzkin makes the process easy by using personal experience in Chess and Tai Chi to illustrate the concepts he hopes the readers to benefit from. Readers not interested by either of these subjects need not worry about losing interest—Waitzkin’s strength as a writer is making content applicable to all performers (in the loosest sense of the word).
The Big Idea
Mind Over Matter
"Those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, are the ones who make it down the road."
There’s a theory in psychology that describes the mental conditions which promote and hinder our ability to acquire new skills. Coined Incremental and Entity Thinking, psychologists see the idea of entity thinkers as individuals who attribute their success and failures to an unalterable level of ability. These are the folks who believe their overall skill to be a fixed entity that cannot improve. In effect, these individuals give up, favouring their comfortable ways and mediocrity to pushing beyond the discomfort. Incremental Thinkers, on the other hand, are individuals who understand that with hard work, mastery can be achieved through incremental steps. As Waitzkin spells out, “the results have nothing to do with intelligence level.” Even the smartest students can fail to achieve a level of mastery because of their personal dispositions, while those with greater resilience will rise to the challenge.
While simple on the surface, why this concept resonates so strongly is that it takes theories like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours one step backwards by emphasizing that before we even get on the horse, grab the paint brush, or start a business, our minds must be primed for the difficult paths ahead. By engaging in a half-hearted manner, our practice becomes rote, the motions less exciting, and the results consistently mediocre. The pursuit of excellence will never truly begin until we eliminate our defeatist attitudes and welcome the hardships of mastery.
"...I couldn't count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise."
Using adversity and embracing distraction are two concepts Waitzkin touches on in his writing. While the two are worthy of their own sections, there is an overlapping principle to be gained from treating them as one, specifically how we can use them to our learning advantage.
Here’s the situation: distractions are all around us and while many of them are intended to make our lives easier or better (text notifications, someone asking us a question at work to move a project along), they mostly hinder our focus. Waitzkin gives a few personal examples ranging from the innocent act of someone tapping their finger on the table during a chess game to a full on earthquake (that’s an actual personal example). Depending on the strength of one’s mind, these distractions can be paralyzing, especially during times of intense concentration. Waitzkin argues that we need to learn how to embrace them.
How do we do this? The advice given is to learn to “sit with [our emotions], become at peace with their unique flavours”. This means fighting our natural tendency to defend ourselves against them, or deal with them head on, or simply cope. Instead of pushing them away, acknowledgement, acceptance and moving on is your best bet. After all, not all distractions are going to be within your control. Yes, you can turn off your phone or put it on silent, lock your door so people can’t disturb you. But some distraction are inevitable. Think of being taunted when on the court during a playoff game or someone purposely trying to break your concentration. The result? We become adept at using this adversity and riding the slopes or waves of emotions that accompany it, being unruffled when they inevitably arise. Adversity, in the end, only fuels our desire for accomplishment.
Find Your Zone
"Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived."
Concentration is a scarce resource in the world of Waitzkin. And he’s right when you think about it: concentration can be difficult to conjure up. When it finally does show up, we either concentrate so intensely that we can’t focus anymore or we refuse to break focus for fear of never getting it back. Watizkin provides a simple step-by-step solution to help us find our own personal catalysts that create strong performance mindsets when they’re needed most.
Instead of starting at step one, Waitzkin urges us to work backwards by first identifying a key moment. This moment, activity, thought, song, environment, etc. should be one that makes you feel as if everything else in the world doesn’t matter, when time ceases to exist, where you’re happiest, most calm, or completely present. The feeling that comes with this moment should be one of happiness, being clear-minded and at ease. Once we have this key moment, the next step is to then identify four to five other cues (actions, events, settings, etc.) that set us up for this final mindset. Steps one through five can be anything you enjoy from preparing food, to listening to a song or playing catch with your child. The goal of these steps is to slowly start relaxing you mentally.
With your steps in place, begin to practice this routine leading up to the key moment. After a month or so of this type of practice, it’s time to remove the final key moment from the equation. Disassociating your routine from the key moment is crucial to “building your trigger”. By removing the final piece and continuing to go through the routine, it will signal to our brain that it’s time to enter that state of mind without actually experiencing the key moment. The reader is given the example of trying our routines leading up to a big meeting, a sports match, or anything where we’re expected to be on top of our game.
Though your steps may take upwards of 30 minutes, Waitzkin demonstrates through a case study that each step can slowly start to be reduced once we’ve internalized the routine. Eventually steps can be removed altogether, only requiring one or two in order to enter our zone. This is when we have truly internalized the process so deeply that it becomes practically unconscious.
If you find yourself looking to develop healthy learning habits, struggling to perform at a proficient level, or simply have a love for the behind-the-scenes glimpses of world class performers, then The Art of Learning is for you.
Waitzkin does an excellent job of laying out the pieces and tactics that have worked for him in the past, while acknowledging his steps may not work for you. I will leave you, reader, with a similar task Waitzkin leaves his readers with: identify which ideas and practices work for you and build on or reinvent his. Record the results and find ways to share it with your friends, family, networks, and world.