The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin Summary: Accelerated Learning Techniques To Become A SuperLearner

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin Summary: Accelerated Learning Techniques

Josh Waitzkin became a national champion in two skills by his early thirties: chess (as a teen) and Tai Chi Chuan, a competitive martial arts. Later on, he became a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the first student to do so under Marcelo Garcia, a man widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound grapplers in the world.

He was also the basis for the popular chess film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. What was his secret for mastering so many skills so early when most people can’t master one skill in their entire lifetime?

According to Josh, the secret was that he was better at learning than others. He succeeded in his  second skill after quitting chess by applying his ability to learn. The great news is that Josh wrote a book, The Art of Learning, to teach you how to learn better.

Here is my The Art of Learning summary. You will learn the top accelerated learning techniques to learn faster, retain the information, and progress in your chosen craft quicker.

Listen to my audio podcast version of this here if you prefer it:

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Embrace Mistakes to Learn and Grow

The first lesson is called investment in loss. It is a core principle to master learning. You need to put aside your ego and be okay with looking stupid with making mistaking so you can learn from them. Old habits, principles, or ways of thinking occasionally need to be abandoned to make way for what actually works. You should come off of a mistake or loss better than before.

This is a common mistake Josh noticed in his peers. They progress slower than him because they don’t give up old habits or are too proud to lose.

Dr. Carol Dweck expands upon this with her concepts of Fixed vs. Growth Mindset through her experiments. Her book, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, goes into more detail but the summary is that successful people embrace mistakes and believe they can improve, while unsuccessful people believe their skill level is fixed from birth.

These different mindsets can play out in different behavior. If a fixed mindset person is told he is smart, he will do everything he can to keep that image of being smart, even if it means not making mistakes to improve. If you are taught that winning matters most, you will emphasize winning at the cost of losing to learn and grow.

One time, he met a boy who was praised as being amazing in chess by his friends and family. Everyone this boy knew praised him as “undefeated.” He ended up refusing to play chess with Josh because he didn’t want to shatter his image of perfection.

Garry Kasparov, regarded by many as the best chess player of all time, said in a Google Talk:

“Let’s forget about avoiding mistakes. If we don’t make mistakes, we’re dead …making mistakes is [part of] a normal decision-making process … First, you have to kill the fear. The less you fear making a mistake, it dramatically reduces the chances you will make one. Most mistakes have a psychological root … You will fail at some point. Recognizing that will help you boost your performance.”  

Put Aside Your Ego To Be Right and Always Win

Josh observed that people who were slower than him to grow often had an ego to be right. They would explain why they did things when the teacher corrected them. Throw away the need to be right, and embrace new ways of thinking as fast as you can.

Do the exact opposite of these guys. They never learned from their mistakes and were doomed to repeat them. They defended their need to be right and in control. They valued winning over learning and improving.

Because of their ego, they never were willing to invest in loss. They often only sought out people they would win against. The lack of challenge didn’t allow them to improve.

Try To Stop Repeating Mistakes As Soon As Possible

In a few months, Josh surpassed people who been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for a couple years. How? He tried his hardest to learn from every error he made, as well as errors his opponents made.

He believes that you can skyrocket to the top of your field if you never repeat the same mistake twice after you make it. However, he understands this is impossible because we are humans. It took him months to recognize he sucked at transition moments in chess. So the aim is to minimize repetition of mistakes as much as you can.

Is there any specific thing you can do to do this better? He recommends keeping an eye out for consistent psychological and technical patterns of error.

Improvement Is A Balance of Pushing Your Comfort Zone But Not So Much You Break

A muscle needs to be stretched to grow, but not so much it snaps. You need a similar balance to achieve optimal learning. Find stronger opponents to grow, but also be around you can beat so that are worse than you to keep your self-esteem and confidence. Soak in new ideas, but no so much you lose touch with your current technical skills and unique talents.  

Josh argues that improvement comes only when you push yourself by leaving your comfort and safety zones. The top martial artists look for the toughest guy on the mat when they are exhausted because they only improve by being challenged. Josh entered adult chess tournaments as a child because he wanted to compete with people that were better than him and made him uncomfortable.

