The Art of Learning – Josh Waiztkin

Date read: 2018-05-30
Rating: 9/10

Amazon page


He becomes a chess expert, then starts from zero to become a Tai Chi expert. He shares his stories and insights on how to learn. Learning theories, Hermit Crab metaphor, downward spirals. Stress and Recovery, creating triggers to get into flow (the zone).

Source: From Tim Ferriss via his Show and/or Tools of Titans

my notes


  • He’s not good at chess or tai chi, he’s good at learning
  • Tao Te Ching book is mentioned multiples times
  • Uses stories to teach a point: the lady and the cab (downward spiral), Evan story (investing in loss), the man in the jungle
After all the attention of the movie. I was thinking on how I looked thinking instead of concentrating on chess
Dr. Cal Wech Developmental Psychology:
  • Entity theorists: I’m smart at this. Fixed entity (smart or skill), cannot evolve. They tend to be brittle when it gets harder than their level of skill
  • Incremental theorists (learning theorists): I got it because I worked very hard at it. I should’ve tried harder. With hard work, difficult material can be learned.
Experiment. Easy math problems, hard problems, then easy again. The entity theorists blundered ok the 2nd easy ones, their confidence had been broken in the second part. Some of the brightest were the worst when pressured, they feel the need to live up to and maintain a perfectionist image that is easily and inevitably shattered.
Parents and teachers’ feedback is critical in creating these mindsets:
  • Entity theorists tend to be told they did well when they succeeded and weren’t any good when they failed. That’s my boy, as smart as they come. What’s the matter, can’t you read?
  • Learning theorists get process oriented feedback. Great job, you’re becoming a good writer, keep up the good work. If she does bad her teacher might write “study a little harder on the next one, and you’ll do great
Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. Example hermit crab: as it gets bigger it has to find a more spacious shell, for a moment it’s exposed to everything. That’s the moment of growth
Someone stuck in entity theory is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving themselves, so they don’t grow and don’t have to find another shell
Process first philosophy to the extreme of not putting yourself on the line or pretending not to care about results, only learning. This is an excuse to not confront yourself.
Sometimes we have to parent ourselves.
  • Praise a hard worked day, focused effort
  • When we lose. Empathy, it’s important, but it’s ok to feel bad. After some moments, introspection on what happened. Leave the technical part for later analysis.
  • Did we do a downward spiral? Lost focus? A trash talker got to us?
The soft zone. You’re concentrating on a task, and then something happens. The nature of your state of concentration will determine your initial reaction
  • If tense = hard zone. It demands a cooperative world to function (rarely the case). Like a dry twig, you’re brittle, ready to snap under pressure
  • Quietly, intensely focused. Apparently relaxed but inside all the metal juices are churning. You flow with whatever comes. This soft zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane force winds
    • Adapt the world, or you make yourself adaptable. Indian parable: A man wants to walk across the land, but it’s covered in thorns. He had two options, pave the whole road (force all nature into compliance), or wear sandals
Examples: music distracting him while thinking. Converted to thinking with the rhythm of the distracting music. Trained with loud music while training (music he didn’t and did like)
How to handle dirty opponents without losing your cool.
  • Sometimes noticing the tactics is enough to render them harmless
  • Take on your emotions with cheating. Getting angry throws you off your game
Downwards spiral. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, the downward spiral of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th creates a deadly chain reaction.
The start of the downward spiral. We have an advantage that cost us time and effort to get, we make a mistake which makes it equal. Attachment to having an advantage and being in control of the game. There’s nothing wrong with equality
Bike story on downwards spiral: she was wearing headphones and looking at the wrong side of the road. She stepped into oncoming traffic. A bicycle gave her a harmless bump, she turned to curse the cyclist. She had her back to the traffic while screaming a the person who just performed a miracle in not rolling over her. A cab speeding turned the corner and crashed into her from behind sending her smashing into a lamp post. She was knocked out bleeding badly. She would’ve averted disaster if she had just stepped back to the sidewalk.
  • First mistake: looking the wrong way and stepping into traffic
  • The cyclist should’ve been a wake-up call
  • She moved into anger that someone took her quiet and comfortable zone away (she was in control)
  • Her reaction was a perfect parallel to the chess player’s downward spiral
  • After making an error is so easy to climb to the emotional comfort zone of what was
  • There’s the unsettling sense that things have changed for the worst
Two lines: time and perception of time. When we’re in the present, both lines move the same way. But when we make a mistake and get frozen in what was, time goes on and we  (our perception of time) stop, then comes the taxi cab.
Francisco: what happens when fearing the future? We make the time lime take a shortcut to our fear in the future. Self-fulfilling prophecies?
Breathing technique. It should return to natural breath before we got stressed out by years of running around a hectic world
  • Inbreath: like the first waking breath. Like reaching out to the hand of someone you’re fond of, or agreeing with somebody’s idea. In tai chi, we breathe into the fingertips
  • Outbreath: realease, de-energizes like the last exhalation before going to sleep
Master Cheng: a large obstacle to a calm, healthy, present existence is the interruptions to our breath cycles. The result is shallow breathing, our bodies are not as oxygenized as they should.
Investment in loss. Josh was constantly training with people who were far more advanced. 
