Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

I finished reading The Art of Learning several days ago and then for the last few days, I've been re-reading several passages; highlighting parts I thought stood out.

The first eight chapters were fascinating from a chess perspective.  Those first chapters read more like a biography, but there are a few smatterings of key points he uses to connect back into the main topic of the book.

Chapter 9 introduces his stepping into the world of Tai Chi - and this is where the real meat of the book begins.  I've marked several passages in the second half of the book and I'll note those below.

I think a lot of these lessons are very applicable to chess.  They are applicable to pretty much anything in life.  I found value in many of these passages as I think about applying them to my performance in my career.

But if you are interested in this "softer" side of learning, then I highly recommend the book.  And what I mean by 'softer' is that, everything he discusses is built on the premise that you must become proficient and even expert in the technical aspects of your performance (chess, career, sports, etc.)  Once you have put in the learning and practice, then these other, softer, aspects will help you perform better.

Michael Jordan - He made a point about Michael Jordan, in the chapter "Investment in Loss."  He states that MJ made more last-second shots than any other player in NBA history.  MJ also missed more last-second shots than anyone else in NBA history!  I think the point is well-taken, but since then, there has been another player who has taken and missed more shots than MJ - Kobe Bryant.  According to this analysis, MJ is 9/18 on last-second shots while Kobe is 6/23.

But again, the point is still valid.  To succeed, you have to take risks - you have to risk loss to become great - this was the essence of chapter 10.

Circles - A lot of this book was de ja vu - in that I've heard this before.  He references Pirsig in his Zen book about this girl who sets out to attempt to write a 500 word essay on her town.  She thinks there is nothing to write about - experiences writer's block.  So Phaedrus asks her to begin describing the opera house - brick by brick.  She thinks it won't work, but then she begins and a "torrent of creativity" floods her mind and the block is removed.  He then makes a point (back to the premise his book is built on) that excellence is built on depth over breadth - that you must dive into the micro to understand the macro.

In chess-speak - to get really good at blitz, you must play a lot of long, slow games.  To get good at tactics, you must understand tactics - begin small/slow and being working up.  We've all heard of The Circles - that is why many of us bloggers started blogging - to achieve that Don de la Maza experience!

To quote Waitzkin, "We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed."

In describing a pattern in Tai Chi, he says, "Over time, I'm not thinking about the path from foot to fist, I'm just feeling the ground connecting my fingertips, as if my body is a conduit for the electrical impulse of a punch."

Using Adversity- He mentions three steps, when learning to deal with adversity.  I thought they were worth capturing.

1) "we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection"
2) "in our performance training, we learn to use that imperfection to our advantage - for example thinking to the beat of the music or using a shaking world as a catalyst for insight."
3) "learn to create ripples in our consciousness, little jolts to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring."

Slowing Down Time- Earlier in the book, he mentioned breaking his hand in a competition.  At that moment, time slowed down and he was able to move "Neo-like" and defeat his opponent, despite the broken hand.  He talks about this experience repeatedly - and you can understand why he wants to break down the mechanics of "slowing down time."  Who wouldn't want to slow down time?

Going back to the premise - much of what he discusses in this chapter absolutely depends on your proficiency.  He even dips into the "chunking" we've all heard discussed.  For my own sake (and if you understand it, your benefit too) I've documented those parts that build a recipe for slowing down time.

"I realized I had to delve into the operating mechanism of intuition."
"My numbers to leave numbers approach to chess study was my way of having a working relationship with the unconscious parts of my mind."  Note - his numbers to leave numbers as far as I understood, means getting technically proficient/expert in order to become creative.
"In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world.  It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick."
He then gets into chunking ... I won't get into his quotes on this.
So, now that your mind is "chunked", "this is where things get interesting.  We are at the moment when psychology begins to transcend technique.  Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered."
"The idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide."
So, once you have the knowledge and the chunking, then you can begin to practice relaxing to the point that your unconscious can handle all the peripheral data, so your conscious can intensely focus on the critical data.

