105 - The Art of Learning

30-09-2023

personal development

I faced a crisis at sixteen when I entered junior college. I was thrust into a period of intense preparation for competitive exams for undergrad admissions. A ranker through school, I was unsettled by the depth in competition. I started questioning my abilities.

The problem wasn’t my competition, though. The problem was in my head. Any fixed kind of self-identity, once it takes shape, is hard to shake off. At sixteen I thought I was fully formed and unalterable.

This week, in my newsletter Curiosity > Certainty, I talk about the art of learning, as distilled from the wonderful book The Art of Learning by former chess prodigy and Tai Chi master Josh Waitzkin.

Not to sound emphatic but I’ve not read a book on learning that gets closer to the heart of it. But that’s me. Why don’t you see for yourself? Here are five ideas central to helping you become a better learner for the rest of your life.

I’m visiting family this week. Like for all my travels, I made a reading list. But unlike most cases, this time I decided to take it seriously. One of the ways I’m doing that is by putting down my distillations of my travel reading.

This week’s issue is about the art of learning, or The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, former chess prodigy and Tai Chi master.

A declaration: If you’re looking for flash cards versus mnemonics, I’m sorry. This is not it. But if you want to hear some ideas about learning, dear readers, I may have as many as five for you that I suspect you have not heard before.

Waitzkin has a knack for picking up a commonplace idea and taking you to the core of it. It helps that the credibility that comes from his story is undeniable. If you want to learn how to learn, this is the guy you should be listening to.

Most of what follows are my notes from my reading sessions. These notes are interesting to me because they’re personal. Maybe another reader will have chosen a completely different set of axioms from the book. These are mine.

You need not sit with me on all the topics talked about in this newsletter issue. To help you follow better, I have reproduced relevant quotes from the book in the passages below. You may read the same parts and emerge with a different view. If you do so, it’s mission accomplished for me. Just do me a favor, will you? Tell me your take in the comments.

Not to sound emphatic but I’ve not read a book on learning that gets closer to the heart of it. But that’s me. You see for yourself.

Entity and Incremental Mindsets

Some of you may know of this as _fixed _and growth mindset, as popularized by developmental psychologist and author Carol Dweck. In his book, Waitzkin chooses slightly different lingo. Quoting him here:

Children who are “entity theorists” — that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner — are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and to ‘attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve.

One of the harder things about parenting in my experience has been to appreciate/remark on the child’s effort over results. Off the cuff, dishing out compliments for things that have turned out well that the child may or may not have had to work at comes easy. What then is another way?

_Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning — let’s call them _learning theorists — are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.”

The fixed kind of self-identity, once it takes shape, is hard to shake off. I faced this at sixteen when I entered junior college. I was thrust into a period of intense preparation for competitive exams for undergrad admissions. A ranker through school, I was unsettled by the depth in competition. I started questioning my abilities.

At sixteen I thought I was fully formed and unalterable.

Learning from Failure

What then could I have learned from failure? How should I have treated success, which I had gotten used to in school? Here Waitzkin builds on the entity-incremental dynamic.

He believes our response to good and bad times is formed early. To explain himself, he conjures up Danny, a fictional bright seven-year-old chess player. This boy can’t get enough of chess. Waitzkin goes on to elucidate how Danny’s mother can help him ‘internalize a process-first approach.’

_When he wins a tournament game, the spotlight should be on the road to that moment and beyond as opposed to the glory. _

And when Danny loses?

First of all, she shouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter, because Danny knows better than that and lying about the situation isolates Danny in his pain.

This is classic overcompensation and you may have seen it, if not been guilty of it.

From here on, Waitzkin goes to the heart of the mother’s response. He decouples failure into a technical side (what you did wrong) and a psychological side (why that happened). He urges that the mother leaves the technical side to be picked apart later, probably with a coach. But the mental aspect is best reviewed right after.

_Did he [Danny] lose his concentration? Did he fall into a downward spiral and make a bunch of mistakes in a row? Was he overconfident? Impatient? _

Introspection is a healthy coping mechanism. Blame isn’t.

Soft and Hard Zones

Soft and hard are opposite performance states that Waitzkin borrows from sports psychology.

Waitzkin puts forward the mise en scène of you focusing on a task at hand when your spouse returns home or your baby wakes up and starts screaming. How do you react?

…if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure.

Hard means you need just the perfect environment to perform. You’re a finely calibrated machine. Any shift from optimal conditions and you’re off your game. You need the world to cooperate with you. You play the victim when it doesn’t.

I’m one who fits the hard label. Work from home has eased things a bit, but the perfect lead-up or that perfect performance has always been important to me.

Because of my own anxieties, it's a pattern I see again and again in others too. Those who seek perfection get thrown off by the first hiccup. No longer is their idea of perfect true. Instead of reacting with alertness to how things are, they find themselves stuck to how they wished things should be. They are stuck in the hard zone.

Soft means you are flexible. You don’t resist or deny distraction. You seek it to get used to it. Embrace it. Use it to your advantage. You expect the world to misbehave so you’re prepared for bad or erratic behavior.

The alternative is for you to be quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face, but inside all the mental juices are churning. You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.

By his mid-teens, Waitzkin was training himself to stay in the Soft Zone. The take-off point for this journey was the 1993 World Junior Chess Championship in Kozhikode, India. Or more specifically, an earthquake that rattled the city during the tournament. Hunched over the chessboard for over twenty minutes and out of good ideas, Waitzkin uses the interruption of an earthquake to come up with a winning move.