Evan story (6′-2” black belt in karate, 8-year in tai-chi and aikido): at first he couldn’t see his attacks. Two options, avoid Evan or get beat up every class. Many months getting smashed around by Evan, then by keeping at it (investing in loss) his body learned to absorb the blows and lose the fear of his attacks, Evan seemed to slow down.
Making smaller circles
From Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Phaedros changes a girl’s asignment to writting, not about the town, but a brick in the opera house. Diving into the micro to learn what makes the macro tick. Depth over breath
Focusing on one reduced complexity technique to learn high-level principles
  • Endgame chess, positions of reduced complexities to learn the power of empty space and other principles
Making the large small. Grab the essence and incrementally reduce the external manifestation while keeping true to its essence. He calls it making smaller circles
  • Classic straight jab. Start the movements very slowly
William Cheng teaches punching as pouring a cup of tea. It works because people’s mind doesn’t get in the way
After years of practicing the body knows how it feels
Smaller circles: taking small steps to condense the movements while keeping the same strength. Making the progression so small the body doesn’t notice.
Dealing with Injuries
Visualization to avoid muscle atrophy after breaking his hand
Reframed injuries or obstacles as positives. Opportunity to work on a weak area of your game or the mental side
You can use this framework without getting injured, play lefty for a couple of weeks. He calls this the internal solution
Intuition is the bridge between our conscious and unconscious mind
The process of mastery and learning
Over time, learning becomes unlearning. Each principle loses rigidity. The stronger players are less attached to a dogmatic interpretation of the principles. A whole new set of principles arise, those that are the exception to the previous principles. Then those counterintuitive then become internalized subconsciously, and you get another cycle.
The conscious mind can only concentrate in so much. It’s like one page, if it’s presented with a large amount of information, the font will be very small and you won’t be able to read it.
Becoming a shadow. Taiji Quan’s: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”
Timing of action. If you’re training is good enough, you can use your conscious mind to focus on very detailed things
  • When the opponent has weight on one leg, attack it
  • When opponent blinks, attack. There are tells before they blink, maybe is the eyes will begin to close, then open back up, then they blink
Stress and recovery
Do you believe the quality is higher after a relaxing period?
When dialed in, he would think from 2-10 mins for each chess move. When off of his game, he would think for about 20 minutes, and it usually would lead to bad moves.
The use of recovery periods as a high indicator of dominance in any field
Cardiovascular interval training exercises have a high impact on your ability to rest and recover mentally.
  • Keep RPM over 100
  • Go up to 170
  • Then down to 144
As you improve the high-intensity effort gets longer and the recovery periods shorter.
Stress and recovery guidelines for lifting weights. Three sets of 15 repetitions 45 seconds of rest. 12 reps 50 seconds. 10 reps 55 seconds. Eight reps with one-minute rest.
Translating stress and recovery to other areas
  • Sports like swimming and running: push to a healthy limit and rest. Do it again
  • Lose focus while reading? Take a break, pick it up after a couple of minutes
  • Distracted at work? Take a break, wash your face, come back renewed
  • Meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi are good forms of recovery
  • Meditation following your breath as a form of stress and recovery. The exercise is to come back when you get distracted (and you will). Returning to your breath is a glimpse of flow/the zone/undivided presence. The flow of getting distracted and coming back is a form of stress and recovery.
Creating the trigger. To be a consistent pressure player you have to include healthy patterns in your daily life so they’re second nature when the pressure is on.
What your “hot button” is? What is the right eating patterns, stretching exercise, song, etc? Work backwards and create the trigger
  • When have you found yourself closest to serene focus in your life? Dennis: playing catch with his son
  • Almost all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner. They just see it as just taking a break (running, taking a bath, swimming, walking, singing in the shower, teaching someone something, reading, hanging out with a friend)
Working backward: Dennis had mentioned music, stretching and eating as part of his desired routine
  • An hour before the next time you play catch:
    • Drink a light snack (eating),
    • Breathing exercise (meditation practice)
    • 10 min stretching routine
    • Listen to a song
  • Go and play catch with his son
Transposing or transplanting the trigger
  • A physiological connection is made between the routine and the activity it preceeds (catch in this case)
  • Do the routine before going to work or any other activity and a similar state of mind will emerge
  • Having a portable routine is convenient for travel and flexibility
Getting into flow at a moments notice. Condensing the routine
  • The key is making changes incrementally and slowly, so it keeps the same physiological effect but is shorter and more flexible.
  • Dennis example:
    • Dennis would schedule meetings after lunch, so he had that time for his routine.
    • Routine every day at home before work: breakfast, meditation, and stretching. Listen to a Dilan song in his way to work
    • Make meditation 2-3 minutes shorter
    • Make stretching 2-3 minutes shorter
    • Condensed meditation and stretching to a few minutes
    • Condense the song. Listen to less and less until you only need to think about the song or humm the chorus to get into the same state
Josh’s routine
  • Tai Chi meditative movements before training and competition
  • He condensed the form over many months
  • He visualized the form instead of actually doing it
  • The final condensed routine became a deep inhalation and exhalation
If you have a solid foundation, you should be fine if someone changes the rules. Tactics come easily if you understand the principles

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