Josh Waitzkin on Mastering the Fundamentals

Some excerpts from Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

The best way to launch into the learning process is by breaking down what you are learning into its fundamental building blocks. Mastering these builds your foundation.

Learning Chess

Bruce (his teacher) began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king—just three pieces on the table….Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight….This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning—the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspectives, I learned from the foundation up.

“Most of my rivals, on the other hand, began by studying opening variations … .Once you start with openings, there is no way out … It is a little like developing the habit of stealing the test from your teacher’s desk instead of learning how to do the math. You may pass the test, but you learn absolutely nothing—and most critically, you don’t gain an appreciation for the value or beauty of learning itself.”

Tai Chi Chuan

From very early on, I felt that the moving meditation of Tai Chi Chuan has the primary martial purpose of allowing practitioners to refine certain fundamental principles. Many of them can be explored by standing up, taking a stance, and incrementally refining the simplest of movements—for example pushing your hands six inches through the air …

I practiced the Tai Chi meditative form diligently, many hours a day. At times I repeated segments of the form over and over, honing certain techniques while refining my body mechanics and deepening my sense of relaxation. I focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving my hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting my feet to my fingertips with less and less obstruction … the key was to recognize that the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system of Tai Chi Chuan.

Still curious? Read the book.