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The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Rating: 9/10

Date Read: September 15, 2021

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My Thoughts

Fantastic book. I enjoyed reading it a lot. It feels a little different from the other books we read nowadays. Most (non-fiction) books are filled with facts and arguments to support those facts. In this book, however, Josh takes us on a journey of a lifetime, literally. We get to see how Josh was like when growing up and becoming a chess master, all the way to his adulthood where he was mastering the art of Tai Chi. Through those stories, we get to learn what does it take to become a great learner.

I’m not saying this book is unique in the sense that we get to hear stories (there are many autobiographies out there), but rather that the way Josh tells those stories. There are parts in this book that I couldn’t stop reading and was just consumed by the story that was happening. To those who have read the book, I’m referring to the puma store. Still is stuck with me.


  • If you want to achieve greatness you must learn to lose. To improve you need to compete at your level or above. When you do that losses are inevitable and you need to accept them and learn from them. (Chapter 2)
  • Don’t rush the process. Keep the learning incremental, focus on short-term goals (Chapter 4).
  • Practice, practice, practice. It’s good for any reason, but things especially useful is ingraining the learning deep in your brain, to the point where the skill the second nature. Now you don’t even have to think about it. (Chapter 13 and Chapter 15)
  • Learn to disregard any destruction by entering the Soft Zone. This is a state where you embrace the destruction and instead of fighting them, you roll with them. Easier said than done, many will say. This is how to learn to enter the soft zone. First, realize there is a distraction that is confusing you. Try accepting it. After that seek out that distraction in your learning process to get accustomed to it. This will help both with this exact distraction, but it will also make you better at dealing with any other distraction. (Chapter 5)
  • You can gain a huge boost to your cognitive and physical performance by learning efficient recovery techniques. In other words, you need to regularly undergo hard physical exercises, for example riding a bike at max speed for a minute. Every time you do this, your heart rate will increase by a lot, but each time it will get much better at reducing the heart rate after the exercise is done. This exercise will teach your body to quickly recover from physical and cognitive overload. (Chapter 16)
  • Learn to enter the zone by creating a routine (Chapter 17). This is a simple process:
    1. Observe your life and find the moments/activities where you feel the best/most focused.
    2. After you found it attach small quick exercises before that activity (for example, quick snack, 5min meditation, and a 5min light exercise)
    3. Repeat this over and over
    4. At some point those small exercises (snack, meditation, etc.) will become a trigger for you to enter “The Zone”.



  • Since I was twelve years old I had kept journals of my chess study, making psychological observations along the way—now I was doing the same with Tai Chi.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery.



  • I have come to understand that these little breaks from the competitive intensity of my life have been and still are an integral part of my success. Times at sea are periods of renewal, coming together with family, being with nature, putting things back in perspective. I am able to let my conscious mind move away from my training, and to gain creative new angles on the next steps of my growth. These trips are a far cry from luxurious vacations—actually they are nonstop manual labor, sweating in the engine room trying to coax an old generator back to life, working the cockpit in the hot sun, keeping the boat together in angry squalls, navigating through big seas, living right on the edge.
  • I learned at sea that virtually all situations can be handled as long as presence of mind is maintained. On the other hand, if you lose your calm when crisis hits seventy miles from land, or while swimming with big sharks, there is no safety net to catch you.


  • It is clear that parents and teachers have an enormous responsibility in forming the theories of intelligence of their students and children—and it is never too late.
  • Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.
  • In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.
  • In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—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.


  • A key ingredient to my success in those years was that my style on the chessboard was a direct expression of my personality.
    • Note: How does one find his personality, chess wise?
  • There is something particularly painful about being beaten in a chess game. In the course of a battle, each player puts every ounce of his or her tactical, strategical, emotional, physical, and spiritual being into the struggle. The brain is pushed through terrible trials; we stretch every fiber of our mental capacity; the whole body aches from exhaustion after hours of rapt concentration.
    • Note: So, is this ego? Probably not, just the feeling of trying your best and not succeding
  • 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.
  • Disappointment is a part of the road to greatness.
  • A heartfelt, empathetically present, incrementally inspiring mom or dad or coach can liberate an ambitious child to take the world by the horns.
  • The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.


