The Art of Learning: One Mindset Change That Redefined My Life
You learn to live life on the go. At birth, you are not given infinite wisdom, but instead you need to learn by trial and error. Some people are lucky and discover the right paths quite early, for some it takes longer, while the majority of people breeze through life without a clue.
Some people have the luck of getting a mentor who guides them on the right path, while others arrive there in other ways. One good thing about the current period is the explosion of knowledge that we have available at our finger tips.
If you don’t have a mentor, it is much easier now to embark on the path by yourself, aggregating information from different sources and building up a framework to guide you.
Books are one resource that you can use for this purpose. There are a small number of books that can give you a unique insight into your life and the best way to live it.
Reading them, not only do you gain a lot of knowledge to incorporate into your ever-growing mental library, but you also experience a few “aha” moments. It is during these moments when questions you have been asking yourself about life and how you should be living it suddenly appear clearer.
You are reading a certain passage and suddenly things click. At that moment you know what was that one mistake that you made that redefined your life. You realize what was that one mindset change that you should have made, but didn’t.
These books are the ones that end up having a powerful effect on the rest of your life. These “aha” moments that they provoke, give you a clearer perspective and an understanding of the things that you should be doing in order to be successful in life.
When you apply these little lessons in practice, your life suddenly becomes better, you start doing things differently and you finally start doing things in the right way.
The Art of Learning
One of the books that has had a huge impact on my mindset and the way I live and experience life has been “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.
Josh is a remarkable character. As a kid he was a chess prodigy and the personality on whom the film “Searching for Bobby Fisher” was based on.
From early on, he was dominating his age groups in chess. He brought piercing focus and intensity to the game that catapulted him to the top.
He was on his way to becoming one of the top chess players in the world. However suddenly things changed and he refocused his life by switching disciplines completely.
He went from chess, a discipline of the mind, to martial arts, more particularly tai chi and push hands competitions, a discipline of the body. Remarkably, he was able to dominate there too.
Not only did he become the US National Champion in the martial art of push hands, he also became the World Champion, beating the Taiwanese on their home turf in their own national sport. This was a rare achievement, made even rarer by the fact that he had switched from a totally different discipline just a few years earlier.
How did he do it? He didn’t do it because he was naturally born to be a chess champion or a martial art champion. He did it because he was good at the art of learning.
He was able to come up with a few principles that he could apply across the board, irrespective of the discipline. In his book, he shares with us his secrets.
Application to my life
Growing up, I too had a talent and was a top competitor in a number of disciplines. However I never made it to the top. I never became elite.
One of the reasons was my environment and the fact that we moved around all the time. The other one was drive.
The environment problem was a huge drawback, but the more fundamental problem was my own mindset. Years later, when reading “The Art of Learning” one little passage hit the point and caused a revolution in my thinking. At that exact moment I knew what I had been doing wrong:
“While I learned with open pores – no ego in the way – it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When Chen made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked up by the need to be correct.“
Suddenly old memories came rushing back: me looking at the clock in my karate class, me being stubborn and justifying myself when the coach was trying to correct my shooting technique in basketball, me not taking advice of the coach in track.
Instead of having no ego, of learning and working harder, I had been set in my ways. Sure the environment did not help, but my mindset was the bigger problem.
What to do
This was the difference between me, a wasted talent, and Josh. Luckily, there is still time to apply this mindset change. In the book, Josh gives some pointers on how to do that.
The first thing that you need to do is to immerse yourself in the fundamentals and learn those really well. There is no point in learning a lot of different techniques if you haven’t learned the few staples. Embrace being a beginner, approach things with an open mind, break things down, and work hard on mastering the fundamentals, slowly adding to your arsenal as you progress.
“A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.“
This is the basis behind deliberate practice, a concept much discussed in several popular works. One example is the book “Outliers” where Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10 000 hour rule. The premise here is that this is about how long it takes to reach mastery.
You slowly work on things consciously until they become incorporated into your subconscious. At the beginning you think, at the end you just do. That’s what separates the masters from the others. A deep intuition honed by countless hours of deliberate practice.
Some criticisms of the book
While the book was deep and life-changing in a way, there were some minor points of criticism.
The author points out that one of the defining points of his own journey was when he started studying Eastern philosophy, books like “Tao Te Ching”.
The way that “The Art of Learning” was written, reflects the fact that the author is an advanced student of Eastern philosophy. Some of the phrases appear a bit mystical and flowery and might go above the heads of people who are not very familiar with this train of thought.
However this does not detract from the overall message and power of the work. In fact, this work is meant to be read several times. Each time you read it, you will gain more and more insights into what you should do to become a top competitor.
Everyone has a story which set them on the path to today: