The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin

I ordered this book at the suggestion of a reader here, and had no idea what to expect. Perhaps some pop psychology or if I’m lucky a thoughtful treatise on Learning Theory. The author, Josh Waitzkin is an eight time National Chess Champion. So far so good. In fact, he was the kid that the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on. Interesting, but then I wondered, “Great, a book on the awesomeness of chess in logical thinking and how it will change your life.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that he moved on from chess and into Tai Chi, studying under Williiam C. C. Chen, and eventually competing and winning at the National and International levels at push hands. Great, but what does that have to do with learning?

Before I opened the book, I did note the blurb on the back from Robert Pirsig, whose Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a favorite of mine, so I opened the covers filled with hope.

Told in the form of a biography, Waitzkin uses vignettes from his chess and push hands career to explain his theories on progress, overcoming challenges and responding to adversity. I found the writing mixed, sometimes falling into a ‘conversational’ style that seemed a bit fluffy. It was a pleasant and interesting read, and would probably make an entertaining movie.

Certain chapters address his learning and problem solving goals more directly, and they come more frequently toward the end. Many of the early ones are classic lessons (losing to win, invest in loss), but they build as the book goes on. In the afterword, which is important to read, Waitzkin gives the best analysis and advice. As a result of the book he hopes readers are,”enabled to follow your dreams in a manner that is consistent with the unique gifts you bring to the table.” In other words, if you are a genius at chess, have an intense work ethic, and amazing attention to detail, this is a how to book. Otherwise, you have to learn from his example and use his ideas to forge your own path.

He sounds like an interesting person, the book was a fun read, and it is certainly inspirational. If you are looking for your ticket to optimal performance, you have a lot of work ahead. As is often said, don’t follow in the footsteps of the great masters, just seek what they sought.

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