Josh Waitzkin’s Unique Approach To Learning

Josh Waitzkin

Before turning 30 Josh Waitzkin was a world champion twice over. Labeled as a chess prodigy, he won multiple world championships. After retiring from chess at an age when most people are starting their careers, Josh started practicing Tai Chi. What started as a meditative exercise quickly grew. A few years later Josh would become a world champion push hands competitor, beating Taiwanese fighters who had been training since childhood. Josh is clearly operating in a different arena than most, and this is the story of his unique approach to learning and mastery.

Lessons Learned on the Chess Board

A chess champion is a combination of skill and thousands of hours of practice

Josh Waitzkin was born to play chess. Players with a decade of experience began losing to Josh after he had been practicing just several months. There’s something to be said about innate talent, and when it came to chess Josh had the goods. However, talent does not deliver success without hard work. When you learn Josh’s story you’re struck by how hard he worked to master the game.

  1. Josh deliberately studied in adverse conditions. He played loud music in his bedroom or went to smokey bars, conditioning himself to perform in all environments. For every skill you can simulate difficult conditions to make performing under pressure easier.
  2. Under the guidance of his first coach Josh studied positions of reduced complexity. For example, three pieces on the chess board instead of the full entourage of thirty-two. Every art form has base principles that must be internalized. These are more important than flashy tricks or techniques, learning them first makes it easier to master complex principles later.
  3. Chess tournaments are grueling, games can last for hours. While other parents and coaches attempted to teach lessons after each match, Josh’s dad took him outside to play catch. He understood that recovery was more important than squeezing in another lesson. If you’re struggling with a difficult task, take a fifteen minute break, forget everything, relax. You won’t lose your edge, you’ll come back ready to act.

Beating Lifelong Practitioners at their Own Game

Josh practicing Tai Chi, the exercise that push hands is based on

On his path towards becoming a world champion at Push Hands, Josh won matches against opponents who had thousands more hours of practice than him. What allowed him to do so? Let’s look at a few answers to that question. Most of these insights come from Josh’s book: The Art of Learning.

1. Drawing Smaller Circles

The process by which a skill is internalized in small steps. Josh uses the example of a boxer learning a straight job. At first he requires a certain number of inches (say ten) to deliver all the power of the punch. However, with time and practice (years’ worth), he’s able to refine the punch. Eventually he can deliver a potent blow with half an inch of space.

This is the art of refining a process and it’s applicable to nearly everything. As you look at a skill that you’ve learned to a high level you’ll be able to see how you’ve “drawn smaller circles” over time, making a complex task simple.

2. Learning from Novel Experiences

In the beginning you can learn from almost any experience. However, to continue growing you must continually seek novel experiences. For example, if a basketball player does nothing but practice free throws he may get very good at it. But to gain a high level of competency at the game he’ll also need to work on three pointers, dribbling, defense and situational awareness.

Josh learned the power of the novel experience when he broke his arm during a push hands competition. He was forced to practice with only one hand. While difficult it gave him that novel experience required to grow. In time, he learned how to control opponents with one arm, a large advantage. When learning a skill we can ask: how can I get new, novel experiences?

3. Investing in Loss

Investing in loss requires working with more skilled opponents

Learning a skill means failing. Whether you’re studying a language or becoming a world champion push hands competitor, you’ll have to invest in loss. In Josh’s case that meant purposefully skirmishing with opponents who were better than him. He spent months getting tossed to the mat, manhandled by more experienced practitioners.

This was painful but it allowed Josh to cut down on the learning curve. By training with superior opponents he was able to cram decades of practice into years. To improve faster we should seek out situations where a loss is likely. It might hurt the ego but the lessons will be more effective.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice 

Whether it was chess or push hands, Josh would study several hours a day. This is the foundation upon which his success is built. Without practice there cannot be improvement. In our society we lionize the results but rarely look at the effort behind them. As Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s) says:

I was an overnight success all right, but 30 years is a long, long night.

5. The Mental Game Determines the Outcome

Speaking about chess, Josh comments on the importance of having a proper mental state.

Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.

This can apply to any discipline. Most top competitors have a comparable technical understanding of the game, the result is often determined by their mental state. Who can stay cool under pressure, recover from a mistake, and find the energy to fight when the body is depleted. To become world class one must focus just as much on their mental state as their practical knowledge.

Why You Should Invest in Becoming an Effective Autodidact

Learning “how to learn” may be one of the most efficient uses of your time. If you can learn a skill 25% faster than your neighbor, that can save you thousands of hours compiled over a lifetime. Invest in loss, seek out novel experiences, and practice every day. Josh Waitzkin is a world class performer of the highest order and his advice is invaluable. The best resource to discover more about Josh is his book: The Art of Learning. It tells the story of Josh’s rise to prominence, how it affected him and the lessons he learned from mastering two unique skills. In addition, Josh has done several interviews on the Tim Ferriss Show.

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