Book notes from the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Wang Yip
6 min readJan 20, 2020

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is a look at his life and his road to excellence. He was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, became a master of Tai Chi and has applied his learning techniques to brazilian jiu-jitsu.

One thing that struck me about Josh was the fact that when he was younger, there was an intense study and focus on end game positions. In chess, there are three phases of the game, the opening, the middle, and the end game. I played a bit of chess when I was younger, and I remember trying to memorize different openings to catch my opponent off guard. Josh had a very different approach to the game: instead of memorizing openings (and there are many, many different kinds of openings so memorizing openings is a bit of a rabbit hole), his teacher and him focused on end games. What happens with a king and a pawn versus a king? What happens with a king and a queen versus a king and a rook? As there are many fewer pieces in the end game than in the opening, this meant that there was less to memorize, but these types of scenarios helped to solidify a number of principles for Josh that could be applied to wider situations.

Here is what I learned from Josh on how to learn:

Two approaches to learning

Josh calls these two approaches as ‘entity’ and ‘incremental’. If you see yourself as an ‘entity’, you see yourself as someone that cannot evolve. If you see yourself as an ‘incremental’ learner, it means that you took steps to improve and grow. This is why you may have heard that when you praise kids, you praise them not at the skill that they are displaying “Oh you are so good at math”, rather, you praise them for the hard work that they put in “Oh you worked so hard on your math assignments”. In the first scenario, kids may start to see themselves as ‘good at math’ and so when they receive a bad math grade, they think to themselves that no matter how much work they put in, they will receive a bad math grade because they have always been told that they are good at math. In the second scenario, the kids have a better understanding of why they got a bad grade at math. They did not put in enough work. Do you see yourself as an ‘entity’ or an ‘incremental learner’?

Simplify

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Wang Yip

Author of Essential Habits. I write about personal development, work and managing your career. Connect with me at www.wangyip.ca