  • Another way of envisioning the importance of the Soft Zone is through an ancient Indian parable that has been quite instructive in my life for many years: A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.


  • I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off—no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating.
  • Mark Dvoretsky and Yuri Razuvaev are the pillars of the Russian school of chess. Considered by many to be the two greatest chess trainers in the world, these two men have devoted their lives to carving talented young chess masters into world-class competitors.
  • If you have read Nabokov’s wonderful novel The Defense, about the eccentric chess genius Luzhin—well, that is Dvoretsky.
  • Razuvaev’s educational philosophy falls very much in line with Taoist teachers who might say “learn this from that” or “learn the hard from the soft.” In most everyday life experiences, there seems to be a tangible connection between opposites. Consider how you may not realize how much someone’s companionship means to you until they are gone—heartbreak can give the greatest insight into the value of love.



  • Thinking back on my competitive life, I realize how defining these themes of Beginner’s Mind and Investment in Loss have been.
  • 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.
  • Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire.
  • Consider Michael Jordan. It is common knowledge that Jordan made more last-minute shots to win the game for his team than any other player in the history of the NBA. What is not so well known, is that Jordan also missed more last-minute shots to lose the game for his team than any other player in the history of the game. What made him the greatest was not perfection, but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.


  • I’ll never forget a scene that would guide my approach to learning for years to come. The protagonist of Pirsig’s story, a brilliant if eccentric man named Phaedrus, is teaching a rhetoric student who is all jammed up when given the assignment to write a five-hundred-word story about her town. She can’t write a word. The town seems so small, so incidental—what could possibly be interesting enough to write about? Phaedrus liberates the girl from her writer’s block by changing the assignment. He asks her to write about the front of the opera house outside her classroom on a small street in a small neighborhood of that same dull town. She should begin with the upper-left hand brick. At first the student is incredulous, but then a torrent of creativity unleashes and she can’t stop writing. The next day she comes to class with twenty inspired pages. I believe this little anecdote has the potential to distinguish success from failure in the pursuit of excellence. The theme is depth over breadth.
  • The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.
  • Everyone races to learn more and more, but nothing is done deeply. Things look pretty but they are superficial, without a sound body mechanic or principled foundation. Nothing is learned at a high level
  • I explored endgame positions of reduced complexity—for example king and pawn against king, only three pieces on the board—in order to touch high-level principles such as the power of empty space, zugzwang (where any move of the opponent will destroy his position), tempo, or structural planning. Once I experienced these principles, I could apply them to complex positions because they were in my mental framework.


  • In the chapter 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. I mentioned the image of a blade of grass bending to hurricane-force winds in contrast to a brittle twig snapping under pressure. Next, in our performance training, 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.
  • On the chessboard it is also relevant. Any moment that one piece can control, inhibit, or tie down two or more pieces, a potentially critical imbalance is created on the rest of the board. On a deeper level, this principle can be applied psychologically whenever opposing forces clash. Whether speaking of a corporate negotiation, a legal battle, or even war itself, if the opponent is temporarily tied down qualitatively or energetically more than you are expending to tie it down, you have a large advantage. The key is to master the technical skills appropriate for applying this idea to your area of focus.
  • One thing I have learned as a competitor is that there are clear distinctions between what it takes to be decent, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great, and what it takes to be among the best. If your goal is to be mediocre, then you have a considerable margin for error.
  • Almost without exception, I am back on the mats the next day, figuring out how to use my new situation to heighten elements of my game. 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. That said, there are times when the body needs to heal, but those are ripe opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal side of my game.
  • 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—we can notice external events that trigger helpful growth or performance opportunities, and then internalize the effects of those events without their actually happening. In this way, adversity becomes a tremendous source of creative inspiration.


