Review: “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin


Remember that movie “Finding Bobby Fischer” about the little boy who was a chess prodigy?

Well, he grew up and moved from chess to martial arts. He became an international champion in combat Tai Chi. Having mastered two complex disciplines, he wrote a book that’s half memoir, half guide to self-education.

Learning how to learn, and learning it from a guy with such distinguished credentials, is fascinating (since I’ve spent some thought and energy on the same topic).

His book is a gripping account of how his fame, arising from his father’s best-selling novel and subsequent movie, caused serious problems for his future chess matches. He eventually gave up chess and began studying martial arts. Now, he leads a consulting business, helping high-level performers of all types (from athletes to investment bankers) perfect their mental game.

One problem? He’s jewish, even if atypically so. Atypical because unlike most jewish contemporaries, he never mentions his ethnicity in this memoir and never complains about unjust societal “oppression”. A jewish actor, on the other hand (for example), can’t go three episodes without casually mentioning his jewishness. Props to Waitzkin for skipping that. It seems he took pains to avoid politics and controversial topics all together. He really digs into his theories of high performance psychology which, to my mind, indicates a sincere love of his work. It’s a problem, though, (says I), because like many jewish authors, he writes in an overly-abstract hard-to-follow style.

He seemed to have trouble translating his perspective into language for the rest of us. We get a lot of abstract metaphor and esoteric aphorism which sounds weighty but leaves us with little of practical value. I mean: splash yourself with water when faced with a difficult chess match to refocus…ok? Did we really need a book for that?

The most helpful strategy he discusses (in my opinion) is how to train one’s mind to shift moods by systematic, planned, meditations. For example, he convinced one of his clients to conduct a daily routine to prep for mental relaxation and focus: fifteen minutes of listening to a particular piece of music, followed by fifteen minutes of meditation, followed by the act (in this case, playing catch with his son). If this routine is repeated often enough, the individual soon discovers the ability to shift into similar states of relaxation, just by thinking of the routine instead of actually having to perform it. Over time and with practice, such a shift in mental state can take place almost instantly, say, before having to give a big presentation. Instead of walking in the boardroom nervous and on edge, a quick meditation session can bring these ingrained relaxation states to surface when they’re needed.

The book culminates in a narrative account of his championship Tai Chi battle with the opposing Taiwanese champion “The Buffalo.” In a scene fit for the movies, Waitzkin faces difficult odds – cheating judges, legendary opponents, greasy food – to pull out a tough victory. Tai Chi is the national sport in Taiwan, after all, and they weren’t excited about having some round-eye foreigner defeat their hometown hero.

Maybe that’s one thing Waitzkin failed to mention in his memoir? Being wealthy gives any athlete or competitor a leg-up since he gets to practice all day instead of having to work. He has access to the best meals, the best facilities, and the best instructors.

As helpful as I think Waitzkin’s suggestions are, I don’t think you can ever program “heart” into someone, no matter how much wealth or pressure are brought to bear. If someone could figure out how to bottle “heart” and “passion”, he’d make a fortune.

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