Art of Learning

Book Review Part 1

The Art of Learning has had very big influence on me. It is about Joshua Waitzkin’s journey from being a chess prodigy to taking up martial arts and then going on to become a martial arts champion. Having succeeded in two very different disciplines Waitzkin proceeds to identify patterns of learning that allowed him to be successful. While readers expecting bullet points on how to learn will be very disappointed, Waitzkin’s story based style makes for a captivating read. This book review is focused on the first half of the book.

To write this book Waitzkin faces a problem. He must retrace the steps he took to learn what is already unconscious in his mind. As a master of two disciplines he has unconscious competence: he is so good that he doesn’t see the breakdown of steps he does. They happen at an intuitive level for him. He likens this to the study of numbers to leave numbers. If you explain to a beginner how to “leave numbers” that kind of thinking will utterly confuse them. A beginner must immerse themselves in the technical details of a subject. You must study the numbers, memorize them and learn to manipulate them. Over many many repetitions you gain a depth of understanding that transcends the numbers themselves. Said another way, you study form to leave form.

When you get to that level of mastery you can play on intuition, hunches and certain feelings elicited from a move. He describes an example of ‘feeling a game’ with an opponent who was besting him. He was left with five pawns and knight and his opponent was with a bishop and six pawns. He narrates “I went to the bathroom and cried. Then I washed my face, steeled myself, buckled down and went back to the board, It was as if trapped in a dark jungle, stuck in the underbrush, starving, bleeding and suddenly there was light. I’ll never forget the feeling when I sensed my potential escape. Often in chess, you feel something is there before you find it. The skin suddenly perks up, senses heighten like an animal feeling danger or prey. The Unconscious alerts the conscious player that there is something to be found, and then the search begins…” and sure enough a few minutes later he found an opening in his opponents game that he was able to take advantage of.

But having a feeling of the game is not where beginners start. In fact he stresses that beginners need to isolate certain patterns and work on them repeatedly. When he started his chess journey his coach would simplify the chess board by starting with endgame scenarios and only keeping it to a King and pawn vs a King. By recreating a complex game with so many pieces into a simple one, Waitzkin was really able to understand the relationship between two pieces and the board. Then he would practice other end-games with rooks, Knights, Bishops gradually adding layers of complexity. Most of his other chess players learned by starting with opening moves. This presented a couple of problems. Opening moves are more complex than simplified ending moves. You don’t really get to understand and isolate the effects of each of the pieces. Additionally players who are strong in opening moves struggle as the game goes on, especially if their opening moves don’t work. Waitzkin, when playing these opponents would get stronger as the game went on, while his opponents would get weaker.

Waitzkin had an aggressive style of playing chess. He would create a chaotic environment and then use that to his advantage to throw off his opponent. But because he was such a good offensive player his defense was weak. A turning point when he was 16 taught him another really valuable lesson. During this time he was approached by two different coaches to further improve his game. One was a really good defensive teacher. He had taught Russian chess masters in the style of prophylaxis. Like an anaconda the strategy was to slowly squeeze out your opponent until they cracked. The Russian masters were more introverted and this type of play suited their personalities. While this was not Waitzkin’s temparament, defensive strategies were his biggest weakness.

The other teacher he could’ve worked with saw Waitzkin’s aggressive style and told him he should not change his nature and that he could learn defense through offense. This is a hard idea to explain. If you have an offensive strategy you will have gaps and weaknesses show up when you execute that strategy on a chessboard. Learning offense through defense is fixing those gaps and weaknesses in service of the offensive strategy. You are not becoming a defensive player in this approach, you become a better offensive player. This bit of nuance truly affects the dynamic of how one approaches learning.

Waitzkin ended up picking the coach with the defensive strategy, and tried changing his style to become a defensive player to overcome those gaps. This style was so unnatural for Waitzkin that he struggled to adopt this new methodology. He ended up losing his love for the game he had given his heart and soul to for 20 years and it also led his move towards martial arts.

What’s also fascinating is Waitzkin continually draws the link to personal psychology through many of his challenges. There is a merger between the technical world of someone’s skills and their own personal psychology. In one case the teenage Waitzkin was living in Slovenia with his girlfriend for a while and every two months or so he would take off to go visit Hungary, Germany or Holland to compete in a two week tournament. “Each trip was an adventure but at the beginning I felt homesick. I missed my girlfriend,. I missed my family. I missed my friends…the first few days in the new country were always rough…but then I’d get my bearings in a new city and have a wonderful time.” Every time he would go to a new city, he’d feel disoriented and needed some time to adjust. He started noticing that this transition pattern also manifested on the chess board. “For a period of time, almost all of my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or proceeding a big change.” Patterns of behavior show themselves across multiple areas of your life, and this can make them easier to spot.

[1] this guy was an ISFP

[2] Both of Waitzkin’s achievements were in closed systems. I wonder how much of these ideas can be adapted to complex systems like your day job?