The right learning could make you or break you — and the one who understands that stands above all.
Josh Waitzkin — a child prodigy, an international chess master, and a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion wrote a book called The Art of Learning. In this book, he penned down his inner and outer journey to success while listing the various techniques he applied to master chess and martial arts.
I picked up his book — not to learn from a chess master or a martial arts champion — but to learn from someone who has cracked the art of learning.
Let me share some of the most impressionable ideas of Josh Waitzkin.
Dissolve your ego in lemonade and drink it —
Week after week, Josh got hammered by Evan, a six-foot-two, 200-pound second-degree karate black belt, and an eight-year student of Tai Chi, during Tai Chi push hands practice. Every time he was hammered, Josh got up and limped to Evan to be plastered into the wall like a wall hanging again. Josh observed Evan’s movements and triggers closely. Soon, Josh could anticipate which of his legs Evan would knee and how Josh could avoid it. One fine day, Josh tossed Evan twice on the ground; that was the last time they played together.
If Josh hadn’t let go of his world-champion ego and hadn’t let Evan toss him around, Josh would have never learned to move against Evan and the like. But now he had become unbeatable.
I submit freelance articles on topics that I have no prior knowledge of. I send my weirdest fiction stories to magazines. If I don’t go into the water in this duckling stage, how would I ever swim or get rejected, practice, and publish?
Get hit. Rise. Learn. Become unbeatable — all while drinking the lemonade of your ego.
Invest in loss and get ready to be kicked around —
When Evan was tossed around by Josh, Evan never played with Josh again. Instead of fighting with him, Evan stuck to his ego and continued to thrive in his mediocrity easily. Had he fought knowing he would be kicked around and would look bad — or had he invested in loss — he would have improved his game.
While coding Java for the first time, I applied the semantics of C++. When corrected, I justified my mistakes and made zero progress, because I didn’t accept that I was a beginner and didn’t open up to learning.
Do not resist the learning process even if it is making you forget everything you know. Or even if you are getting kicked in the nuts. Don’t justify your mistakes. Let the process flow freely through your system. Only then the learning would suffuse in your body as blood.
Invest in loss to win.
Follow your intuition and don’t listen to anyone who advises otherwise —
What is intuition?
You feel — That if you let the tomatoes melt entirely, the curry won’t taste like your mother’s though you have never seen her make it. That the stranger walking 100 meters behind you on a dark Paris street isn’t all good news. That the random number generator in your assignment might not act so randomly when ran a large number of times. That the last paragraph breaks the flow of your story.
You can’t quantitatively judge these situations. All you have is “I-am-getting-the-feeling” or “my-intuition-says-so.”
Josh explained that he had internalized the chess positions and techniques so well that while focusing on a particular move, he didn’t have to focus on the entire board. He said that better the chess player was the “less” he or she had to focus on rather than on “more.” Because “more” was supplied by the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind, which stores all experiences, situations, and learnings, was the one speaking in all of the above scenarios.
Daniel Kahneman, the influential psychologist and the author of Thinking, Fast, and Slow, said, “The mental work that produces intuitions goes on in silence in our mind. The situation provides a cue; this cue gives the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer.”
Intuition is not nothing. It is your unconscious mind speaking to you via the conscious.
Don’t gag intuition. It has come a long way traveling the inter-connected network of your knowledge and experience.
Learn from your errors and don’t get hit by the ripple effect of compounding errors —
I have seen myself confused, restless, and irritated when I am not at my best, or I commit a mistake or when I think of past mistakes. I cling to the pre-error time and lose hold on the present. Rather than recovering from the error, I restlessly over-contemplate my actions and commit more mistakes in the process. Everything seems to go wrong.
But nothing has gone so wrong — apart from our perception of reality. While the world goes on, we get stuck. The two lines of reality and perceived reality strike our world parallelly at a greater distance than before.
As Josh said, avoid the ripple effect of compounding errors. You don’t have to lose everything because you committed one mistake. Take a break, wash your face, breathe, and come back to the problem.
Learn the techniques but don’t kill your natural calling —
In the real-story based Bollywood movie Dangal, the wrestler Geeta Phogat was forced by the national coach to repress her natural attack instinct. She lost fights like a house of card crashes. When her father secretly started re-coaching her and told her to follow her instinct, she won the world championship.
