Brain Snacks: Josh Waitzkin – The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin - The Art of Learning

Eating right is important. We all know by now that everything we put into our body counts. However, what is equally important is to adopt a proper diet for your mind. Reading and learning is a big part of personal development and I therefore devour books on many different topics. Whenever I come upon something that provides great insights or makes me think, I share it in this new segment.

On today’s table: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

It was in a park on a winter day when Josh Waitzkin, then six years old, discovered his love for chess. The next 10 years he spent mastering the game, winning eight National Chess Championships, beating his first master at age 10, and becoming an International Chess Master at the age of 16. The book Searching for Bobby Fischer, which chronicles his early life and resulted in a movie of the same name, made him famous beyond the chess world.

From his life as a child prodigy in the game of chess, he moved on to the martial art of Push Hands (推手 - tuishou). In his “second art” as Waitzkin calls it, he gained 13 national titles and won the World Championship in Taiwan twice. “The Art of Learning” describes the stages of Waitzkin’s life and shares the lessons he learned during his years of competing on the world stage. It’s a book about mastery and learning, resilience, and the psychology of high-level performance.

Lessons learned

Adopt an incremental process – Few things in life that matter are achieved instantaneously. Almost everything is accomplished the way you run a marathon – step by step. Aiming for instant gratification is a method for impatience and frustration. I know, since whenever I take on bigger projects (building a company/blog/product) I make that mistake. But I’m slowly getting better. The Art of Learning reminded me of the necessity to appreciate the process. So focus on effort and small steps first, results second.

Be at peace with imferpection – There is no perfection. It doesn’t exist. Accept it. Everything is inherently flawed. Trying to be perfect is like trying to scoop water out of a sinking boat. With a fork. In the rain. Perfection is the enemy of greatness. This is my Achilles’ heel and the thing I am working on the hardest right now. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Be ok with messiness. It will save you a lot of time and frustration.

Go with the flow – The world can be a messy and chaotic place. Things change at a moment’s notice. Adopt a flexible mindset and just roll with it. Embrace change. In the book there is the metaphor of a leaf of grass moving in the wind vs a dry twig that breaks under the pressure. Don’t be a twig (how’s that for a mantra?).

Seek out discomfort – Ever since I had an anxiety attack aboard a plane (not good with loss of control), I’ve had a pretty serious fear of flying. You know what I did? Get on planes a lot. It’s better now. Not perfect, but better. Waitzkin advises seeking out that which makes us uncomfortable in order to train ourselves to thrive in chaos. I concur. It can also give you the opportunity to visit foreign places.

Invest in loss – Losing isn’t fun. I don’t know anyone who says “man, I really have to get my ass kicked”. But there are different perspectives on loss and mistakes. Most people think of them as flaws in their personality. The Art of Learning frames loss in a different light: an investment. If you lose, you invest in your own learning process. It shows you how not to do it. To try a different way. Invest in loss and you invest in yourself.


I decided to share this book in more detail because I found it highly inspirational and full of valuable lessons. What I especially liked is the organic approach to mastery: concentrating on small wins, constantly challenging yourself, and adjusting as you go along. The message of the book is conveyed in a writing style that is easy to follow and fun to read.

I also fully agree with Waitzkin’s approach of looking for underlying principles instead of superficial techniques and tactics. For him there are no barriers between our daily activities. Lessons learned in one part of life can be used in all other parts. This reminded me of all the times I found myself using what I have learned during martial arts practice at work or in the gym and vice versa.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in seeing learning as more than the accumulation of knowledge but as an art in itself. You can find The Art of Learning here. All book recommendations are also listed on the gear page.

Which are the most important books you have read in your life? Which books do you keep rereading? From which did you learn the most important lessons? Tell us about it in the comments.

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