Review- The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

The Art Of Learning is a deep self-help book written by Josh Waitzkin in 2008.  The book is semi-autobiographical, detailing his experiences with learning and competition at the highest levels of both chess and the martial arts.  Although semi-autobiographical, his experiences are excellent examples of the principles he teaches in the book.  These principles are very deep, and can be used in virtually any competitive environment and even our lives, from our day to day activities to our life purpose.  However, to internalize these principles you have to be very present when reading or you’ll mistake the deep pools of knowledge for mere puddles.

The theme of the book is that in order to perform at your very best you have to connect to the deepest part of your self, to that most internal of places.  However, the path that takes us there is wrought with thorns and most of us are barefoot; luckily Josh teaches us how to make sandals.

The book is divided into three sections, “The Foundation”, “My Second Art”, and “Bringing It All Together.”  In section one, what struck me the most was the two approaches to learning according to the field of developmental psychology;  entity and incremental learning theories.  This information is very valuable, especially if you are a parent, a coach, or any sort of instructor/teacher.  Your approaches to teaching young kids has a tremendous impact on their learning and hence their performance.  Another important lesson was about the downward spiral.  We have to recognize when we have made a mistake, and use that as an opportunity to sharpen our focus, instead of getting caught up in that first mistake and then making more mistakes.  This is very, very pertinent not only in performance environments but especially in life.  How many times have we heard someone’s story of their lives crashing down on all sides? “First I lost my job, then I lost my house, then I lost my wife…” It always happens because we don’t catch ourselves, and continue straight down at full speed.

In the second section the most important lessons are how we can invest in our losses, break learning down into the smallest chunks possible, and how to use adversity to your advantage.  Just reading these words is a lesson in itself; “Investment In Loss.”  You have a choice when you lose, you can feel sorry for yourself and just practice harder or you can see your loss as an investment for the greater good.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “learn from your mistakes” but the problem is most of the time we don’t know exactly what the mistake was.  Josh teaches us how to be introspective and not only correct the external performance, but your psychological performance.  Yes you made a technical mistake, but what was going on in your head when you made it? This lesson will force you too look inside, see your internal error, and use it to grow.  The next lesson is about how to break things down in to the smallest moves, the most basic of the lessons.  He uses the example from chess of practicing the “end game” first.  That’s when there are only very few pieces left, you start with those strategies and incrementally add more and more strategies and information, but you learn those basic moves down to the smallest detail. You internalize the strategies so much that eventually you don’t have to think about them consciously, they just become part of your instinct.  And I think the most important lesson here is using adversity to your advantage.  Rarely do things go exactly as we planned, you have to welcome change and welcome chaos, because that’s just how our world is sometimes.  When we fight this pattern is when suffer the most.

In the final section Josh briefly touches on the subject of meditation, which is just sitting there quietly and noticing your breath, and trying not to think, and if you do think, you just observe your thoughts, let them go, and come back to your breath.  I wish he would of highlighted the importance of this type of practice more obviously. I say more obviously because I believe most of what he talks about is in regards to meditating, as in Tai Chi, however, it’s easy to miss for the people that have never heard of these principles.

Here he also states, “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, the boardroom, at the exam, the etc… It’s very important to always be present, especially in practice; you have to reinforce this habit. Presence must be like breathing.”  He is obviously pointing out the importance of practicing presence all the time, not just in clutch situations.  Doing this will not only help your game, but your life as well.

A principle he describes really surprised me.  Josh not only describes what ‘getting in the zone’ really means, but he shows you how to get in the zone at will!  People who have mentioned getting in the zone always describe it as something illusive, something out of your control, and something that takes years and years of practice.  But Josh, described a methodology you can put together and actually practice getting in the zone.

I highly recommend this book to anyone that does anything.  It can help you perform better in any type of competitive field, but also in your day to day life and your career.  The few drawbacks I found are that there is not enough highlighting of the important principles making them easy to miss.  Also, not knowing much about chess makes it challenging to understand some of his views.  But knowing now that adversity is positive, these ‘drawbacks’ are really opportunities for us to be really present when reading this book.  I believe the underlying principle is that we must see anything that happens (whether in a competitive field or in our daily life) as positive.  Imagine playing a sport against a cheating player, normally we’d see that as bad, but this book teaches us to see it as a positive thing, as an opportunity.  There’s a big difference between happy and positive, you don’t have to be happy about an adverse situation, but you can always be positive.  Did you get fired unfairly from your job?  Did you loose your house?  Did you have to go into bankruptcy?  These are all opportunities, be present, see them as positive, and you’ll see a world of difference in your life.  Learn more about presence here.

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If you found this review helpful and would like to show your support, feel free to purchase the book by following the link below:

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

2 thoughts on “Review- The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

  1. Abderrafie

    Interesting review. I found also your review on amazon interesting.
    I’d like you to explain more about the 2 approaches: incremental and entity, and also the methodology of the author to get in the zone.

    1. Free Self Help Post author

      Hello Abderrafie, thank you for your comment. Entity learning theory states that some people believe they were either born with certain skills or intelligence or they weren’t. They don’t have much faith in training or practicing and believing they can improve. Incremental theorists are people that believe they can better themselves through hard work and good practice. The experiment mentioned in the book involves kids taking difficult tests. The experiment talks about two groups of kids. One group is told if they really try hard on the tests they could do good. And the other group is told that the test is simply meant to see how smart they are, in other words, to see what they have or dont have. The first group of kids always did better than the second, and they also had a much better attitude. So this works for kids and adults. You must examine your beliefs. Do you think “some people are just born with the skills to be successful”? Or do you think success can be attained with hard work and good practice?

      The best way to get in the zone is to practice getting in the zone. And the best way to practice is through meditation, though Josh doesn’t mention it directly in the book. Meditation is nothing more than focusing on just one thing for as long as you can. And slowly but surely, you start becoming aware of more and more things at once.


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