Whatever you are — a painter, a writer, a coder, a designer, an analyst, a product manager, a restaurant owner — you have your flavor. And the most beautiful and the most challenging part of the learning process is to master new techniques while breathing through that flavor.
My coder friend adjusts with the nuisances of CSS but doesn’t give up on his instinct of modifying the website layer by layer. My product-manager friend attends product management training but never compromises on his idea of how resilient his product should be. My instinct is to write about animals and nature and just this morning I was thinking of writing a story on talking vegetables.
We each have a core. The natural thing for us is to mold layers around the core without melting it. Those layers and the core together would make you who you are. Otherwise, you would be like a computer software — efficient but heartless.
Don’t let the distractions create chaos inside you —
My mother calls to discuss my marriage. The water delivery boy rings the doorbell. The cleaning lady avoids dusting and takes advantage of my good nature. That travel blogger I am jealous of posts a new memoir. The scooters and the motorbikes on the road ruthlessly honk even though today is labor day.
Sometimes, I jam fingers into my ears, and I try to fight distraction. I expect everyone to understand that I am doing something important and that they need to be silent. You guessed it right, this model doesn’t work. So, I instead open the window and listen to the churning-gravel of the cement mixer and the broom-broom of the passing-by motorbike. I ignore the cleaning lady. I switch off my phone. I receive water, make small talk, and come back to my chair having forgotten the conversation even happened.
We cannot maintain our concentration if we don’t accept these distractions as part of our day and environment. The world wouldn’t be as calm as a beautiful summer day every time we need to concentrate.
But that is what we have to prepare for.
Learn to flow with every ripple. Stay calm. Look at everything, even the distractions, as positive.
Allow all your life experiences to dance and mix as toppings on the thin-crust pizza of your life —
In the modern work culture, we go to the office, work, come back, Netflix, eat dinner, and sleep. This repeats. We segregate our experiences — at work, at the gym, at home, while walking, with our child, during the weekend workshop — categorically. A beautiful travel conversation at lunch with our colleague cease to exist post-lunch as we crunch numbers for the evening presentation to a client.
This is where we go wrong.
No part of our life should be artificially segregated from the rest. That conversation and all other real-life experiences should be allowed to suffuse in every dimension of our life.
You didn’t notice but your colleague’s advice to stay in an Airbnb while traveling could be used as a budgeting technique in the new remote-working project in the presentation. The poise of your mother while she neatly arranges every kitchen item could inspire you to organize your email inbox. The sarcastic humor of your British friend could tickle you to drop comedy in your articles frequently.
Most of the skills you need in your art or at work come from your daily life. Keep your eyes open. Let yourself be inspired.
Don’t break the flow. Let everything flow inside you as one.
Focus on the long-term process but juice the fruits of short-term goals now and then —
The process of learning is more important than success, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a few successes on the way or applause ourselves when we achieve short-term goals.
The shady trees of short-term achievements shadow us intermittently on the long sunny path to our goals. Don’t fall asleep under these trees but allow yourself to catch a breath. Pluck a few fruits off the tree and eat. Then get up and start walking. You would get more dense and shadowy rest-stops as you move along your path.
But these stops are essential to keep you going.
Study the rules to break them —
Josh said that creative leaps are grounded in a technical foundation.
Jackson Pollock, a painter who created the most radical styles in the history of modern art, could draw figures as if he had a stencil of the world over his drawing sheet. But instead, he chose to throw color on canvas in random patterns. He followed his natural calling, but he knew the techniques.
Only when you know the rules and techniques, you can adhere to them or violate them without any conscious struggle.
Learn the rules of your calling so you can bend them when needed. And create your unique style.
Creating a trigger routine that kick-start your day and the process of learning is more important than success are two other important Josh-inspired lessons. Do read.
The slow and steady wins the race is a cliché but for a good reason. The one who learns calmly and intelligently rides even the rowdiest waves of life. Give yourself to the process of learning and excel.
What do you think about the art of learning? If you have something to share from your own learning experience, please feel free to leave a comment.