Learning the Art of Learning with a former Chess Prodigy

Nov 11, 2014
  carlthomen
Coach 1270

A while back I wrote a piece on child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin’s take on the art of Learning. In case you didn’t read that piece, Josh Waitzkin is the kid from the Searching for Bobby Fischer movie; a chess prodigy (although he dislikes the word) now turned martial arts world champion. The gist of the article was, firstly, that when we learn to Learn effectively (in other words, when we understand how best to teach ourselves new things), we are capable of learning (and becoming really good) at anything. Secondly, I argued the game of chess itself is a great vehicle for learning to Learn.

I’m really curious about this, as throughout my life I’ve loved trying new things: yoga is now a huge part of my life, and rock climbing is next. This, combined with an interest in the learning process (I’m a teacher and a hockey coach) means I’m fascinated by the mechanics of excellence (or in my case, proficiency). And obviously, as I work for Chessity – a website all about learning chess – the topic is of professional interest as well.

13 year old Magnus Carlsen

Beginner’s Mind
At the centre of Waitzkin’s thesis is that anyone can become successful at anything, as long as they approach the learning process in a way which isn’t, in his words, ‘self-paralysing’. This requires what the Zen traditions call a ‘beginner’s mind’, which is approaching a subject or task without expectation or fear, and most importantly, an open and ego-less attitude.

Now psychologists will tell you that everyone needs an ego, and they’re right. You have to have a version of yourself that you’re comfortable sharing with the rest of the world, and you need to protect yourself from pain. But when you think yourself proficient, when you people tell you you’re good, and you start to believe them, then you lose the beginner’s mind. Suddenly, there’s something to lose: esteem. You paralyse yourself with thoughts of being labelled ‘phony’.

Invest in Loss
Waitzkin’s solution is to invest in losing. To lose, and embrace losing. To keep learning, one must be able to let go of one’s strengths (real or perceived). An old Zen proverb springs to mind: “Success and gain to others, failure and loss to me.” A hard lesson to take to heart in our culture, for sure. But humility and gratitude keep us open, whereas arrogance and entitlement closes us off.

Chess and the Martial Arts
So did chess help Waitzkin kick ass in his martial arts career? His answer is interesting. While playing a simultaneous chess exhibition in Dallas, Waitzkin remembers feeling like the differences between chess and tai chi faded away, and he began playing without the typical chess notation in his head. He experienced the ‘flow’ state, or what martial artists call ‘the space left behind’. This experience prompted him to consider the learning process more deeply, and the result is his book, The Art of Learning and the Art of Learning Project.

I think there’ a lot of value in what Waitzkin is saying. We should all seek to play and learn with the beginner’s mind. You can watch an interview with him here: 

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