You can cheat to get ahead in the short term, but if you do, you are cheating yourself out of growth in the long term.

Some people are too pressured or tempted by quick results. They give in and focus on pathways to get those results, which sacrifices long-term growth. Josh saw play out in chess, when teachers who were pressed to produce results taught new kids many opening tactics. However, memorizing opening moves does not form a solid foundation for strategy.

That’s not to say that you should never emphasize winning or results. You have to care about winning on some level to have the ambition to improve. It would be unhelpful to tell someone that losing doesn’t matter, when it clearly affects him. It requires a delicate balance of setting short-term goals and having long-term thinking.

To teach this mindset to your child, praise hard work, focus, and lessons learned. Win he or she wins, emphasize the road to that moment rather than the glory. Don’t deny the obvious emotions of the moment. Let your child enjoy wins. The key is to recognize the real beauty is in the process of growth.

Then, how do you nurture a child after a loss to think the right way? Don’t say it doesn’t matter. He knows it matters because he put all his effort into it. Instead, let him feel sad after the loss. Be empathetic to his situation. After a while, ask about the psychological mistake that caused the loss. This will help work towards a short-term goal.  

Josh’s win of the Elementary School National Championship illustrates a process-first approach. After he beat out 1,500 competitors, there was no euphoria. The heavens didn’t open. He was still a boy who loved his parents and fishing. He went back to school and his friends like he simply hit a jump shot. Then, they would go back to playing football.

How To Leap To A High Level of Skill in A Fraction of the Time

One of the ways Josh managed to become world class in Tai Chi Chuan in a couple years is through forcing areas of play that his opponents were unfamiliar with that he had mastered.

A foundation of the practice revolves around the pummeling war, the fight for a dominant position to throw you. His opponents have spent their entire lives improving their pummeling to get the dominant position.

In the 2002 World Championships, he injured his right shoulder so badly that it became his Achilles heel. He couldn’t win pummeling wars anymore because people could exploit his injury. Therefore, he came up with the idea of turning your weakness into a strength.

Josh decided to immediately give up the dominant position, which mitigates a large part of his opponent’s training. He trained intensely in this “outside” position until he felt incredibly comfortable and dominant there. Then, they would battle in a position he was an expert in, and that they hadn’t studied deeply.

This happens in the highest levels of chess too. Masters discover hidden resources in theoretically weak opening positions. They become experts of an undiscovered battleground and guide opponents into their domain.

Focus on the Simple To Avoid Information Overload and Master the Complex

We live in an attention-deficit world. We are bombarded by an overwhelming stimuli of information from TV, the Internet, and social media. This makes us get bored and distracted easier than ever. If you get caught in this trap, you’re like a tiny fish in an violent ocean with no sense of direction. Josh says this can lead to devastating consequences.

Instead, focus on the simplest situations and details. He calls this learning the macro from the micro. Josh’s first chess teacher taught him how to play by removing all the pieces from the board except three. This eliminated complexity and taught him the fundamental but important principles of space and strategy. He also gives the story of a man who teaches a student with writer’s block how to write by telling him to write about the front of an opera house rather than the whole town.

Dont focus on the ocean because you will be overwhelmed. Focus on the small droplets that mean the most to you.

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Expect and Prepare for Dirty Play

As a child chess prodigy, Josh encountered plenty of cheating from world-class opponents. They would kick him constantly under the table, shake the board, make subtle noises to hypnotically program him to think faster, and get help from their coach illegally. If Josh went to the referee, his opponent would claim innocence and his opponent would get what he wants: for Josh to snap out of his thinking and get emotionally affected.

At first, Josh would get angry and frustrated. But that was just what his opponents wanted. When he encountered similar cheating in martial arts, he learned how to overcome these obstacles.  

He realized the problem was not them, but him. He was scared because he was not sure what to do when people played outside the rules. There would always be bad people in the world and crying about it wouldn’t get him anywhere. From then on, he would seek out the dirtiest players to practice with.

He figured out what to do against illegal eye jabs, neck jabs, and groin kicks. He practiced until he was prepared. Then, when it happened in competition, he remained calm and blocked the attack.  This bounced the emotional reaction back onto the opponents because they were so used to getting the psychological reaction they wanted and were surprised by his calm response.

