The Art of Learning

June 2018 ยท 3 minutes

The Art of Learning is a meditation on the human ability for cognitive and psychophysical excellence. It details the processes through which mastery of any skill can be achieved, at which point decision-making is effortless and thinking almost sublime. To accomplish this, Waitzkin regales the reader with an awe-inspiring account of his journey from novice to master in both chess and Tai Chi. He shares his insights into the art of metalearning, learning to learn, offering tangible methods to improve one’s own ability while deftly dispelling the cognitive impediments that hinder potential. The symbiosis of both narrative and practical didacticism is a wholly enjoyable and galvanizing experience.

From this book, I gleaned three fundamental insights into the nature of learning and cognitive growth:

The Soft Zone

Much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence...

Nestled within the transcendent forms of high cognitive performance, of which Waitzkin talks at length, are more practical means to induce concentration and flow. Waitzkin introduces what sport psychologists call The Soft Zone, a state of acute, but tempered concentration. The Soft Zone allows one to work and think critically in non-ideal environments - among the chatter of colleagues or when at the mercy of a distracting workspace. The temptation for many is to retreat to a Hard Zone, a state of concentration that demands the cooperation of the outside world. This, however, is impossible. To counter this, Waitzkin offers the timeless aphorism: “To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.”

Investment In Loss

Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire...

Investment in loss is simply giving yourself to the learning process. One of the most important aspects of life-long learning is to release one’s ego when in pursuit of new areas of growth. True growth comes at the point of resistance - the edges of our skill and understanding. Locking oneself within a walled garden relegates our ability to a local maximum, leaving higher peaks of achievement unexplored. Learning is as much about our own humility, as is it about effort and discipline.

Making Smaller Circles

It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set...

Making smaller circles is the process of perfecting the most elementary parts of a much grander goal. It involves asking oneself, what can I do now that, when executed with precision and excellence, will help me reach my objective? In The Art of Learning, Waitzkin explains the fastidious devotion he gave to mastering the simplest of Tai Chi principles, sometimes spending months on moving his hand 6 inches through the air. An attention to fundamental principles, a process of breaking the objective down to its essential elements, allows one to focus with intensity on a single, tangible outcome without being engulfed by the immensity of the greater goal. These small, imperceivable gains compound, solidifying into a foundation of understanding upon which mastery is built.

With the thousands of books discussing the ways to improve performance and effectiveness, it is easy to become cynical about the profundity of the sentiments stuffed within their pages. Superficial maximums interspersed with bloviating sophistry is usually enough to sell a couple thousand copies of anything. The Art of Learning starkly breaks from this mold, differentiating itself by revisiting and updating the timeless principles that foster success. Waitzkin does not delude the reader into believing mastery is easy. Instead, he puts forth fundamental tools, which when applied with purpose and deliberation, move one, inch by arduous inch, toward the achievement of true mastery.