The Art of Learning: A book review by Bob Morris

Art of LearningThe Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
Josh Waitzkin
Free Press/Simon & Schuster (2007)

One man’s “inner journey” to achieve his own optimal performance

It is important to keep in mind that the material in this book indicates what Josh Waitzkin learned about learning during what he characterizes as his “inner journey to optimal performance” at the highest levels of competition in chess. The material centers on the process to his optimal performance. Had he competed in professional baseball, he would never have played for an MLB team. So, as other reviews have duly noted, this book’s title is somewhat misleading.

However, although Waitzkin never became a world champion or even a grandmaster in chess, he was a better player than most of those with whom he competed. Indeed, he was a National Chess Champion at age nine and won other national titles again another seven times. He also became a master of Tai Chi Chuan and earned 21 National Championships and several World Championships. Finally, he was the subject a book and film based on it, Searching for Bobby Fischer.

In recent years, I have been grateful to Anders Ericsson and his research associates at Florida State University for all that I have learned from them about optimal performance. The key revelations correlate with what Maitzkin shares. For example, the importance of focus and commitment: “My growth became defined by barrierlessness.
Pure concentration didn’t allow thought or false construction to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.”

Also, overcoming exhaustion during practice or competition as he did in finals against “the Buffalo” in Taiwan. Although “spent” and down 2-0 with only seconds remaining, he somehow battled back to tie. His one last move “had to be perfectly timed because if it didn’t work I might just collapse.” There would be a two-minute overtime. “They went to find the Buffalo. For twenty minutes I paced the area, red hot – if there was a place beyond the zone, I was there.” However, his opponent could not continue so the officials declared a shared title. “Buffalo and I swayed on the first place podium together, hugging and holding each other up.” Both had achieved an optimal performance.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had in mind when formulating his concept of “flow,” the psychology of optimal experience. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, maximum creativity, and a total engagement with the moment. I recall countless times when Michael Jordan was in such a state and didn’t miss a three-point shot, when Tiger Woods didn’t miss a putt, when Wayne Gretsky knew — before anyone else did — where the puck would go, as did Bill Russell who knew — before anyone else did — where the rebound would go. Flow has often been called “being in a zone.” Waitzkin discusses this in Chapter 17.

These are among the subjects that Waitzkin discusses that were of greatest interest to me:

o Manhattan as an environment within which competition is most likely to thrive
o The significance of Bruce Pandolfini during Waitzkin’s “inner journey”
o How and why Waitzkin had to lose and understand losing before he could win in competition
o The best and worst of the competition at the National Chess Championship
o What Waitzkin learned about himself during competition
o What the chess and Tai Chi Chuan mindsets share in common
o Their most significance differences
o How to and why “make smaller circles”
o Using pain and adversity to one’s advantage
o How to and why “slow down time”
o How to and why build one’s “trigger”
o What “winning” and “losing” really mean in terms of personal growth
o Why self-discovery is an endless process, not an ultimate destination

I want to repeat what I suggested earlier: This really isn’t a book about the art of learning; rather, it offers what Waitzkin learned about learning. And in terms of optimal performance, that is a relative determination. Paradoxically, it also involves a hierarchy. In essence, the challenge is to become the best you can be while doing whatever it is that you do. Jordan didn’t make all his shots, Woods didn’t sink all his putts, Gretsky didn’t always get to the puck first, and Russell didn’t haul down every rebound. You get my point. It seems to me that Josh Waitzkin has come remarkably close to being the best Josh Waitzkin he could be, as did each of the others just mentioned again. Oscar Wilde once observed, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I agree.

Here are his concluding remarks: “The ideas I’ve shared in these pages have worked for me and it’s my hope that they suggest a structure and direction. But there is no such thing as a fixed recipe for victory or happiness. If my approach feels right, take it, hone it, give it your own flavor. Leave my numbers behind. In the end, mastery involves the discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.”

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