Later on, he experienced even more severe cheating in the 2004 World Championships. The Taiwanese wanted one of their own to win because it was their national sport so they did everything they could to prevent foreigners from winning.

They sent him rules 6 months before fof the dimensions of the wrestling ring. This is important because you need to be able to sense where you are since you don’t have time to look down. But at the tournament, they made the ring much smaller, which severely favored how the Taiwanese practiced. Scorekeepers would not record points he won. Referees would extend the time limit if he was winning. They tried to get him to compete in an extra foreign tournament that was created clearly just to exhaust him.

Josh didn’t let this affect his emotions. Dirty tricks became part of the game. The lesson is to prepare for cheating and remain calm when it happens. He goes as far as to say that you shouldn’t suppress your emotions. You should embrace what is happening. Josh applied the same principle of seeking out and embracing what held him back for distractions, as you will see in the next section…

Do Interval Training with Breaks

Josh recommends doing high-intesity interval training (HIIT) with breaks for everything in your life. The basic idea is to push yourself to a healthy limit, recover for a minute or two, and repeat. Over the years, slowly start to increase the intensity and duration of your exercise while reducing your rest periods.

A key part of his learning process is removing artificial barriers between life experiences. Therefore, don’t just do this for physical activities, like swimming or biking, but also for internal activities. When you lose focus on a book, take a walk, and come back to it refreshed. If you’re at work and drained, take a quick break and wash your face. Try meditating for a few minutes to act as a bridge that connects the physical and mental forms of interval training.

Has been officially one year since I started meditating. Thanks to new research on habit formation that I have been using, I’ve been pretty consistent on a weekly basis with meditation and a number of other habits like exercise. I do feel like I am getting a head start compared to some people yet to others I feel like I am behind them. Everyone has their own pace. I started meditation mainly for success reasons. There is a decent amount of scientific literature and successful people who owe a lot or prove that meditation helps the performance of your brain through neuroscience. After a year, I’m here to reports the truth with no BS or hype. It is not a magic pill. I don’t think I have transformed my physique, my social skills, my focus, or my creativity. However, I can confidently say that there is a definite 2 to 5% increase there. if the rate of increase continues for the next 10 years, maybe it truly is a miracle cure. however, I’m sure there are diminishing returns. Ultimately, so far, I’ve only seen increases in performance rather than declines. I have the time and I will do everything I can to increase the odds in my favor.

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So how did Josh come to this conclusion? While competing in chess, his father put him in one of the world’s top athlete peak performance centers. The center had top psychologists, coaches, and scientists that would measure athletes and instruct them on how to improve. There were Olympic, NFL, NBA, NHL, and everything else.

He learned from the center that the top athletes of every sport had routine recovery sessions. They were able to serenely relax during their breaks. He stopped focusing on chess during competitions when it wasn’t his turn and it improved his performance.

While at the center, he discovered that his best games were played when he would have five to ten minute thinking sessions between each move. He would think for over twenty minutes for some moves on the games he lost. He realized that there was little productive thinking going on after ten minutes and the redundancy drained his energy.

From there, he changed his playing strategy and it improved his chess performance a lot. He would take small two minute breaks without thinking about chess after ten minutes of thinking. This refreshed his mind and allowed him to have more creative thinking.

Taking a break really matters because it helps refresh the mind, recover the body, and make you stronger. He would even go for a two minute sprint as a break in the middle of a chess match.

He saw parents try to cram in two hour chess lessons in between games at a tournament. In chess and martial arts, he noticed the top players took time to rest in between games instead. You can’t always be on edge or it will exhaust you.

Josh’s father made sure he took breaks during tournaments. When he lost the World Championship Finals as a kid, took him on a month-long vacation to a lake without any ability to play chess. This helped him get over his loss and recharge.

HIIT bleeds over from physical results to mental results. It improves your mind’s ability to recover faster from exhaustion. He noticed an improvement in his chess performance after only a few weeks of HIIT biking.

Master the Fundamentals First And Then Expand

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” -Bruce Lee

Similarly, you should focus on getting the fundamentals right. Josh believes one of the main reasons he won the Tai Chi Chuan World Championships in just two years of practice was his focus on mastering just a few principles and avoiding the trap of taking on fancy techniques. His opponents knew more about Tai Chi, but he was really good at what he did know.

