Learning about learning from – a martial arts fighter?!

by ChessBase
12/6/2007 – Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy who was the main character of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, did not stick with the game that made him famous. After high school he read Kerouac, studied oriental philosophy and took up the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan. His book, The Art of Learning, tells us how this helped him develop his personality. Part two of Carol Jarecki's review.

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The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Review by Carol Jarecki, International Arbiter

Part II [Read Part I here]

The completion of high school opened new horizons for Josh. He had read Kerouac, became fascinated with existentialism, oriental philosophy, and the need to see the world through different eyes. Chess continued to absorb most of his life, as he studied, played in tournaments in many foreign lands and, with a base in Slovenia, roamed throughout Europe and beyond. It was a simpler existence then he had had in New York but when he finally returned to stay again in the US the pressure of the limelight returned too. He gradually became less focused on the game and, through his interest in Eastern studies, at the age of 21 began instead the rudimentary study of Tai Chi Chuan.

When learning any subject the quality of the teacher is everything. Bruce Pandolfini was the perfect chess teacher for Josh’s young years and, when starting Tai Chi Chuan, he was fortunate to discover, again, the perfect instructor to suit his needs and personality. True to form, Josh became fascinated with its complexity and completely absorbed in mastering the art and science of this new discipline. But, although he was a beginner, he didn’t start from scratch. He integrated the multitude of lessons in learning that he had developed over the years in the study of chess, and the study of life in general. This is one of the basics of this book – the fact that previous lessons learned, if understood and assimilated, can be used to “navigate” through new arenas.

The chess teacher: Bruce Pandolfini intructing Josh Waitzkin

Learning how to learn is the most important lesson in life. Understanding how to digest and process information and to use it resourcefully offers an individual the opportunity to accomplish, possibly master, anything. Recently, an educator friend told me that parents should teach a child how to work and teachers should teach how to learn. Unfortunately, too many teachers teach only the material at hand and not the all-important principles of how to absorb and use it.

Josh Waitzkin as a boy chess prodigy

Children who are not encouraged to think and explore, who are afraid to reach beyond borders for fear of losing or being criticized, cannot grow mentally. They may be locked in a constricted vision of themselves and their abilities – as Josh says, self paralyzed. His insightful discussion of the differences between entity and incremental theories of intelligence and how each affects the learning process is one of the arteries coursing through this book.

The last time I saw Josh play chess was at the 1999 Bermuda GM Invitational at the Mermaid Beach Club. He loved to play the Bermuda events, as did everyone, drawn not only by the scenery, balmy winter climate and surrounding ocean but matchless hospitality and camaraderie. One year he was scheduled to follow the Invitational with the Bermuda Open but made a trip to the hospital instead. He loved to climb the jagged rocky cliffs along the beautiful South Shore, sit on a vantage point above the ocean feeling the wind and fresh salt air, and reflect. The story I heard was that he saw a large fish trapped in a tidal pool and started to clamber down to try to save it. He lost his grip on the wet rocks and careened down the razor-sharp volcanic boulders desperately trying to get a grip on something to stop his slide as much of his skin was slashed and shredded by the ruthless sea cliff. His friend Maurice Ashley found him dazed and bloody and took him to the hospital. He flew home to New York the next day. He last played in June 1999 in the Fan Adams International and tied for first place. His US tournament record stops there.

The right teacher: Josh with his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen

His Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands record skyrocketed to the top as he progressed through brutal competitions, winning national championships along the way, which culminated in the grueling battle to become World Champion in Taiwan late in 2004. Having reached the pinnacle Josh has now gone on to another challenge, again in the martial arts field, and become a beginner once more, this time in the study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Undoubtedly, he does not remain at the beginner level very long. It will be interesting to see what new adventure he starts in the coming years. He certainly is not a person to sit back and wait for one to come along by itself.

Starting a throw in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu match

The Art of Learning, however, is not primarily about chess or Tai Chi. It uses the personal relationship the author has had with these two diverse worlds as vehicles to demonstrate and discuss the value of applying a variety of principles of learning – the correct techniques as they can be used to build the blocks of internal growth. Waitzkin makes it clear that it is not so much raw intelligence that leads to success in any given field but the individual’s method of organizing and internalizing information, building upon it, conceptualizing and refining plans that, with hard work and diligent application, lead to realization of the final goal.

From chess to martial arts: Josh Waitzkin preparing some opening moves

Josh writes almost from a position of wonder, a person who admires thunderstorms and violent seas, he ponders the life lessons through which he has progressed, appraises, incorporates and evolves methods to deal with harsh reality and learn to use it to one’s own benefit. Although much of the material is academic – this is a serious intellectual work – he presents it in such a charming, down-to-earth and practical manner that makes the content instructional without feeling so. This is a book from which anyone can benefit, no matter how young or old or in what walk of life or level of achievement.

Winning a Tai Chi trophy in Taiwan

Readers will surely see themselves and their own personal experiences in some of these pages. I know that when he writes of compartmentalizing information, when he felt he could fit no more information into his brain, it reminds me of the same question I asked my mother when I was very young. Her answer was similar. She said she imagines closets in her mind and sorts information and stores it in the closet along with other matching or relevant data. I tried it and it worked quite well.

Carol Jarecki, International Arbiter

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

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0743277457
ISBN-13: 978-0743277457

Price: $16.50


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