The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence

by Josh Waitzkin

The Art of Learning will teach you how to attain remarkable personal achievements. It contains the right principles of learning and performance that will propel you to the top in any competition. The book will help you realize that a well-thought-out, principled approach to learning is what separates success from failure.

Summary Notes

Setting the right foundation for your success

“I felt unbeatable when matched up with kids my age, and the combination of street toughness and classical education proved devastating for my opponents.”

It is never too early to start learning and practicing to excel in your niche or profession. Even the most innocent moves made at an early age can go a long way to shape you into becoming successful.

You need to set the right foundation for yourself by practicing what you are interested in. For example, if you have a keen interest in chess, you need to practice it often to excel and become an expert. 

It’s fine to practice anywhere, and even in the most informal settings. While being guided by a professional is the best way to learn the right rules of whatever you are interested in, you can equally learn a great deal informally in the real world. For example, if you enjoy playing football, you could play casually with your friends as well as in a team with a professional coach. The combination of real-world toughness and classical education will always be devastating to your opponents.

To set the right foundation for yourself, you must also learn to discipline yourself without dampening your love for what you enjoy doing or suppressing your natural voice.

Actions to take

Losing to win

“Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle.”

Setting the right foundation for yourself is an integral part of success, but this does not mean that you will always win. Sometimes, you will still lose no matter how disciplined and prepared you are. 

While it is normal to feel bad or devastated after losing, it is not the end of the world. Instead, it is a stepping stone to winning in the future. Your goal should be to put yourself out there, give it your all, and learn a lesson, win or lose.

The best way to respond to failure or loss is by working harder. It’s important to learn from every loss, so you can do better next time. You need to remain self-motivated by continuously doing the things that can make you stand out. For example, instead of focusing on your failure after a crucial event, reassess your strategy and think about what you could have done differently. 

Remind yourself that you will hardly learn anything if you do not experience any losses. Think of failure as an investment - use it to learn a process that will help you win next time.

Actions to take

Different learning approaches

“The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning. They fall frustrated by the wayside while those on the road to success keep steady on their paths”.

Nowadays, most people fail to achieve their goals mainly because of the wrong learning approach. When you learn through the wrong approach, you will most likely make mistakes and be defeated despite working hard. Therefore, you must use the right learning approach to get to the top, as it highly affects your ability to learn and ultimately master material.

How you learned as a child impacts how you function as an adult. There are two theories of intelligence at play here: 

  1. Entity theory: Some children have been influenced by their teachers and parents to think a particular way about themselves. For example, entity theorists kids may have been made by their parents and teachers to understand that they are smart at certain things and slower at others such that they start attributing their successes or failures to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They, therefore, see their overall intelligence and skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Most of them are comfortable excelling in one area and failing in another. After all, they have been made to understand they are naturally wired that way, and nothing can change them.

  2. Incremental theory: These children attribute their successes to their efforts. They sense that with hard work, even the most difficult material can be grasped step by step, incrementally until they switch from being novices to masters. Most describe their results with sentences like  “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.”

Actions to take

Understanding the downward spiral

“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 or performer, you need to prevent the downward spiral from occurring. This refers to when your results are continuously getting worse. 

The first time you get a poor result, it’s not a big deal. However, the downward spiral of the second, third and fourth could create a devastating chain reaction. It’s therefore crucial to regain presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.

Actions to take

A beginner’s mind

“We must take responsibility for ourselves and not expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best that we can become.”

As a performer or competitor, you need to ensure that your relationship with your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. Thus, you need to do everything possible to maintain your passion and love for the things you love doing.

There will be inevitable times when you will feel like trying new ideas and releasing your current knowledge to take new information. In such a case, it’s important to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who you are. You need to realize that if you take away your natural voice, you will be left with no center of gravity to balance as you navigate the countless obstacles of life.

You also need to be flexible enough to try new things that align with your purpose or complement an existing trait. The beginnings are usually challenging, but you can surely become an expert in anything you set your mind on with the right attitude. For example, practicing for hours and learning from more experienced people can make you move from a novice to an expert.

Actions to take

Using adversity to your advantage

“Once we learn how to use adversity to our advantage, we can manufacture the helpful growth opportunity without actual danger or injury.”

As you journey through life, you will most likely experience challenging situations that if well handled, could result in victory. For example, it is possible to convert a sudden distraction into fuel for high performance during a presentation. Similarly, a brief panic could jolt your mind to clarity and help you excel afterward. 

Remember that there are clear distinctions between what it takes to be decent, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great, and what it takes to be amongst the best. 

To be amongst the best, you need to use adversities in your favor. For example, if you are a footballer, you can use a leg injury as a valuable opportunity to concentrate on the mental side of the game. 

Beyond that, you also need to understand the illusion of the mystical to excel well in competitions. This entails using your personality to your advantage and observing your opponents keenly to always be a step ahead of them.

Actions to take

The power of presence

“In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.”

As a competitor, you need always to be present, maintain your focus, stay serene and overcome distractions. If you are serenely present while your opponent is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome will definitely be a victory for you.

The moment you lose focus in any competition, you stop being objective and start making compounding mistakes that work in favor of your rivals or opponents. To excel, you need to maximize each moment’s creative potential, which can only happen if you are present. 

Incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery can also go a long way to help you stay present. For example, instead of just swimming until you get exhausted and quit, you could push yourself to a healthy limit, recover for a minute or two and then push yourself again.

The best way to learn how to be present is by practicing with a series of habits, such as learning to embrace distractions and relaxing in brief moments of inactivity. Presence must be like breathing to you if you hope to attain excellence.

Actions to take

Building your trigger

“This tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive.”

It is one thing to set the right foundation for a career or discipline, and it's another thing to remain enthusiastic about it. Therefore, it is very important for you to find your triggers - the things that trigger you to operate according to your full potential at all times.

Focusing on a goal is a good thing, but if you focus too much, especially during a competition, you could have a meltdown due to your inability to handle pressure. So, identify triggers that can be applied before and during the competition to help you stay focused and present. For example, if jogging or bathing triggers you to relax, have a bath or jog for 10 minutes before starting a major task. 

Keep in mind that when you create a trigger, you form a physiological connection between the routine and the activity it proceeds.

Actions to take

Putting your emotions in check

“Then there are those elite performers who use emotion, observing their moment and then channeling everything into a deeper focus that generates a uniquely flavored creativity.”

Emotions like anger, fear, excitement, happiness, and despair are all part of our lives, and it will be unwise for us to deny such a huge element of human existence. However, it’s important for you to put your emotions in check, as when you are unable to control yourself, you become overwhelmed and ineffective in your tasks or activities.

The ability to control your emotions is indeed crucial to winning in life. You need to be vigilant enough to use your emotions to observe every moment so you can always channel everything into a deeper focus that generates uniquely favored creativity. 

As a competitor, you also need to discover what emotional states trigger your greatest performances. Do you think you’re bringing out your best when under pressure? Does happiness distract you from focusing on important tasks? We are all wired differently, so you need to figure out the emotions that trigger you to operate according to your full potential. 

Remember that you became more sound and focused when you have full control over your emotions.

Actions to take

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