In chess and Tai Chi, he saw others make the mistake of getting caught up in learning new, shiny techniques. Quality beats quantity. It’s more important to internalize and refine what you did know. It’s never a secret technique that brings you to a top, but a mastery of the basics. Depth beats breadth.

noticed a lot of other martial arts and chess practitioners started out by learning hundreds, if not, thousands of variations of superficial, flowery techniques. Instead, Josh focused on mastering a couple of the fundamental movements.

Josh believes you should start with a strong foundation. When you master even the subtleties of a fundamental principle, you can apply it to all the other things you learn for your skill since they’re all related. Once you master the principles, tactics come easily and surprises will not destroy you. This is important because life will give you surprises that you can overcome if you have the fundamentals in place.

For example, Josh was surprised with all sorts of game changes and cheating during the World Championships because the referees wanted their home team to win. Because he understood the fundamentals, he rolled with the punches and still won.

Overwhelmed By Information? Use Chunking To Memorize Faster

Chunking is the process of finding a pattern among a lot of information and putting it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were one piece of information. This lets you consume and remember information faster.

To take it to another level, you can then start forming relationships between these chunks to organize and navigate the chunks of information faster.

Think of it like cutting through a jungle with a machete. It can take weeks or months to clear a path at first, but once it’s done, you can move through clearly. This is what Josh calls carving neural pathways because that’s exactly what you’re doing in your brain. It takes a long time to form this network of chunks, but it’s easy to access once the pathways are there.

Over time, Josh had chunks of chess information accessed through a navigation of other chunks, which were accessed by another set of connected chunks. Don’t get overwhelmed; you don’t have to go so far yet. 

Masters often look at less rather than more. A chess Grandmaster has internalized so many chunks that he can look at very little and see a lot with little conscious thought.

Think of Creativity and Mastery like Levels of a Pyramid

Most people have a flash of creativity and then pray for it to happen again. But what if you could do this on command?

Think of a pyramid of knowledge. Each level has technical information explained in understandable chunks. You advance to the next level when you have internalized the information of the current level enough for it to be unconscious. 

Josh calls this numbers to leave numbers. A beginner must master the rules before he can break the rules, just like how an Abstract painter must first learn realistic painting before he can move onto breaking the rules. In Josh’s case, he was taught to learn the best defensive chess strategies by studying attacking strategies.

At first, your progress will be like a runner just starting to run on a cold day. It will be stiff and slow. After extensive practice, you start to thaw and your thinking becomes free-flowing like a runner in stride. When Josh hit this point, he sometimes just felt the right move and couldn’t explain it in words.

Josh calls his idea of mastering the fundamentals first Making Smaller Circles. First, you master a fundamental principle, like a straight punch or central control in chess. Then, you maintain the feeling and core ideas of the principle, but take tiny steps to refine it.

Slowly but surely, you get to a new level where a basic principle put to action looks nothing like it because you’ve mastered it and tweaked it. For example, chess Grandmasters will appear to disregard the central control rule, but it’s really that they have internalized the principles so well they can skate around them; they control the center without appearing to do so. Similarly, a world-class boxer can throw a basic straight punch that doesn’t look anything like a straight punch and knock someone out in competition.

A master pianist doesn’t have to think about hitting each individual note when playing a masterpiece because he has internalized the process. A beginner chess player may have to count the value of each chess piece in his head, but a grandmaster sees the value system naturally on the board as a flowing force field. What was once mathematical is now intuitive.

Occasionally, you will have creative bursts. Your job is to figure out the technical explanation o f your discovery so it doesn’t get lost and so you can advance.

In chess, a player may have inspired ideas that blow the mind of everyone on his level. But for a master, his knowledge of chess allows him to use these ideas everyday. The average player would think of these insights as “just a feeling.” But stronger players have internalized esoteric  principles that they can make quick decisions that may seem divine to the lesser player.