  • The key, of course, is practice.


  • If a pattern of interaction is recognizable to the adversary, then mental conditioning will not be terribly effective.
    • Note: If it is obvious you are trying to manipulate, it wont work.
  • When working with highly skilled and mentally tough opponents, the psychological game gets increasingly subtle. The battle becomes about reading breath patterns and blinks of the eye, playing in frames the opponent is unaware of, invisible technical manipulation that slowly creates response patterns. If I understand a series of movements more deeply, in more frames, with more detail, then I can manipulate my opponent’s intention without him realizing what happened.
  • A couple of times when Dan was really on, I blinked and by the time my eyes were open, I was in midair, flying out of the ring. This was my secret! No one had ever turned it on me before. An adjustment was called for, and I got into the habit of taking a tiny step back or pulsing into Dan on my blinks, creating a little space so he couldn’t fire in on me. A few times when I was really flowing, I used Dan’s awareness of my eye patterns against him, blinking to pull him into an overextension. He quickly caught on to my ruse and our psychology continued to evolve. If both players are aware of a tell, then it will be neutralized, made ineffective, and others will have to be unearthed and exploited. The game goes on. This type of psychological warfare is at the center of nearly all high-level competitive disciplines—and



  • In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.
  • 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.


  • Then I had the breakthrough to think to the beat of the song, embrace distraction, and find an inner focus that could exist no matter what the external environment.
    • Note: Sounds similar to idea of buddhist meditation
  • Looking back over my games, I saw that when I had been playing well, I had two- to ten-minute, crisp thinks. When I was off my game, I would sometimes fall into a deep calculation that lasted over twenty minutes and this “long think” often led to an inaccuracy. What is more, if I had a number of long thinks in a row, the quality of my decisions tended to deteriorate.
  • The notion that I didn’t have to hold myself in a state of feverish concentration every second of a chess game was a huge liberation. The most immediate change I made was my way of handling chess games when it was not my turn to move. Instead of feeling obligated to stay completely focused on the chess position while my opponent thought, I began to let my mind release some of the tension.
  • I learned to monitor the efficiency of my thinking. If it started to falter, I would release everything for a moment, recover, and then come back with a fresh slate. Now when faced with difficult chess positions, I could think for thirty or forty minutes at a very high level, because my concentration was fueled by little breathers.
  • the better we are at recovering, the greater potential we have to endure and perform under stress.
  • The physical conditioners at LGE taught me to do cardiovascular interval training on a stationary bike that had a heart monitor. I would ride a bike keeping my RPMs over 100, at a resistance level that made my heart rate go to 170 beats per minute after ten minutes of exertion. Then I would lower the resistance level of the bike and go easy for a minute—my heart rate would return to 144 or so. Then I would sprint again, at a very high level of resistance, and my heart rate would reach 170 again after a minute. Next I would go easy for another minute before sprinting again, and so on. My body and mind were undulating between hard work and release. The recovery time of my heart got progressively shorter as I continued to train this way. As I got into better condition, it took more work to raise my heart rate, and less time to lower my heart rate during rest: soon my rest intervals were only forty-five seconds and my sprint times longer.
    • Note: By improving your physical recovery you improve ypur mental recoery.
  • involves cardiovascular work. If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.
  • Interval work is a critical building block to becoming a consistent long-term performer. If you spend a few months practicing stress and recovery in your everyday life, you’ll lay the physiological foundation for becoming a resilient, dependable pressure player. The next step is to create your trigger for the zone.