Downward Spiral

Ever blown a presentation for which you’ve put days and weeks of work because of a stupid mistake in the opening minutes or your co-presenter’s out-of-turn wisecrack? I have. And it’s not a nice feeling at all.

Yes, the stakes can be high. Yes, luck matters. But that first mistake is inevitable. If it’s not you, then it’s something out of your control. Doesn’t matter because it is left to you to stop yourself from going into a downward spiral after that first mistake.

The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.

Waitzkin posits that this kind of negative domino effect happens because of a refusal to accept reality.

Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.

Those who seek perfection sometimes get thrown off at the first mistake because no longer their plan stands on its feet. The loss of that state is so unsettling that they refuse to accept reality. They stay put in that moment of deviation without first correcting course and syncing up with time. In doing so, they make their second mistake. They repeat poor behavior by taking another risk, and then another. They sink further. This is an inferior kind of detachment from the reality of their situation.

In contrast, the best performers make mistakes. But they stay in the present. They do not follow one mistake with another by clinging on to the past. Even the moment that just went by is in the past. You cannot control it. Sync up with time. Forget the past.

How does one do that? Waitzkin comes up with dramatic interventions, not the least of which is…

If I felt dull during a difficult struggle, I would occasionally leave the playing hall and sprint fifty yards outside. This may have seemed strange to spectators, but it served as a complete psychological flushing, and I returned, albeit a little sweaty, in a brand-new state of mind.

Strengths and weaknesses and two kinds of teachers

In his late teens and early twenties, Waitzkin, already a national champion, worked at length with two teachers. Both Russian chess wizards. Each diametrically opposite to the other.

One, like Mark Dvoretsky, who make you, the student, submit to their vision through ‘shock and awe.’ And those, like Yuri Razuvaev, who know how to ‘gentle’ you.

Shock and awe involves breaking the learner down such that the learner loses their natural voice and feels no urge to reach for it. Think of the most unique natural talent. Professional sports is a good arena to look for one. Cricketer Virender Sehwag jumps to my mind. Imagine if during his formative years a coach had smoothed his edges down to a smooth fit. Perhaps millions of cricket lovers would have lived much poorer lives, shorn of beauty and audacity.

Waitzkin uses a grim couple of lines to drive home the point that who we learn from matters.

_Dvoretsky loves to watch gifted chess minds struggle with his problems. He basks in his power while young champions are slowly drained of their audacious creativity. _

Only to turn it up several notches at once…

As a student, I found these sessions to be resonant of Orwell’s prison scenes in 1984, where independently minded thinkers were ruthlessly broken down until all that was left was a shell of a person.

Yazuvaev, on the other hand, appreciated the learner’s personality, their strengths. Waitzkin uses the term gentling to capture this manner of guidance. The teacher recognizes the learner’s _natural voice _and works to win their trust. The learner then willingly responds to the teacher’s nudges. Both become one. The horse and the horse whisperer.

Waitzkin reflects on the confusion at a critical crossroad of his chess career. What direction should his development take? Work with his natural strengths while improving his defensive game (or ‘study of prophylaxis’) or become a solid, risk-free player who slowly suffocates his opponents. The choice is captured in the form of two of chess’ greatest exponents—Garry Kasparov (attacking, unpredictable) and Anatoly Karpov (defensive, waiting for errors from opponents).

Not all of us operate at such stratospheric levels in our domain but the import of this question remains undiluted. It boils down to a _use strengths _versus work on weakness question. Waitzkin expounds…

There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.

I promised you five and I’ve given you them. Here’s a bonus one…

Shallow breathing, shallow working, shallow living

Our working lives are like shallow breathing.

Consider how most of us breathe. We never fully flush out carbon dioxide from our system, so our cells never have as much pure oxygen as they could or should.

And how do we work? We let incomplete and inaccurate abstractions from the past come in the way of our decision-making. Our learning is impaired, much like the oxygenation of our cells.

Following his chess career, and searching for ways to be a better learner, Waitzkin uses his chess training to become a Tai Chi master. Here he talks about how interruptions to our ‘natural breathing patterns’ affect us deeply. I’m no expert on breathing or Tai Chi. Yet, consider this nugget from Waitzkin and tell me if this is not something you’ve experienced at your day job.

A thought or ringing phone or honking car interrupts an out-breath and so we stop and begin to inhale. Then we have another thought and stop before exhaling.

Replace thought with _problem _and breath with task and the depiction doesn’t slacken. We’re problem-solving machines, jumping from one problem to another. No sooner are we presented with a problem than we jump to hunt for its solution, only to be interrupted and have to do so again, and again. The result is that we often operate on the surface of problems. We don’t often get to the root.


Thank you for your attention. How did you find this week’s issue? Let me know in the comments! And just one more thing.

Waitzkin’s predicament in finding himself a teacher who understood him struck a chord. We all long for that guide who gets us and with whom we share a deep bond. We may or may not always get that figure in our lives but there’s still so much to learn from the right company, so much to gain from hanging out with the right crew.

I’ve been tossing the idea of starting a closed-group / private community for those with a fire within to become better decision-makers. The group will be small to begin with and maybe later as well. For now, let me take your temperature for this one.

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