Don’t Let Your Reaction of a Mistake or Unexpected Event Lose You Something Greater

One day, Josh was walking through Manhattan. The traffic was very chaotic and dangerous. He saw a woman step into the oncoming traffic. She must have been new because she was looking the wrong way on a one-way street. Suddenly, a biker bore down on her but miraculously managed to lurch away at the last second. This was where she made the critical mistake.

Rather than stepping out of the way and being grateful she wasn’t hurt, she let the biker get her angry. She screamed at the now-distant biker, with her back to the traffic. Another car came around the corner and struck her. She smashed into a lamppost and was knocked out, bleeding badly. The ambulance came and Josh left, not knowing if she survived.

The first mistake is rarely disastrous. But your emotional reaction the the next few mistakes could create a devastating downward spiral. If you’re dependent on perfection, an error will trigger fear, uncertainty, or confusion. If you stay calm, you can prevent a disaster.

Josh taught this idea to a group of elementary school students he was training. It helped one of them win a critical game in the National Championships by preventing him from freaking out when he messed up.

But brilliant scientists, writers, actors, and athletes can turn setbacks into victories or even greater performances and accomplishments by making the mistake work for you. For example, a top actor can miss a line but improvise it to something better. When Henry Winkler played the iconic character The Fonz, he didn’t have the memory to memorize much so he told his boss it was better to improvise.

Dr. Alexander Fleming accidentally left some contaminated Petri dishes out when he went on vacation. This lead to the discovery of Penicillin, which paved the way for antibiotics, which is solely responsible for the lengthening of the human lifespan by several decades.

Videotape Your Performance To Identify and Understand Insights

Josh taped his martial arts practices. By studying the moments where he did something creative, he discovered innovative new techniques. He found he was unconsciously throwing when his opponent switched weight between feet. He advanced to a higher level of knowledge he could use by creating techniques to force a weight switch so he could throw them and having his practice partner come up with counters.

This turned ideas into a foundation he could draw from instead of keeping them as one-time flukes he couldn’t understand.

How To Slow Down Time and The Secret of the Masters

Josh has experienced a few moments during competitions when time seemed to slow down and he was able to identify the smallest details easily. How?

Because masters know a lot more about a game. They have internalized complex principles into their unconscious. Each level they progress, they give more to their unconscious and think about less in their conscious. This lets them understand and handle extremely complex situations quickly.

The beginner is often overwhelmed with too many factors. For example, a judo flip may seem like a flurry of quick actions he can’t comprehend. But to an expert, he has already internalized the six steps to a proper flip so that he doesn’t have to think about it. He hands that off to his unconscious. It becomes second nature, which lets him focus on the subtle details of the flip to make it work better for each situation.

To a beginner, an expert’s work may seem like magic. Josh calls this the Illusion of the Mystical. In truth, it is not magic; it is just a high level of internalized skill and knowledge.

A beginner’s body isn’t tuned to notice every subtle detail because it wouldn’t function well. Imagine noticing every little noise and bug as you crossed the street. You would get hit by a car. An expert can do this because he has already mastered everything else to the point of it being second nature so that he can focus on the subtle details.

Josh recommends that you practice as much as possible to wire these neural pathways into your brain. He also recommends being present to the moment and using a mix of unconscious and conscious ability. You need both to get to the next level.

The more present you are at your discipline, the more present you will be at everything else in life. This will help you stay calm and maximize every moment. Presence should be as second nature as breathing.

Have A Child’s Sense of Freedom

When a grandmother first uses a computer, she is scared she will break something. But when you tell her to do anything she wants because she won’t break anything, she relaxes and freely explores the computer.

As children, we aren’t scared of failing when we learn. We take creative leaps and discover new things. But as we get older, we become more and more aware of the stakes and consequences of failure, which paralyzes us.

Josh’s chess career ended in flames because he was overwhelmed by the world championship pressures. He rediscovered his ambition through Tai Chi Chuan by returning to the child’s mentality.

Work On The Areas You’re Neglecting Before You’re Forced To

Josh realized he was neglecting practice on his non-dominant hand and on internal non-physical work — but only after he was injured to the point of being forced to work on those areas. It’s important to practice on all important areas, not just some. This could be switching between internal or external, concrete or abstract, technical or intuitive, right or left side, intelligence or physical.

For example, top NFL players take the off-season to study tapes and improve the abstract strategy of the game rather than just their body.

