The Art of Learning

By Engr. Carlos V. Cornejo

The author of this book has two big life accomplishments under his belt, an International Chess Master at the age of 16 and a World Championship title in Tai Chi Push Hands at the age of 28.  Josh Waitzkin wrote this book, “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal”, based on his experience of how he got to the top by focusing on three universal learning principles to rise to the upper one percent in any discipline.

Universal Learning Principle #1:  Feel the Fundamentals

Josh learned chess by clearing the chessboard and focusing on King and Pawn positions until he had a good sense of how both pieces moved. Then he added a few more Pawns and a Knight and focused solely on the Knight’s movements in a game where both the white and the black pieces had only a King, some Pawns and one Knight. He learned how the Knight moved and internalized basic Knight principles, like looking for double attacks (i.e., attacking two pieces at one time). After gaining an intuitive feel for the Knight, Josh moved to the Bishop, then the Rook, then the Queen.

By isolating a core component (Knight, Bishop, Rook, etc.) and practicing simple variations until each component felt easy, Josh’s mind was free to think through advanced combination attacks instead of being bogged down with basic rules and principles. By going slow at first, he could quickly understand advanced chess principles (go slow to go fast).  This applies as well specially in learning math.  A pre-requisite to learning Calculus is Algebra.  If you know the fundamentals of Algebra you will have an easier time learning Calculus (the dreaded math by many).  A subject in Algebra for example are the laws of exponents.  If you focus on the fundamentals of learning the laws of exponents by heart and start applying them to a number of exercises just focusing on the laws then you will be on your way to solving more complex exponential problems and eventually apply them in Calculus.

If you are trying to lose weight, the fundamentals are to cut out fast food, give up sugary soda, stop snacking in between meals, and physical exercise. They are small changes and simple habits but if you do them every day, rain or shine, cold or hot weather, you are on your way to a lean body weight.  Fundamentals are those series of small things that if done well regularly over an extended period of time will translate later on into a great achievement.

Universal Learning Principle #2: Stay True to Your Style

Josh fell in love with chess after watching Chess Hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. Josh was captivated by their wild, aggressive attacking style of chess. When Josh started formally learning chess, everything he learned was designed to make him a better attacking player, like the Hustlers in Washington Square Park. Josh slowly developed his unique attacking style and thrived in junior chess tournaments.

In his late teens, however, Josh hired a Grandmaster who taught a passive chess style that eliminated opponent moves with perfect positional play. Josh likened it to an Anaconda coiling around its prey, slowly killing it. This style felt foreign to Josh, and his performance suffered. Josh had once loved moving pieces into chaotic positions and then finding a brilliant attack within the chaos by trusting his intuition. Now he was told to think like someone else.

By moving away from his natural inclinations and trying to mold himself to someone else’s style, his love for chess faded, and he stopped competing. Josh realized his mistake years later and made sure not to repeat the mistake in his martial arts training. His path to the top of the Tai Chi Push Hands was paved by building on his strengths and developing a style that felt natural to him.

The lesson is to stay true to your style by finding teachers whose style you resonate with, then gradually tweak their style to develop your own. When learning to write, write in a style that mimics your favorite writer. Then, over time, make modifications to find your unique voice.

Universal Learning Principle #3: Invest in Loss

The ‘Art of Learning’ is about enjoying the process of learning, but it’s also about putting your ego on the line by competing on a big stage or committing to public performances. Why?  Because the pain of public mistakes provides the fuel to study technical and psychological errors and accelerate growth.

Investing in loss means putting your ego on the line and intensely studying your losses and learning from your mistakes. The return on investment will come in the form of better preparation, effective new strategies, and a renewed drive to practice.

Here’s what the author says about the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan and how Jordan reached the pinnacle of basketball greatness through losses, “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.”  A good principle to remember from the author, “Respond to heartbreak with hard work.”  And that’s how we can turn setbacks into success.