As a child, Josh Waitzkin was recognized as a chess prodigy. He would practice every day with his friends in Washington Square Park. Josh went on to win several world championships in chess by the age of 12, before applying his learning principles to the art of Push Hands Tai Chi, where he also won the world championship in Taiwan.

In this book, Waitzkin details his journey from beginner to master in both of these skills.

A lot of this book consists of Josh telling his story, so it can drag on at times. However, there is a lot to be gleaned from his story about learning at a high level.

The book isn’t so much about how to pick up a new skill and do it as a hobby – it’s about how to become the best in the world at something. He doesn’t talk that much about specific practice regimens and the process of actually learning the skill. Instead, he dives into different frames of mind that help or hurt people when they’re learning something new and trying to become the best at it.

The “entity mindset” of learning is the belief that intelligence is innate, and unrelated to practice. Somebody with this mindset, when trying basketball for the first time, will say: “I suck at basketball.”

In this way, telling a child that he is so good at math is actually hurting him. Though it seems positive, he is learning helplessness. He is learning that regardless of how much consistent effort he puts into math, he will be good at it. Same goes for the opposite.

The “incremental mindset” of learning is one that focuses on continuous growth. Instead of saying “I suck,” someone will say “Hmm. That attempt was bad. I wonder what I can do to make the next one better.”

Focusing on the incremental mindset, competition and learning is viewed as a playful game. Success is associated with effort, not outcome. Expectations no longer matter, and failures are simply learning opportunities.

He goes on to discuss how he approaches high-level competitions. He talks a lot about mindfulness, stepping into the flow of the game, and it seems like a major part of his strategy is not thinking too much. Relying on the skills he has gained from consistent practice and confiding in his own ability to perform on the spot is what allows him to do so.

The Art of Learning got me excited about the idea of 1-on-1 competition. Throughout his journey competing at high levels of Chess and Tai Chi, the way he describes these instances make them seem like they’re from a different world. Once you step into the ring, it’s just you and the other guy. A battle of wits (in chess) or a battle of physical prowess (in Tai Chi). These moments seem similar to public speaking. No lifelines. Completely on the spot. Doing it live. If you mess up, the only thing you can do is accept it publicly and move forward using your best efforts.

Overall, great book. I recommend reading it.