Embrace the Unconscious While Maintaining the Conscious

Many people misunderstand the unconscious. Some believe it doesn’t exist or help. But even the greatest chess player of all time says it’s the most important thing you can have as a human. An analogy would be your vision. Your conscious mind i s what you can see while reading. The unconscious mind is your peripheral vision. If you relax your eyes, you can see more words on a page.

Your goal should be to let your unconscious drive front seat without losing the precision of the conscious. In the case of reading, it would be keeping focus on the book, while maintaining a peripheral awareness to read more words.

Top martial artists and chess players do this well. They can zoom in on a precise detail while maintaining sharp awareness of their surroundings and letting the unconscious guide the strategy, while the conscious sorts out the details and checks if it’s right with mathematical calculations.

Josh argues what separates the great from the good is presence, relaxation of the conscious, and allowing the unconscious to flow unhindered.

Practice With The Right Person To Keep Pushing Eachother

When Josh trained for the Tai Chi Chuan World Championships, he had a daily practice partner who was one of the best in the world. Every day, he and his partner would reveal everything they knew and discovered. They kept pushing each other during practice by developing new tricks to counter movements. This constant competitive pressure forced each of them to grow or lose.

How To Prevent Distractions From Stopping Your Creativity and Performance

Josh used to get overwhelmed by distraction during chess tournaments. Sounds he didn’t even notice before started distracting him. Since he was the basis for the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, he was mobbed at tournaments after the film came out.

Josh would get angry with the noise. He tried using his force of will to push out the flashing camera lights, music, and shouting. But this would leave him burned out and drained after each game.

He realized you can’t count on the world to be silent when you’re performing at the highest level. He started embracing the distraction, being aware of it, and internalizing it. To practice, he would play music or sounds he didn’t like in his room constantly. He would also seek out players who smoked a lot because he didn’t like smoke.

Overtime, he was able to make chess moves in beat with the music. He embodied the environment. You must become present and vibe with your distractions.

Sports psychologists call the process of flowing with whatever comes The Soft Zone. Once Josh had gotten good with being in The Soft Zone, he would even integrate the mood of the music to how aggressively he played chess.

There are three steps to staying resilient during chaotic situations:

  1. Be at peace with distraction and imperfection. Josh went so far as to avoid painkillers when injured to be at peace with pain.
  2. Use the imperfection to your advantage. Think to the beat of the music. Or use it as inspiration.
  3. Create ripples of inspiration with it, whether or not your environment is actually inspiring.

How To Create Triggers To Spur Creativity Constantly and Growth

Josh noticed moments in his past where distractions spurred creativity, specifically when an earthquake happened during a chess tournament and when he broke his hand at the World Championships. He used this to build a method that can spur creativity constantly, whether or not an external event is there to inspire him.

Similarly, you should have the same mentality of growth when it comes to obstacles or loss. Rather than relying on the next unexpected obstacle or failure to motivate and push you harder, you should create an everlasting internal motivation regardless of whether an obstacle comes up.

Josh was approached by a top Smith Barney producer who was having trouble accessing a high performance state and was distracted during meetings. He tried everything, but couldn’t find a routine that put him in the right state of mind.

Josh started by working backwards to create a trigger. He asked, “When do you feel closest to serene focus?”

The man said it was when he played catch with his son. No matter what your serene activity is, it can be very valuable. Next, Josh made him create a four-step routine before he played catch with his boy every day.

  1. Eat a light snack for 10 minutes.
  2. 15 minutes of meditation.
  3. 10 minutes of stretching.
  4. They chose a specific song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan, to always listen to when he played catch. 10 minutes of this song (it’s a long song).
  5. Play catch with son.

Once the producer had done it for a month every day and internalized it, he was told to do it before a meeting. It worked wonders.

Here’s what actually happened. I believe Josh used classical conditioning to chain a bunch of activities that would trigger the serene state. Once they were associated in his mind, he could recreate the serene moment with his triggers without actually playing catch with his son (just like a dog who salivates when a bell is rung even when food hasn’t been brought yet because he is used to hearing the bell and getting food). He said that any activity could have been used before playing catch. It could have been cartwheels or card games.

