The Art of Learning recounts Josh Waitzkin’s journey towards excellence in Chess and in Tai Chi Chuan. This book is a reflection on his learnings across both disciplines, with an eye on breaking down the principles behind becoming world-class. He overthinks this to an insane degree (in a good way) about how he does this.
The first part of the book recounts his journey in Chess, and the second, his journey in Tai Chi Chuan. Each juncture details a lesson learned or a principle gleaned. These ultimately build toward a manual for mastery. In the third part of the book, Waitzkin changes tack, and re-evaluates the body of learnings explored through the eyes of a performance psychologist. This all crescendo’s with him telling the story of double-world championship win in Push Hands
I must say through reading the first two parts of this book, I found it a little difficult to relate to Waitzkin. As much as I want to, I can’t claim to have dedicated myself to anything on a similar level as he did to Chess and Tai Chi Chuan. Nothing comes close. Having said that, he does a good job of tying it all together in a neat bow in the third part. Comparing what were ultimately his reflections with the performance psychology says made it all much more compelling.
I was able to connect much of what Waitzkin advocates to other sources. There is an explicit reference in the book to Carol Dweck and her research on Growth versus Fixed mindsets. The Soft Zone is analogous to the Flow state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance. His views of mastery by beginning with the fundamentals and axioms of a discipline harks back to the idea of reasoning from first principles.
What gets a little lost in the book is the time-scale over which events occur. For a fair chunk of the book, I looked at him as superhuman. From the way the book goes, it makes it seem like he learnt everything without much practice. But, of course, that is the opposite of reality. The thousands of hours of practice are implied, fitting nicely into the 10,000-hour rule popularised in Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.
The lens with which he examines and rationalises his progress is exceedingly small. It hindsight, it makes a lot of sense given how much of a fierce competitor he is. It’s actually quite refreshing. In the area of high-performance psychology, I haven’t read anything that comes close to the level of detail Waitzkin goes into from other high-performers. At the end of it, you really do appreciate his dedication and doggedness of his approach.
Given that much of the book is intertwined with Waitzkin’s life, it reads much like a memoir. It adds nuance to the reading experience and makes it all the much more enjoyable. You can appreciate it as a story of dedication, and a manual for mastery.
If you are not looking to master anything, this book will probably have a small impact. It is geared towards obsessive practitioners striving to become among the world’s best. Inspirational, without a doubt. Moreover, it becomes highly impactful if you are coming in with the right mindset.
Recommended. If you are the dedicated practitioner striving to become among the world’s best, this is a must-read. Otherwise, it is a story of dedication and achievement that anyone can enjoy.