The Art of Learning

Just before the start of the Bilbaos I finished reading the book The Art of Learning written by IM Joshua Waitzkin. If the name of the author doesn’t ring a bell, Waitzkin is a former chess celebrity (if such exist!) and the subject of the Hollywood film Searching for Bobby Fischer.I’ve actually met Joshua in 1990 during the World Championship Under 14 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, we played tennis together. We also met 4 years later, in Szeged, Hungary, during the World Championship Under 18 and that was the last time I saw him.

Unable to withstand the pressure of celebrity lifestyle after the film came out, he left chess and went into Tai Chi Chuan. In the book he describes how he used the principles he knew from chess to become a World Champion in Tai Chi Push Hands.

It is a very interesting and thought-provoking book and one that gave me several ideas for my own further development. I have always considered chess as a means for personal growth because it gives me very precise feedback of my thought processes and the (inevitable) mistakes that are hidden there. “…chess became a form of psychoanalysis,” “[I] was discovering myself through chess”.

By unearthing these mistakes in my thinking I improve the quality of my thought process and this leads to higher quality of my moves and better results. This process of discovering and avoiding mistakes is general and can be applied to real life and here Waitzkin’s book comes to the fore. He formulates general principles and only uses chess and Tai Chi as examples to illustrate them.

I’ll touch upon several ideas from the book. One of them is the entity vs. incremental approaches with the conclusion (backed by scientific evidence) that the incremental approach is essential to continuous growth. To clarify, fixed entity approach means that the person is fixed in his/her understanding of their abilities (resulting in statements like “I’m smart”, “I’m dumb”) while the incremental approach is process-based (“if I work hard I can do this”) and mastery oriented. The people with the latter mental set-up react well to challenges and are open to constant learning.

Waitzkin discovered his “soft-zone”, the performance state he needs to be in in order to perform at his best and the book is designed to show the reader that he, too, can learn how to enter this zone. He describes how to build mental resilience and how to avoid the downward spiral of mistakes following one another.

He introduces several syntagms that were new to me, but whose concepts I recognised, like numbers leaving numbers (internalisation of technical information until it feels like natural intelligence), investment in loss (how by losing you become accustomed to stay relaxed under pressure), making smaller circles (depth over breadth, or condensing the feeling of what is right), seeing things in slow motion (when the unconscious takes care of most of the information the conscious can pay attention to the few small details and time seems to slow down).

Another idea that rang a bell was the chunking and the creation of carved neural pathways, something I read about in another great book, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and his discovery of the importance of myelin. Basically both authors talk about the same – when certain actions are drilled in so much, the brain creates super-fast connection inside (thanks to the myelin, which is reponsible for the transmission of the impulses) and they become our second nature.

Waitzkin also had contact with elite sport and performance psychologists and during the sessions they discovered that the quality of the thought process was higher when preceeded by a period of relaxation. This reminded me of Botvinnik’s pre-game routine when he would lie down and relax – the old man was intuitively onto something!

Another discovery he made, closely related to the one above, was the importance of recovery. The routine use of recovery periods – being able to relax in brief moments of inactivity – dramatically improved his performances. In chess this can be done during the game (relaxing when the opponent thinks) but also between the games during a tournament. While reading this I remembered that Fischer had this peculiar habit of napping in a middle of a conversation or whenever he felt like it. Kasparov also naps several times a day. And children are also very much in tune with their natural needs and often they can just lie down for a few moments before continuing their play (as observed when playing with my cousins). A related idea I had was the one of polyphasic sleep, but that’s an altogether different topic.

The book also gives advice how to build your trigger and achieve your peak state. First you should define a serene activity that you do in your life and then create a routine to reach it, internalise it and condense it.

The essence of the book can be summed up with the following quote: “Once you know what goodfeels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.”

I really enjoyed reading the book (I read it in two days) because I’m always happy when I can gather ideas that inspire me. This book did just that.
Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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2 Comments
  • Sep 25,2014 at 6:53 pm

    Yes, a very interesting topic to link both arts. And a good effort by Waitzkin.

  • Anonymous
    Sep 25,2014 at 2:01 pm

    Learning and teaching are the greatest acts of optimism! Nice idea to link two arts, although one of them is a martial art. I believe it will be useful for someone who wants to learn. Keep going!

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