Don’t want to spend an hour every time to get the right state of mind? Neither did the producer. Over time, Josh told him to gradually alter the routine so that it still had the same psychological and physiological effect, but lower maintenance. Very slowly, he reduced how long he listened to music and stretched. Eventually, you can reduce it until you can remove it almost completely. He could just think about the music for it to put him in the zone.

Identify Problems That Translate From Your Personal Life To Work (and Vice Versa)

Josh noticed that his personal life problems reflected into his chess strategy. He had trouble dealing with change in the form of travel and being away from family to compete. This manifested on the board as being to change his thinking process when the struggle went from long-term strategy to concrete tactics or tactical to abstract endgame.

Once Josh identified this connection, he was able to fix it. He cleared his mind when the character of the struggle changed in chess. He embraced change in his personal life rather than fight it.t

Then, he went on to use problems in his work to identify problems in his personal life as a form of psychoanalysis.

He found that he could use this on others too. If an opponent was controlling or fast in real life, it usually played out in his chess style too. Therefore, he would make the chess board the exact opposite of what he wanted (chaotic or precise respectively).

Choose a Teacher and Learning Style That Matches Your Personality

People are different. Some are aggressive, others are passive. Some love a challenge, others shy away. Some are introverts, others are extroverts. All the principles Josh teaches should be made to fit your own flair. There is more than one solution to a problem and therefore, you must make the ideas he teaches your own.  

Josh’s mother was a natural with horses. She could soothe an angry 1,700 pound Stallion. She said there are two ways of taming a horse. The first is to break its will. Tie it down and humiliate it until it finally yields after enduring pain, frustration, and exhaustion.

The other way is to love it from an early age. If you care for it, it will grow to be comfortable around you. This is the way Josh’s mother preferred.

A critical factor to becoming a high performer is how well your style of growth harmonizes with your character. Josh argues that a learning style or teacher that tries to break you by teaching you in a way that doesn’t work with your personality leads to failure.

Josh had a few chess teachers during his career. His last teacher, a Grandmaster, put him off from the game of chess. His teacher forced him to learn and play in his slow, defensive style. However, Josh’s playstyle and personality had always been attacking and aggressive until that point. Rather than have him model top players who also had an attacking style, he was forced to change his style.  

Why didn’t this work? His teacher stifled his creativity and internal motivation to play. He didn’t enjoy it anymore and felt he couldn’t express his gift. .

Choose a teacher that has a teaching style that matches your learning style and personality. However, this does not mean choosing a mentor that always praises every move, good or bad. He or she had to be objective enough to guide you when you are doing things wrong. Otherwise, you will develop an unproductive sense of self-indulgence.

Don’t forget about the enjoyment of the process, while you are growing. Josh’s first teacher, Bruce, made sure to focus and cultivate Josh’s love of chess beyond technical teaching. This foundation helped him grow rather than burn out.

What Josh says here correlates with Robert Greene’s advice in the book Mastery. Robert also asserts that choosing a mentor with a teaching style that doesn’t rub well with your personality doesn’t work.

Take Happiness From the Simple Things in the Present

At one point in Josh’s life, he had just lost the World Championship Finals and love his life, and hadn’t slept for six days, but he felt more alive than ever. Why? Because he started reading the book On the Road and it taught him to take joy in the beauty of nature and the most mundane things around him as he traveled.

By being present, you don’t get bored anymore. The more mundane things become beautiful. The subtle rainwater streaming down the pavement looks amazing. On top of that, it can inspire you. The way the water streams may teach a pianist how to flow better. A leaf gliding through the wind can teach a dancer how to let go.

My Book Review and Thoughts on Josh Waitzkin

This book didn’t just teach me about learning. It also taught me a bit about life, even parenting. The authoritarian way Josh’s rival’s father treated his son taught me that I should never do that to a child. His father rejected him whenever he lost and taught him to be ruthless and anti-social around his peers. No doubt it had a negative psychological effect into his childhood.

As far as learning, this was an incredible book with a lot of lessons that will help speed up my progression. A core lesson that should be highlighted is his pyramid analogy. If you can focus on practicing the core principles of a discipline over dozens of tactics, you will internalize them into your unconscious and progress to the next level faster.