If you can practice this, then you can slow down time!

The Illusion of the Mystical - To be honest, I didn't quite 'get' this chapter.  To me, it read more like "how to figure out the tells of a poker player."  I didn't see a whole lot of use of this chapter.

Immunity - In "The Power of Presence" chapter, he wrote something I thought was powerful.  It was simply another way of stating the premise of the book - that you must master the technical aspects of your profession in order to use much of what he discusses in the book.  He said, "Grandmasters know how to make the subtlest cracks decisive.  The only thing to do was become immune to the pain, embrace it, until I could work through hours of mind-numbing complexities as if I were taking a lovely walk in the park."

On the following page, I basically highlighted the whole thing.  It touches a lot on "perfect practice" and making your practice feel "real" so that when the real deal does come, you are prepared to act under no pressure - because you've already been there.

"In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.  In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent.  If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear.  The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.  While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning.  In the absence of continue external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge.  We cannot expect to touch excellence if 'going through the motions' is the norm for our lives.  On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then life, art, and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight.  Those who excel are those who maximize each moment's creative potential - for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climatic moments when everything is on the line."
"The secret is that everything is always on the line.  The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage.  If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we've got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement.  Presence must be like breathing."

Searching for the Zone - He then gets into how we can build our own trigger of getting into that constant state of presence.  In a nutshell - it is High Intensity Internal Training - otherwise known as HIIT.  For those of you unfamiliar with HIIT - go google it and get to know it.  If you're lazy, then I'll just say that HIIT means exercising at high intensity for a small amount of time and then recovering and then repeating the high intensity and then recovering ... repeated several times.  A HIIT workout typically lasts 20-30 minutes and is generally known to be the secret to burning fat.

Waitzkin sees it as a way of building that bridge between conscious and unconscious; as a way to always be present.  He analyzed his chess games and found that his best thinking occurred in spurts of 10 minute 'moves.'  When he was not "present" he found that he spent much longer thinking and that his decisions were not great at all.  So he learned that he could improve his thinking process by monitoring how he felt - how efficient he was thinking.  If he started to 'falter' then he would take a break - go do some sprints (HIIT), return, cool off with water to the face and then look at the position anew.

"If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life.  Truth be told, this is what my entire approach to learning is based on - breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness."  He then mentions that meditation - a few minutes a day - in which your mind gathers and releases with the ebb and flow of breathing.

In the following chapter, Building Your Trigger - he also discusses other ways to get into that zone.  In essence, you find what makes you feel relaxed - so that when it is time to perform, you can quickly gather your presence and then perform well.

Once you identify what makes you feel focused - in the zone - present (whatever you want to call it), you then associate music, routines or anything else that you want to do to get you in the zone.  You can start off with a 20-30 minute routine, and then you slowly begin to whittle it down to minutes.  Then, if you are called to perform unexpectedly, it will only take you minutes or seconds to get in the zone.

He mentions a man he worked with to build his trigger.  He felt most relaxed when playing catch with his son.  So he set up a routine:
1) Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes
2) 15 minutes of meditation
3) 10 minutes of stretching
4) 10 minutes of listen to his music
5) Play catch

He set up this routine and followed it for a month.  Then he transported it to the day of his big performance - it worked!

Next he began cutting out playing catch and did 1-4 ... and slowly began working his way down doing minutes of meditation until finally he was able to get into the zone with just a few minutes of meditation - and it would have the same effect.

The rest of the book brings much of the previous chapters together.  The last few discuss how he used all that he had learned to become world champion in push hands.  Again, that part was more biography, but still fascinating to read about.

So, I know this was a long post - but there were so many intriguing parts to it, I felt I needed to capture what stood out to me.  I actually do this with almost all the books I read, but since this one crosses over into my "chess world" I decided to post my review on this blog.

Anyway - I recommend the book - I found some use out of it and I'm thinking about what I can do to incorporate what I learned into my life - both chess-wise and career-wise.

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    I read the book several years ago but injoyed reading your post.
    Please keep up doing great reviews :)