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Tuesday
Apr122011

Book Review - "The Art of Learning"

I finished Josh Waitzkin's "The Art of Learning" a few weeks ago, but it was hard to organize my thoughts about it at first. I first became interested in Waitzkin through a chapter of Sam Sheridan's "A Fighter's Mind" (Reading List), in which Waitzkin talked about concepts of competition in his two areas of expertise: chess (The movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was loosely based on his young life as a chess prodigy.) and competitive Tai Chi (I didn't even know this existed, but I've since become intrigued.). As I've experienced with other books that use personal stories to present general concepts, I found it difficult to suss out how athletes and performing artists could learn from Waitzkin's example. At first glance, the book seemed to be a collection of anecdotes with some loose connecting material, though I think a close study reveals some promising possibilities for learning.

As a memoir, I found The Art of Learning fascinating and, at times, moving. Waitzkin is a skilled story-teller and sympathetic narrator. He's willing to admit faults, and his experiences with chess at a young age deeply immersed him in tense solo competition that most of us only come across at a much later age. His curiosity and commitment from the age of six are pretty impressive, almost intimidating, and I actually think that that fact works against some of the points he's making. How many people have the availability, never mind the ability or the desire, to study chess positions for six hours a day?1 Waitzkin was doing this every day when he was in elementary school, and he loved it enough to continue pursuing chess mastery, with this and greater intensity, throughout his teen years. My initial reaction was, "OK Josh, you're an obsessive prodigy who had the ability to concentrate on chess problems for hours upon hours from the time you were little. When you studied Tai Chi, you did the same thing. Where's the proof that anything you say applies to other people?" 

Honestly, I'm not sure he ever gets there. However, perhaps it's not fair to hold him to that standard. Maybe it's OK for him to simply describe what he sees from where he is, and, as he encourages, allow the reader to experiment and see what works for themself. To that end, here are few of my favorite concepts from the book:

 

  • His general learning method is to start with a simplified version of a desired skilland to study it intensely so that it is completely understood. Once a concept is completely mastered, it can be expanded to slightly more complex situations.2 He encourages students to condense their movements but maintain the power of a learned motion3 and also to focus on as many small details as possible. His belief is that by focusing on details, the student learns to notice small changes more quickly and can appear to be reading an opponent's mind.4
  • As stated above, he greatly stresses learning depth over breadth. He believes that once something is mastered, that feeling of mastery will serve as a standard that the student will seek to achieve with everything else they learn.
  • He learned the importance of recovery through Jim Loehr's Human Performance Institute. He describes how at first his chess problem solving ability declined if he thought intently for more than 14 minutes. When he allowed himself breaks to relax and breathe for a moment, he could sustain concentration for more than 40 minutes. 
  • He has a cool process for developing a routine to trigger a productive state of mind. This basically involves repeating some controlled relaxing activities for the hour before a naturally enjoyable activity, and then very gradually condensing the lead-in activities until they take much less time. 
  • He believes that performers cannot deny their emotions. He writes that one can train to recognize emotions, become at peace with them, and eventually use them as fuel for unique personal expression and reaching a creative competitive state. I'm greatly impressed with how Waitzkin describes channeling his anger in response to cheaters. As I have written, cheating used to drive me crazy, and I think Waitzkin is extremely smart in his approach of first studying why cheaters bothered him (In Tai Chi, he was afraid of being injured by illegal blows to the neck and eyes.), then having people he trusted use similar techniques until he overcame his fear, and finally seeking out actual cheaters to train with. This is brilliant stuff (worthy of Run to the Roar!) and a path worth trying for people who are aware of and prepared to deal with their triggers. I'm more suspicious of his anecdotes about chess masters who would meditate and pay attention to their particular emotional moods of the day and then pattern their game after those moods. I'm not sure that there's anything in this book that convinces me that most people can get that finely tuned, unless perhaps as a side effect of the other training. My own thoughts about playing with emotion are here.

 Waitzkin's writing will probably be most interesting for those interested in one-on-one competition, and those with an interest in chess and martial arts will definitely appreciate the look inside the head of an articulate and relatable master as he recounts his thoughts while he was working under great pressure. At times, it's quite a ride. I think there are lessons about how to approach learning here, even though they are sometimes difficult to flush out. A second reading through many of the passages was quite rewarding. As with a lot of books writing about mastery, this one doesn't offer any shortcuts. The path to expertise is still going to be about 10,000 hours long. I do believe, however, that Waitzkin's stories and advice can help ensure that those hours are more efficiently spent.

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One great quote (p. 226):

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.

The only thing that this misses is that it's not only true of master-level competition. I know lots of intermediate tennis players who have limited technique, but who consistently beat players with better strokes because they control the game. I'd say that this quote is true whenever opponents are relatively close in skill.

Footnotes: 

1. How long did he take to get to 10,000 hours? It's hard to say, but I'm sure he was there pretty quickly. He certainly was "deliberately practicing" at a very young age.

2. This reminds me of Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development whereby teachers determine a student's ability to solve problems and introduce problems that can be solved with a teacher's help. In Waitzkin's case, he's more interested in the learner determining his course, so he would be finding slightly more complex situations to apply his mastery to.

3. As a tennis player, I've noticed that more experienced players move much less, but their strokes don't suffer for power. For example, all tennis players are taught not to swing much when they volley (hit the ball before it bounces). An expert will use the momentum of the incoming shot as well as their body weight to direct most volleys, while a less experienced player will tend to make a much larger motion with their racquet. The same is true with great guitar players: they move only the distance from one note to the next, while beginners move much further off the guitar neck and tend not to keep their fingers spread out (so they are constantly spreading and unspreading which is unnecessary).

4. Again, experienced tennis players tend to anticipate their opponents' next shots with more accuracy. Very small movements reveal their intentions. 

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