It was also amazing to see how Josh tackled unjust and unethical situations. While I have encountered similar obstacles, I have mainly stayed in the frustrated and reactive state, which is exactly what the instigator wants.

Instead, Josh eventually moved to an objective perspective. He embraced foul play as part of the game and flung himself into practicing with cheating players to prepare himself. I applaud his ability to detach emotion, not give up, and discover how to improve in unfair situations.  

What I Didn’t Like About the Book

Tim Ferriss glorifies Josh in his podcasts as if he is the master of learning. There may be some truth there but maybe it’s overhyped? Because one problem stuck out from the beginning of the book.

The book implies that you can apply these learning principles to excel in any disciple. Yet he’s truly only mastered skills that are super related: chess and grappling.

Some of these main principles definitely will help in any disciple. But I wonder if Tai Chi Chuan, Jiu Jitsu, and chess are actually very similar disciplines and have principles you cannot take to other skillsets. Now, you may be doubting that as a possibility since chess seems so different from martial arts on the surface.

But he explained in the book how similar they are in. When you think about it, there are many similarities between the two that may not translate to another skill, like public speaking. For example, all the skills he mastered feature:

  • using strategy.
  • one-on-one battles.
  • rigid man-made rules.
  • outthinking your opponent.
  • games of attack-versus-defense.
  • every move you can do has a counter.

It’s a constant game of baiting and outthinking the opponent. The problem with this is that it’s all revolving around a single domain of skill.

Other professions may not work like this. If you run a business, for example, not everyone is a competitor. It could help to collaborate or partner with them rather than attack. Or let’s say you are a storyboard artist for animated films. You don’t have to work on learning how to attack or defend.

Take some of these principles with a grain of salt.

Having said that, some of his analogies to other professions are on point. I used to play piano competitively and his assertion that a good pianist doesn’t have to think about each note when it’s internalized is true.

Nonetheless, I learned a lot of useful advice from this book and Josh has really opened my eyes towards the process of learning. I was skeptical about him when I first heard him on Tim Ferriss giving investing advice as a chess expert, but this book won me over. I respect him for how he has tackled and solved many problems.


Josh uses some cool terms to define his main pillars of learning faster than the average person. I want to recap on these essential principles. They are:

  • Making Small Circles. This is about practicing a fundamental technique or principle until you internalize its essence. Then, you gradually condense it and add refinement and advanced details until you are left with a potent, invisible toolbox. It sounds confusing, so to put it simply, I think he means you focus your practice on something fundamental to the success of your craft until it’s so natural you don’t even have to think about it. In Jiu Jitsu, for example, it would be the arm bar. A newbie can learn it and even at the advanced level, everything revolves around getting someone else in an arm bar. 
  • Slowing Down Time is about focusing on a set of techniques until you understand them in tremendous detail. By doing so, you can see more frames per second than others in an equal amount of time. This is useful for out-thinking opponents and seeing things others don’t in those moments when it counts.
  • The Illusion of the Mystical is about using the last two principles to control the opponent and tone of battle through the smallest details, which are invisible to them because they don’t detect or understand them yet since they’re not on your level.
  • Numbers to Leave Numbers is about seeing your skill level as levels in a pyramid, where you must master each level before progressing to the next. To break the rules, you must first learn the rules. If you skip learning the rules, you won’t break them like a master can.
  • Carving Neural Pathways is about identifying patterns in large chunks of information so that you can memorize and retrieve this information more accurately and efficiently. Over time, you can look for patterns from these chunks or even find patterns of chunks of patterns of chunks of chunks (three layers deep) to store large amounts of information.

Now, I want to hear from you. What’s the best thing you learned from this article? Let me know. 

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By Will Chou

I am the the founder of this site and I am grateful you are here to be part of this awesome community. I help hard-working Asian American Millennials get rich doing work they love.


  1. You have written a brilliant summary of the book. I can say that having read the book deep and thorough.

    The right learning could make you or break you. And those who understand that stand above all. Josh definitely understood that.

    I also wrote about cracking the art of learning with ideas inspired by Josh Waitzkin.

    Do visit my blog and let me know if you like the article. Again, a good summary. Thanks.

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