The Art of Learning

by Josh Waitzkin

This is the best non-fiction book I have ever read. However it's not a book I would recommend to everyone and I certainly don't think it would be a good book for someone just getting into non-fiction books based on success or self-improvement. This book goes deep and could seem "woo wooey" to someone who isn't primed to be receptive to certain ideas. I believe if I read this book 3 years ago I would have at best thought it was meh and at worst thought that it was a bunch of BS. This is a book about how the mind learns. As a result, items such as subconscious, meditation, intuition, and visualization are touched on quite frequently. 

If sentences like "to be world class you need to express the core of your being through the art" or "the process of digesting knowledge over and over again shifts it from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind where it can connect with other chunks of knowledge and manifest as a burst of insight" sound odd to you, I'd consider saving this book for another time.

Josh Waitzkin was a chess child prodigy. He won 8 national championships in chess before the 10th grade. The book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer are based on his early chess life. This led to him being a national celebrity at age 15. Eventually Josh stepped away from chess and begun learning the martial art of Tai Chi. Noticing parallels between learning chess and Tai Chi, two seemingly different things, is what inspired him to write this book.

This book is about learning and optimal performance. This is not a pareto based book about how to get 80% of the way there. This book is about going from good to great or from great to elite. Josh is a national champion in chess and a world champion in Tai Chi. The topics of this book are about the techniques he found when becoming an elite level performer.

Below I go over a few concepts from the book I found interesting.

Entity vs incremental theories of intelligence and ability.

Before you can begin learning you must differentiate between entity and incremental theories of intelligence and ability. If you play a sport for the first time and suck, an entity theorist would attribute that failure to your lack of natural ability. An incremental theorist would attribute that failure to your lack of practice.

Incremental theorists generally accept challenges where they can fail. They believe they have the ability to grow and add to their knowledge through failure. Entity theorists will avoid challenges with a high chance of failure as they don't want to be made aware of their own intrinsic shortcomings.

An entity theorist believes your current level is indicative of who you are. An incremental theorist believes your current level is indicative of where you are.

Learning the Macro from the Micro

Bruce Lee said "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times." Depth is more important than breadth.

In Josh's words "Dive deeply into small pools of information in order to explore and experience the operating principles of whatever we are learning. Once we grasp the essence of our subject through focused study of core principles, we can build on nuanced insights and, eventually, see a much bigger picture. The essence of this approach is to study the micro in order to learn what makes the macro tick."

Investing In Loss

In order to improve you must be willing to invest in losing. If you are wanting to learn a new sport or activity, you have to be willing to be bad and lose for a long time. However even if you are an expert at something, you will need to invest in loss to move to a higher level. For example if you are a professional athlete and you change some aspect of your game, you need to try it out on real opponents in real games. If you were not willing to invest in losing a few games you would be unable to ever try new techniques.

Numbers to leave numbers

Numbers to leave numbers is about how learning a concept and then constantly practicing can ingrain and internalize that knowledge. This is required before we can move on to learning something more complex by using what we already know. 

"By studying discrete pieces of information thoroughly and practicing their application repetitively, they eventually shed their technical, nitty-gritty character. This happens because  the process of digesting small chunks of knowledge over and over again shifts it from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind where it can connect with other chunks of internalized knowledge and manifest as the sudden burst of insight we experience as free-flowing intuition. This high level of knowledge integration is what we should aim for—it allows us to access what we have committed to learning in a fluid, precise, and improvisational manner."

Making smaller circles

By focusing on a basic set of concepts or practices over a period of time, we can gradually internalize the knowledge. However, the next step in the learning process is slowly peeling away unnecessary weight and driving at the core of the concepts or techniques. You must turn the large into the small. Reviewing and creatively exploring the internals of these basics over and over again leads to a lighter but more potent understanding of them.

Making sandals

"To walk a thorny road, you don’t need to pave the entire road; just make sandals."

Often we try hard to fight off or ignore distractions or things that bother us. If something is rocking our boat we must first learn to flow with the motion. The second step is to use these distractions as inspiration to funnel and focus our ability. The final step is learning to cultivate these situations so we can achieve the focus of the second step without requiring something to rock our boat in the first place.


A few weeks have passed since I finished the book (and started this review) so I've been able to determine which aspects of the book I continue to think about. What I've found is I've spent little time reflecting on the major parts of the book (which I have gone into detail above). It's not that I see these parts of the book as uninteresting but rather they are not what I need at this point in my life. Instead the vast majority of my thinking has been on the more sublte aspects of the book where Josh conveys the core principles of how he lives his life.

These principles as I found them are:

  • Cultivating empty space - If we are always reacting to input, we aren't able to create our own thoughts. Empty space helps calm the waters so you can listen to your subconcious in the silence. This empty space is needed for the development of ideas.
  • Daily processes vs long term goals.
  • Internal vs external framing - If your held by a sense of guilt whenever you are not working, then you are letting external pressures impact you. But if your nurturing from the inside out of your creative process, then you’ll be fine stopping your work with a sense of direction.
  • Embracing your unique disposition.
  • Seeking challenges head on - imagine where you'd be a year from now if you decided to steer into every insecurity or challenge you are worried about.
  • Being content with disorder - you shouldn't try to block out noise or distractoin, instead become content with it.
  • Most importantly living these principles during all the little moments of your life - see last quote below.

I highly recommend the audiobook as it's read by Josh himself. Tim Ferris (author of The 4 Hour Work Week) bought the rights and produced the audiobook because he enjoyed the book so much. As an added bonus, Tim included an hour of his podcast conversation with Josh at the end of the audiobook.

As always, here are a few quotes I found enjoyable or insightful.

Growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.
Tactics come easier once the principles are in your blood.

In my experience successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.

In the long run painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins. 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. They are also the ones who are happier along the way.

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. There will inevitably be times when you need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information. But it’s critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are.

More often than not the climactic moments in our lives will follow many un-climactic normal hum drum hours, days, months, years. So how do we step up when our moment suddenly arises? My answer is to redefine the question. Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. It's life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom but that's okay because when our true love comes around or we discover our real calling, we'll begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present in the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn't even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe in the appreciation of simplicity, the everyday. The ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life's hidden riches, is where success, let alone happiness emerges.


I'd also recommend Josh's second podcast with Tim.