The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

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After thousands of slow-motion, ever-refined repetitions of certain movements, my body could become that shape instinctively. Somehow in Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect. This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied techniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious.

From the outside Tai Chi and chess couldn't be more different, but they began to converge in my mind.

I started to translate my chess ideas into Tai Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying Tai Chi.

Once I was giving a forty-board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai Chi. I wasn't calculating with chess notation or thinking about opening variations. I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts.

This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess. Similarly, I would be in a Push Hands competition and time would seem to slow down enough to allow me to methodically take apart my opponent's structure and uncover his vulnerability, as in a chess game. My fascination with consciousness, study of chess and Tai Chi, love for literature and the ocean, for meditation and philosophy, all coalesced around the theme of tapping into the mind's potential via complete immersion into one and all activities.

My growth became defined by barrierlessness. Pure concentration didn't allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.

As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences. I remember sitting on a Bermuda cliff one stormy afternoon, watching waves pound into the rocks. I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks.

Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions.

Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments. After several years of cloudiness, I was flying free, devouring information, completely in love with learning. I related to my experience with language like parallel learning and translation of level. I felt as though I had transferred the essence of my chess understanding into my Tai Chi practice. But this didn't make much sense, especially outside of my own head. What does essence really mean anyway?

And how does one transfer it from a mental to a physical discipline? These questions became the central preoccupation in my life after I won my first Push Hands National Championship in November At the time I was studying philosophy at Columbia University and was especially drawn to Asian thought. Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. The need for precision forced me to think about these ideas more concretely. I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, quality, principle, intuition , and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it.

As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth.


I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers , or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow.

Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in. Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery.

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Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a "C" while playing Beethoven's 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost. In order to write for beginners, I had to break down my chess knowledge incrementally, whereas for years I had been cultivating a seamless integration of the critical information.

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The same pattern can be seen when the art of learning is analyzed: themes can be internalized, lived by, and forgotten. I figured out how to learn efficiently in the brutally competitive world of chess, where a moment without growth spells a front-row seat to rivals mercilessly passing you by. Then I intuitively applied my hard-earned lessons to the martial arts. Since I decided to write this book, I have analyzed myself, taken my knowledge apart, and rigorously investigated my own experience.

Speaking to corporate and academic audiences about my learning experience has also challenged me to make my ideas more accessible.

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Whenever there was a concept or learning technique that I related to in a manner too abstract to convey, I forced myself to break it down into the incremental steps with which I got there. Over time I began to see the principles that have been silently guiding me, and a systematic methodology of learning emerged.

My chess life began in Washington Square Park in New York's Greenwich Village, and took me on a sixteen-year-roller-coaster ride, through world championships in America, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, and India, through every kind of heartache and ecstasy a competitor can imagine. In recent years, my Tai Chi life has become a dance of meditation and intense martial competition, of pure growth and the observation, testing, and exploration of that learning process.

A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else. After so many years of big games, performing under pressure has become a way of life. Presence under fire hardly feels different from the presence I feel sitting at my computer, typing these sentences. This book is the story of my method.

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Innocent Moves 2. Losing to Win 3. Two Approaches to Learning 4. Loving the Game 5. The Soft Zone 6. The Downward Spiral 7. Changing Voice 8. Beginner's Mind Investment in Loss Making Smaller Circles Using Adversity Slowing Down Time The Power of Presence Often, this ends up a self-fulfilling prophecy because I really find myself unable to get back on track. I think this is because of all of the pressure I put on myself in these situations which could be completely normal situations, after all.

Had you just gone back to normal after being thrown off track, it would hardly have had any impact.

Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance Summary

They are not that big of a deal. Maybe, as he suggests, meditation would help. And failing a lot, fast.

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Of course. One takeaway after all I ended up finishing it after all and one concept stuck with me that I wanted to share today. The destabilizing impact of small failures I realized that I am very fragile when it comes to little failures. I highly recommend this book to anyone that does anything. It can help you perform better in any type of competitive field, but also in your day to day life and your career. The few drawbacks I found are that there is not enough highlighting of the important principles making them easy to miss. Also, not knowing much about chess makes it challenging to understand some of his views.

I believe the underlying principle is that we must see anything that happens whether in a competitive field or in our daily life as positive. Did you get fired unfairly from your job? Did you loose your house? Did you have to go into bankruptcy? Learn more about presence here. If you found this review helpful and would like to show your support, feel free to purchase the book by following the link below:. Your email address will not be published. Twitter 0.