The Art of Learning – By Josh Waitzkin
Important Points: Entity theorists think “I am smart at this” and attribute success or failure to ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see it as a fixed entity that cannot evolve.
Incremental theorists thnk “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder”. With hard work, difficult material can be grasped, step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.
When challenged, incremental theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are brittle and quit. Children who associate success with hard work tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situations.
Making smaller circles: Those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest. It’s 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.
My vision of the road to mastery: – start with the fundamentals – get a solid foundation fueled by the understanding of the principles of your discipline – expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual 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.
Quotes and Notes:
It’s essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in a peak performance state.
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.
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.
Many people take a process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves. Short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy.
They try to avoid challenges, but eventually the real world finds them. Their confidence is fragile. Losing is always a crisis instead of an opportunity for growth—if they were a winner because they won, this new losing must make them a loser.
Intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the concscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick.
Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.
When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.
One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.
I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice—both technical and psychological—he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field.
In chess games, I would take some deep breaths and clear my mind when the character of the struggle shifted. In life, I worked on embracing change instead of fighting it. With awareness and action, in both life and chess my weakness was transformed into a strength.
When everyone at a high level has a huge amount of (technical) understanding, 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.
A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.
I didn’t give myself the room to invest in loss. My response is that it is essential to have a liberating incremental approach that allows for times when you are not in a peak performance state.
How to control the center without appearing to have anything to do with the center. He has made the circles so small, even Grandmasters cannot see them. This concept of Making Smaller Circles has been a critical component of my learning process in chess and the martial arts.
The Soft Zone, I mentioned that there are three critical steps in a resilient performer’s evolving relationship to chaotic situations. First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection.
We learn to use that imperfection to our advantage—for example thinking to the beat of the music or using a shaking world as a catalyst for insight. The third step of this process, as it pertains to performance psychology, is to learn to create ripples in our consciousness, little jolts to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring.
My method was as follows: I did a daily resistance workout routine on my left side, and after every set I visualized the workout passing to the muscles on the right. My arm was in a cast, so there was no actual motion possible—but I could feel the energy flowing into the unused muscles. I admit it was a shot in the dark, but it worked.
If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage.
You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.
It is all too easy to get caught up in the routines of our lives and to lose creativity in the learning process.
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
In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world.
Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logically consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were a single piece of information.
The Grandmaster consciously looks at less, not more. That said, the chunks of information that have been put together in his mind allow him to see much more with much less conscious thought. So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot. This is the critical idea.
The similarity is that a life-or-death scenario kicks the human mind into a very narrow area of focus. Time feels slowed down because we instinctively zero in on a tiny amount of critical information that our processor can then break down as if it is in a huge font. The trained version of this state of mind shares that tiny area of conscious focus.
The secret is that everything is always on the line. 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. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.
Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line.
Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen. I found that, regardless of the discipline, the better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress.
I had learned from Jack Groppel at LGE to eat five almonds every forty-five minutes during a long chess game, to stay in a steady state of alertness and strength.
Interval work is a critical building block to becoming a consistent long-term performer.
The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes. Where we left off, his routine was as follows: 1. Eat a light consistent snack for ten minutes 2. 15 minutes of meditation 3. 10 minutes of stretching 4. 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan All we had to do was set up a routine that became linked to that state of mind This process is systematic, straightforward, and rooted in the most stable of all principles: incremental growth.
Principles can be internalized to the point that they are barely recognizable even to the most skilled observers.
On the learning side, I had to get comfortable dealing with guys playing outside the rules and targeting my neck, eyes, groin, etc. This involved some technical growth, and in order to make those steps I had to recognize the relationship between anger, ego, and fear. 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. Once that adjustment was made, I was free to learn.
If someone got into my head, they were doing me a favor, exposing a weakness. They were giving me a valuable opportunity to expand my threshold for turbulence.
The only way to succeed is to acknowledge reality and funnel it, take the nerves and use them. We must be prepared for imperfection. If we rely on having no nerves, on not being thrown off by a big miss, or on the exact replication of a certain mindset, then when the pressure is high enough, or when the pain is too piercing to ignore, our ideal state will shatter.
We are built to be sharpest when in danger, but protected lives have distanced us from our natural abilities to channel our energies.
I highly recommend that you incorporate the principles of Building Your Trigger into your process. Once you are no longer swept away by your emotions and can sit with them even when under pressure, you will probably notice that certain states of mind inspire you more than others.
For some it may be happiness, for others it may be fear. To each his own. Petrosian was very flexible. Miller, Hernandez, and Robinson worked well with anger. Kasparov and Jordan were intimidators: they inspired themselves by wilting opponents. Once you understand where you lie on this spectrum, the next step is to become self-sufficient by creating your own inspiring conditions. Kasparov triggered his zone by acting confident and then creating the conditions on the chessboard and a dynamic with his opponent in which he played his best.
Once you understand where you lie on this spectrum, the next step is to become self-sufficient by creating your own inspiring conditions. Kasparov triggered his zone by acting confident and then creating the conditions on the chessboard and a dynamic with his opponent in which he played his best.
First, we cultivate The Soft Zone, we sit with our emotions, observe them, work with them, learn how to let them float away if they are rocking our boat, and how to use them when they are fueling our creativity. Then we turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no denial of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels into focus. Next we discover what emotional states trigger our greatest performances. This is truly a personal question. Some of us will be most creative when ebullient, others when morose.
The greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling the tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities. While
At the highest levels of any kind of competitive discipline, everyone is great. At this point the decisive factor is rarely who knows more, but who dictates the tone of the battle. For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction.
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.
All of the learning principles discussed in this book spring out of the deep, creative plunge into an initially small pool of information. Study positions of reduced complexity. Apply internalized principles to increasingly complex scenarios. Take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power, until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal. Focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail.