Book Review—The Art of Learning

The Art of Learning – A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence, by Josh Waitzkin (2007)

My wonderful guitar teacher, Brian Lewis—whom I haven’t seen in months, but I still call him “my teacher”—recommended this book:

Josh Waitzkin was a boy chess genius, winning his first national championship at age nine, then was the subject of his father’s book Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was turned into a 1993 Hollywood film. Following his stellar chess career, at age nineteen he took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands and became world champion. It is indeed remarkable that this bright young man excelled at a world class level in two very different disciplines. He says, “I’ve come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning.”

Early in the book, he describes how some developmental psychologists distinguish theories of intelligence—between entity and incremental theories. Simply put, “children who are entity theorists, that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner—are prone to use language like ‘I am smart at this’ and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability…Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning…are more prone to describe their results with sentences like ‘I got it because I worked very hard at it’ or ‘I should have tried harder.’ A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped—step by step, incrementally, the novice can become a master.” The author describes how fragile the entity theorists can be under pressure, even though gifted, compared to the incremental theorists. “The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”

Waitzkin addresses the caveat about being process oriented to the point of not caring about results—that winning or losing doesn’t matter. It does matter and losing hurts, but it can also be a valuable learning experience. “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. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do.”

He discusses the problem of distractions, the random unexpected events, the “mini-earthquakes that afflict all of our days” and the need to “flow with whatever comes” and “to use whatever comes to our advantage.” To actually accomplish this, one has “to attain what sports psychologists call The Soft Zone.” A good way to explain it is to define The Hard Zone, a state of mind that “demands a cooperative world for you to function.” But the world is not always so cooperative. The Soft Zone is quiet, intensely focused, relaxed: “You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.” One has to learn to deal with bad conditions. Brian learned how to achieve this state by playing in bars for fifteen years —he concentrated on the playing, not the obnoxious drunks, the fights, the noise, or other distractions of the environment. One learns to tune it out; and it is a learned discipline. Most people cannot just will it, including the author. Waitzkin says, “Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously…I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable.”

Waitzkin tells the story of how he ultimately became frustrated with chess. I won’t go into the details but he says, “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…it is critical to integrate…new information in a manner that does not violate who we are,” which gives a hint of why he moved on to other things. Later, finishing up on the last years of his chess career, he says, “To my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of grayness—of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down…A competitor needs to be process-oriented…but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence…Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.” In other words, it is a tricky balancing act requiring self-awareness.

As he explains the genesis of his martial arts career, Waitzkin gives some insight to his thinking by giving kudos to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums, which probably influenced his dabbling in Zen Buddhism. My book review of The Dharma Bums gives a slightly different perspective than Waitzkin (on both books), but I won’t dwell on this aspect of his book. I just found it interesting that he gives credit to Kerouac’s influence.

In a chapter called, Making Smaller Circles, the author delves into the theme of “depth over breadth.” He says, “The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture” bombarded with a “constant supply of stimulus” which has a devastating effect on our learning…unless we can keep our focus on working on the micro fundamentals of our endeavor, incrementally refining the simplest of movements and thought. This is a key point stressed by my guitar teacher—get this one simple movement perfected, then this one, then add them, then another, and build a pattern of sound that is built on these small perfected technical movements. The author writes of “subtle internalization and refinement” as being more important than trying to learn everything…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…because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

In the chapter, Using Adversity, Waitzkin delves further into performance psychology and says there are three steps in a “resilient performer’ s evolving relationship to chaotic situations.” (1) “First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection.” (2) “We learn to use that imperfection to our advantage.” (3) We need “to learn to create ripples in our consciousness…to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring.”

The author debates the question of intuition and whether it exists, concluding that it “is our most valuable compass in this world.” He gives a summary: “For much of this book I have described my vision of the road to mastery—you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point. The question of intuition relates to how that network is navigated and used as fuel for creative insight.” He refers to chunking which “relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles…” As one evolves in their endeavor, he or she discovers organizing principles of information and “new patterns of movement. This new information gets systematized into a network of chunks that” can be accessed with increasing ease as one’s “navigational function improves.” He further says, “Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered… the idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide.” Brian considers the great jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, a good example of someone utilizing this process; he has boiled down playing music to its simplest forms—into chunks of basic approaches that are filled with huge amounts of information learned over the years but are buried within his mind; not lost, but known to him as bits of critical information that have been put together in such a way that allows him to see much more with less conscious thought. The author would say,” So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot.” And guess what? “The key, of course, is practice.” Indeed.

He writes about presence, and the critical nature of it in “solitary pursuits, such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning” where “we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often our best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if ‘going through the motions’ is the norm of our lives…Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential…The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage…Presence must be like breathing.”

There is also great value in understanding the sport’s psychologist’s concept of Stress and Recovery—a player’s ability to completely relax in brief moments of inactivity. The best I ever saw able to do this—up close and personal—was tennis great Pete Sampras, a remarkable athlete that the author mentions. There are many more in the sports world who learned this and learned it well—those who have become completely attuned to the qualitative functions of their thought processes because they fully understand what it means to their performance. Also, on a personal level, from my marathoning days, back in the 1980′s, I knew full well the value of stress and recovery in my training, both the physical and the mental, i.e. it is not a foreign concept. (I was clearly an amateur. In my forties then, my best time was 3:13:30 or 7:23 per mile in the San Francisco Marathon, 1987.) The author, however, suggests that one should incorporate “the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of…life.” In other words, apply interval training approaches to everything we do, making it a habit, so we can become “a resilient dependable pressure player…To have success at crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep flowing when everything is one the line.”

The author discusses channeling anger and mentions unethical chess players, like the guy who kicked him under the table repeatedly during critical moments, or the few dirty Tai Chi Chuan competitors. It isn’t about denying one’s passion at such moments; it is about channeling the anger to achievement rather than self-destructing behavior. I remember one of his examples well because I watched it many times on television: Huge New York Knick’s fan and movie director Spike Lee would sit on the sidelines and taunt the Indiana Pacer’s Reggie Miller unmercifully during NBA games at Madison Square Garden. Reggie responding by draining shot after shot; he fed off of it. It didn’t bug him; it inspired him! The best thing Lee could have done was shut up. “The lesson learned—don’t piss off Reggie.”

To bring this to conclusion, Waitzkin says, “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… There is a connection between that discovery and what you know—or else you wouldn’t have discovered it—and you can find that connection if you try.” One has to “figure out what makes the ‘magic’ tick” on his own—to take our “pyramid of knowledge up” to another level, solidifying a “higher foundation from new leaps.”

Like many have said before: “Practice, man, practice.” Or as coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

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