The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence Josh Waitzkin (Quotes & Thoughts)

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The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.

Josh Waitzkin grew up as a chess prodigy and competed at the highest levels of competition. In his early twenties, he left the chess world to pursue a career as a martial artist, specifically in Push hands, which is rooted in tai chi and a very popular competitive sport in Taiwan. His book, The Art of Learning, chronicles his journey through both chess and Push hands experiences while laying out the framework of learning and growth that he developed for himself to achieve world-class levels of performance.

Throughout my reading of the book, I kept finding myself trying to tie Waitzkin’s approaches to my pursuits and if his lessons would be relevant to my field of business, marketing, and client services. While the rules of my “sport” may not be as clear cut or easily scored, I found a great deal to appreciate and relate to throughout the book. Below are some of the memorable passages I highlighted and my thoughts on them.

Growth Mindset

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.

Waitzkin also uses the metaphor of a hermit crab ditching its shell to find a bigger, new one and how, in this transition phase of growth, there are feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. Safe mediocrity is really easy to settle into, and despite my awareness of this, I know that I often find myself resisting the steps towards growth because I don’t like discomfort.

In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road.

I found myself nodding at this. I think about the “losses” I’ve suffered in my decade-plus of running Barrel–losing out on new business opportunities, losing client relationships, losing talented employees–and how, in the long run, each experience has led to new lessons learned and breakthroughs that otherwise may not have happened.

Mental Agility & Toughness

In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.

Beyond technical mastery, Waitzkin emphasizes the importance of the mind’s ability to be flexible, resilient, and creative. I really loved the idea of “[creating] our own earthquakes” because it speaks to an internally-generated motivation and drive rather than one that comes about as a reaction. I believe the former is a more robust and lasting type of motivation and one that can become a controlled tool rather than an unpredictable stimulus.

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

This reminded me of my experience running my first marathon. The last ten miles were brutal but not physically impossible. What I found the hardest was the voice in my mind telling me to stop and take it easy while I knew deep down that I could push harder. It was a struggle to make peace with the pain and to keep going, and I found myself stopping more times than I liked. I wondered during the race if I had not pushed myself hard enough during training to build better mental resilience.

One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction…

As a competitor I’ve come to understand that the distance between winning and losing is minute, and, moreover, that there are ways to steal wins from the maw of defeat. All great performers have learned this lesson. Top-rate actors often miss a line but improvise their way back on track. The audience rarely notices because of the perfect ease with which the performer glides from troubled waters into the tranquility of the script. Even more impressively, the truly great ones can make the moment work for them, heightening performance with improvisations that shine with immediacy and life. Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.

Performing under pressure and being able to maintain composure even after making a serious error is an oft-repeated trope in competitive sports. I found it helpful to think about this in the context of my own work. Mistakes get made when we create deliverables for clients or make presentations, and I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt flustered and out of sorts, going down that disastrous spiral, and I’ve also had experiences where I’ve been able to brush off mistakes, keep my cool, and come through okay. I think cultivating mental clarity and toughness, coupled with preparedness and mastery of our domain, help us to overcome mistakes and improvise more naturally.

Depth vs. Breadth

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. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

Waitzkin notes that by going deep and truly understanding every aspect of a basic skill set, the mind can better internalize and build a foundation from which other, more sophisticated forms and skills can develop. He mentions how he began learning chess by playing only with a king and pawn, forcing himself to learn the most fundamental moves and truly internalizing this before adopting more complex tactics. He also mentions his Tai Chi training and how he spent hundreds of hours refining movements and learning nuances in even the slightest motions, opening the door to greater control and understanding of Tai Chi’s virtues.

This notion of “profound mastery” of basic skills got me thinking about my line of work and how so much of our discourse is often on the new shiny thing–new tools, new tactics, new technologies, new frameworks–and how basic skill sets like communication, planning, and observing are often overlooked or seen as boring. Depth is hard and takes repetition and patience, and so it makes sense that most people will opt to expand the surface area of what they know and do little to dive deep and truly learn something.

When I turned 30 years old, I wrote that gaining depth was a major consideration. I still feel this way, and hope to cultivate more of it.


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.

I really like how Waitzkin captures the importance of being present in our lives. I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the perils of mindless living, and I think there’s a lot of work for me to do especially at work, where I know that I don’t always bring my A game to every meeting or conversation. This type of “cruise control” behavior doesn’t lend to excellence.

Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday—the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness—is where success, let alone happiness, emerges…

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.

I absolutely love this passage, and it’s in line with why I think mindful cultivation of good habits is so key to happiness and growth.

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