  • Fueling up is much more important than last-minute cramming—and at a higher level, the ability to recover will be pivotal.
    • Note: Resting before chess matches is more important than analysis.
  • The ability to wait for hours on end without exploding with tension or losing your edge is often what separates the top fighters before they step in the ring.
  • Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin.
  • He fell into a blissful state when tossing a baseball with his boy, and nothing else in the world seemed to exist. They played catch virtually every day and Jack seemed to love it as much as his dad. Perfect. I have observed that virtually all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner, but they usually dismiss them as “just taking a break.”
    • Note: A lot of the times people dismiss something they like as time wasted.
  • Not only is the return to breath a glimmer of the zone—a moment of undistracted presence—but the ebb and flow of the experience is another form of stress and recovery training.
    • Note: Meditation is similar to HITT training when it comes to recovery.
  • So we created the following routine: 1. Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes 2. 15 minutes of meditation 3. 10 minutes of stretching 4. 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan 5. Play ball For about a month, Dennis went through his routine every day before playing catch with his son. Each step of the routine was natural for him, and playing ball was always a joy, so there was no strain to the experience. The next step in the process is the critical one: after he had fully internalized his routine, I suggested that he do it the morning before going to an important meeting. So Dennis transplanted his routine from a prelude to playing catch with his son to a prelude to work. He did so and came back raving that he found himself in a totally serene state in what was normally a stressful environment. He had no trouble being fully present throughout the meeting.
    • Note: Essentially you are attaching the serene state to multiple activites which can then be used any time
  • 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. In martial arts tournaments, I now tend to snack on Clif Bars, bananas, and protein shakes whenever necessary.


  • As we enter into this discussion, please keep in mind the three steps I described as being critical to resilient, self-sufficient performance. First, we learn to flow with distraction, like that blade of grass bending to the wind. Then we learn to use distraction, inspiring ourselves with what initially would have thrown us off our games. Finally we learn to re-create the inspiring settings internally. We learn to make sandals.
    • Note: 3 crucial steps to top performance.
  • My relationship to the martial arts is rooted in nonviolence. I don’t get into fights. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I believe that our world is destroying itself with a cycle of violence begetting violence, and I don’t want to have any part in that cycle.
  • The first step I had to make was to recognize that the problem was mine, not Frank’s. There will always be creeps in the world, and I had to learn how to deal with them with a cool head. Getting pissed off would get me nowhere in life.
  • The fact of the matter is that while I love meditation and believe wholeheartedly in training oneself to operate calmly under pressure, there is a difference between the practice field and a hostile, freezing-cold stadium filled with screaming fans who want you to fail in the biggest moment of your life. 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. Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their initial gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. I have found that this is a natural process. Once we build our tolerance for turbulence and are no longer upended by the swells of our emotional life, we can ride them and even pick up speed with their slopes.
  • But how do you play your best when there is no one around to provide motivation? There is no cookie-cutter mold to inspiration. There is, however, a process we can follow to discover our unique path. 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. To each his own. Introspect. Then Make Sandals, become your own earthquake, Spike Lee, or tailing fastball. Discover what states work best for you and, like Kasparov, build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.


  • I have talked about style, personal taste, being true to your natural disposition. This theme is critical at all stages of the learning process. If you think about the high-end learning principles that I have discussed in this book, they all spring out of the deep, creative plunge into an initially small pool of information. In the early chapters, I described the importance of a chess player laying a solid foundation by studying positions of reduced complexity (endgame before opening). Then we apply the internalized principles to increasingly complex scenarios. In Making Smaller Circles we take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence. Then we gradually condense the movements while maintaining their power, until we are left with an extremely potent and nearly invisible arsenal. In Slowing Down Time, we again focus on a select group of techniques and internalize them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail. After training in this manner, we can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down. In The Illusion of the Mystical, we use our cultivation of the last two principles to control the intention of the opponent—and again, we do this by zooming in on very small details to which others are completely oblivious.
  • While this principle of penetrating the macro through the micro is a critical idea in the developmental process, it is also an absolutely pivotal foundation for a great competitor. 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.


  • Tactics come easy once principles are in the blood.


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