Josh Waitzkin was called a chess prodigy at a very young age, and was actually the subject of a film called Searching for Bobby Fischer. But even though the term “prodigy” connotes some sort of in-born chess playing ability, his world class skill at chess really comes down to an insatiable curiosity, focus on deliberately developing skills, and seeking out behaviors that create extreme mental focus.
The Art of Learning is basically a memoir of someone who had lived Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule of mastering a skill, and applied the principles of extreme human performance backed by academic research outlined in Talent Is Overrated.
And that’s really the hook of the book – the inner journey of learning & performance. Thousands of people have read stories and anecdotes on what it takes to get to a very high level in any field – the insane number of training hours Olympians put in, Tiger Woods playing golf every single day as a little kid, authors writing for decades in obscurity honing their craft. But just like the experience of playing a game is very different from watching it, the experience of the person putting in those hours feels very different to them inside their head.
That’s the story that Josh Waitzkin tries to tell with The Art of Learning – what is going on inside his head, what the experience feels like to keep pushing to levels that very few people occupy.
What I Liked
The Art of Learning is not ghostwritten and very honest. Usually books by celebrities are actually written by a professional copywriter. That’s normal, and usually creates a really solid product. But as far as authenticity and insight goes, I think it’s best for the actual person to do the writing assisted by an excellent editor. That seems to have been the case with this book.
There’s plenty of analogies and lessons that can be applied to everyday life – and the general pursuit of learning & performance. Principles like focusing on creating the right inputs instead of chasing the end goal or crafting a routine are fine in theory, but tough to apply. Reading how those were actually implemented and what they meant was very useful to read about.
The story extends outside of chess – so the principles and experiences he talks about aren’t limited to a single field. He also became a World Champion martial artist in Tai Chi Chuan – a completely different field from chess.
The book also just had lots of experiences mixed in that simply only happen to people at the very top of their field – the process of growing to the point of needing a new coach, finding competitors who can drive you past your comfort zone, and living a life that very specialized and isolating in a way.
What I Didn’t Like
The section on Tai Chi and Push Hands practice needed some more editing. The book got really slow, and boring honestly for a large section 2/3rds through the book. Some extra editing and a tighter focus would have really helped out that section.
You’ve got to actively look for lessons & takeaways. The book is a memoir first, and an educational how to second. So if you’re looking to read a straightforward self-help book with checklists and easy lessons – this book is not it. Again, that’s partly its strength and there are certainly some spelled out takeaways, but overall I think the book could have been more immediately useful with spelled out lessons & takeaways.
Deliberate practice over the course of thousands of hours is the only way to truly master a field. But it’s still not a formula. We’re not algorithms – we still have to tell ourselves stories to keep going, actually learn from our practice, and “trick” our mind into focusing.