On the Art of Learning
Mercenary Trader | Jun. 9, 2011, 10:21 PM

“I walk a higher path, son.”
– Training Day

If you want to walk a higher path in trading, get your hands on The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.

It is one of the select few books I have read more than once, and will probably wind up reading again over the years.

When it comes to performance under pressure, Waitzkin knows of what he speaks: He was a child chess prodigy, a fierce competitor from the age of eight.

By his teenage years, Waitzkin’s life had been turned into a movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Not long after, his love of chess was suffocated by a heavy-handed instructor and the glaring spotlight of fame.

At that point Waitzkin did a full pivot. He switched competitive disciplines completely, from chess to martial arts.

He then became a world champion of Push Hands, a form of Tai Chi Chuan, traveling to Taiwan to best the masters on their home turf.

Waitzkin is a philosopher of excellence — a deep and articulate thinker with intimate knowledge of victory and defeat. The Art of Learning is a description of his competitive journey through the highest levels of chess and martial arts.

More than that, though, The Art of Learning is a powerful compendium of ideas and insights on how to learn, compete and evolve… how to tap creativity under pressure… and how to become a champion.

A few select excerpts:

On immersion in the fundamentals:

A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she 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 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.

On the long-term learning process:

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

On the value of losses:

In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins — those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way. Of course the real challenge is to stay in range of this long-term perspective when you are under fire and hurting in the middle of the war. This, maybe our biggest hurdle, is at the core of the art of learning.

On valuing one’s opponent:

From one perspective the opponent is the enemy. On the other hand there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly or pushes you to excellence and growth so relentlessly.

On mental resilience:

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for more and more ways to become psychologically impregnable.

On post-error recovery:

Regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error… is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction. Any sports fan has seen professional football, basketball, and baseball games won and lost because of a shift in psychological advantage.

On the exploration of grayness:

…the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of grayness — of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down. Muscles and minds need to stretch to grow, but if stretched too thin, they will snap. A competitor needs to be process-oriented, always looking for stronger opponents to spur growth, but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence. We have to release our current ideas to soak in new material, but not so much that we lose touch with our unique natural talents. Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness.

On the cultivation of greatness:

Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire…

What made [Michael Jordan] the greatest was not perfection, but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.

On the value of intuition:

…intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick. If we get so caught up in narcissistic academic literalism that we dismiss intuition as nonexistent because we don’t fully understand it, or if we blithely consider the unconscious to be a piece of machinery that operates mystically in a realm that we have no connection to, then we lose the rich opportunity to have open communication with the wellspring of creativity.

On the fluidity of knowledge:

Over time each chess principle loses rigidity, and you get better and better at reading the subtle signs of qualitative relativity. Soon enough, learning becomes unlearning. The stronger chess player is often the one who is less attached to a dogmatic interpretation of the principles. This leads to a whole new layer of principles — those that consist of the exceptions to the initial principles. Of course the next step is for those counter-intuitive signs to become internalized just as the initial movements of the pieces were.

…The network of my chess knowledge now involves principles, patterns, and chunks of information, accessed through a whole new set of navigational principles, patterns, and chunks of information, which are soon followed by another set of principles and chunks designed to assist in this interpretation of the last. Learning chess at this level becomes sitting with paradox, being at peace with and navigating the tension of competing truths, letting go of any notion of solidity.

On psychology transcending technique:

This is where things get interesting. We are at the moment when psychology begins to transcend technique. Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered. This is a nuanced and largely misunderstood state of mind that when refined involves a subtle reintegration of the conscious mind into a free-flowing unconscious process. The idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide.

On coolness under fire:

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.

On keeping it on the line:

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared for a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

As usual, I hope you are inspired to read the whole thing.


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