The Art of Learning

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

Josh Waitzkin’s book has great appeal. As a former athlete who has a tendency to over think a majority of issues, I was drawn to the blend of cognitive process and Eastern philosophy.

An integration of the ordered and the abstract. An eclectic mix of ideas no doubt.

The book is an interesting journey of reflection, loss and dealing with conflict. Progression as an individual and patterning processes to achieve improved outcomes and optimal performance.

It also presents ideas and strategies for decompressing, or unwinding, after a major event thereby facilitating preparation for the next. Again, this had appeal as a former athlete because you are constantly managing preparations from training, resting, recovery to competing.

An athlete is often faced with competing at elite levels multiple times in one day or over a series of days. With significant down times in between. But how do you do manage that?

How do you switch on and then switch off. What if the parameters suddenly change and you have to pump out a world class performance at a moments notice? What is your process? How do you handle your nutrition, physical and mental recovery?

This does not just apply to athletes. It could apply to your job or managing your stress. The performance in a big meeting or presentation. Hitting a deadline. Getting the job done. We all have to perform in our day to day existence. We are all judged.

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”

The two ideas from this book that made the biggest impression were incremental learning and investment in loss.

Incremental learning is the position or stance stance that says “I could have done that differently” rather than “I’m no good at this”.

Investment is loss is the measured and deliberate seeking out of difficulties as learning opportunities, a manifestation perhaps if you will, of Socratic wisdom.

“Children who associate success with hard work tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situations, while children who see themselves as just plain “smart” or “dumb,” or “good” or “bad” at something, have a “learned helplessness orientation”.”

Josh is one of these guys who is a little irritating in that he seems to have done an awful lot in a very short period of time.

He was a chess master. He had a movie made about him called ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer.’  He was an international martial arts champion.

He appears to be well connected with friends like Silicon Valley Podcaster Angel Investor types Tim Ferriss, and Stoic author and entrepreneur Ryan Holiday.

Tim authored ‘The 4 Hour Work Week’ and ‘The 4 Hour Body’, which are best sellers in their own right. Ryan has written some very nice works including ‘Ego is the Enemy’, ‘The Daily Stoic’ and ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ – all great books that I will review in time.

Josh now runs a peak performance business training for ‘business and financial services elite’ – you know, a coach for your basic multi-billion hedge fund manager types.

The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with lessons identified and explained along the way. It is a little self indulgent in places but overall it is an interesting read and full of hidden gems.

“It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.”

Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to an understanding of learning by discussing the entity and incremental approaches to learning.

Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so. Therefore, failure is deeply personal.

I see many people nowadays fall prey to this concept. Particularly millennials. They kind of ‘give up before they start’. Perhaps it is the culture of facebook and ‘insty’ showing photoshopped mirages of perfect existence.

Or perhaps it is the inner Homer Simpson rising to the surface. The ‘never try – never fail’ mind set that necessarily dodges anything that could be too hard. We seem to be breeding a generation that cannot face, or adequately deal with, defeat.

Falling down is part of learning to walk. Best get on with it.

“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”

By contrast, incremental theorists view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” according to Josh.  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time. Entity theorists collapse under pressure.

Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies where both players had very few pieces. By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations. This damaged their games over the long run as many very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.

When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared. For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral. As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

“Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors.”


Keystone Habits Josh Recommends


Observing your mental dictions the moment they set in. “Meditation is as deep and as powerful tools as I can describe.” Deepening the creative process, deepening presence, expand energetic relationships to the world.

Most of life is spent in a emotional swirl or mental addiction. Meditation helps to break the emotional swirl.

Open The Conscious Mind

As opposed to responding to incidents. Not being reactive.

Waking up and turning your creative mind to creative work pre input. As opposed to checking email and becoming reactive. Opening up your channel to the unconscious mind.

Ending The Work Day with Very High Quality.

Finish the day with very high quality work to nurture a theme or meta theme within your life.


Review and reflect on the day. Reflect and assess the quality of the work you have completed. Try this at the end of the work day not prior to going to bed.

Turn It On and Turn Off

When you go home release your mind from the work. Spend time to cultivate a process to turn off the mind. And conversely, a  process to turn the mind on.

In affect it is interval training for your mind. A little like stress and recovery workouts or interval training.

Teaching someone to turn the mind off is essential to be able to turn the mind on more intensely.

The combination of interval training and meditation are important foundations to increased focus and intensity of the mind. The movement of heart rate from 170 and 144, lowering heart rate to 144 is akin to falling asleep.

Using a physical metaphor to train the art of generating intellectual energy. And then turning it off as required. Stress and recovery with undulation.

Being Sensitive to Your Own Internal Proactive Orientation

Building a family architecture that is understating of your own creative process. As opposed to reacting to things, being guilty you are not working etc. Be sure to tap in to your own internal compass.


Dr. Hooper Comment

I regularly recommend this book to patients. It appears to be of great benefit. Never more so than during the recent lockdowns.

With people working from home there has been a blurring of work life, domestic duties, family responsibilities and the ability to find time for one’s self. It is pretty hard to seperate work and home life when you are taking zoom calls on the kitchen bench, a casserole in the oven, with a two year old screaming at you, and the dog barking at the next door neighbour’s cat that has decided to clean itself on top of the Torana.

Our lives are being overwhelmed with an ever increasing diet of negativity, stress, misinformation and weaponised click bait. There is no shortage of hyperventilating headlines desperate to catch our attention so we can worry about the next catastrophic event to engulf our lives feeding our emotional swirl and mental addiction.

So, how do YOU switch off?

How do you move from work to family time in your mind? Particularly if the geography overlaps?

How are you in the Clinic? Are you emotionally and intellectually present – or does it represent an interruption to your day? Are you too busy to achieve optimal health? Do you really want to get better – or are we an interruption to the narcissistic news scroll on your phone?

It is interesting to watch those that relax into their care. Trust in the process. Relax and receive their care. Turn off the phone and give themselves permission to be here.

There is a great difference in outcome for a patient that falls asleep or meditates during their acupuncture than a patient who is checking their email and taking business calls. One is essentially embracing the energetic flow and one is blocking it.

Unlike a drug, your care is not something that just happens to you. You must embrace it. You must focus and receive your care to allow it to work. It is all about the energetic flow ……

“The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture. We are bombarded with more and more information on television, radio, cell phones, video games, the Internet. The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hungering for something new and prefabricated to keep us entertained. When nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have devastating effect.”



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