The Art of Learning

Since I value my time, I’m very deliberate about which books I read. There are so many “known good” books out there that it seems like a total waste of time just to randomly pick one. There are certain books that keep popping up on my radar so frequently that I eventually feel like I have to read them to see what all the fuss is about. I find that the fuss is almost always for good reason.

Having said that, I relish the occasions when I come across a more obscure book that turns out to be a gem. For example, I don’t know a single other person who’s read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors but it’s one of my favorite books of all time.

I just finished another book that I’d put under the “hidden gem” category: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. (By the way, for some reason I appreciate that he goes by Josh and not “Joshua”.) Josh was a chess prodigy as a child and later in his life, like in his late teens or something, he quit chess and became a martial arts world champion. Pretty interesting since those two things are obviously such disparate disciplines. The movie Seaching for Bobby Fischer was made about Josh Waitzkin. I was vaguely aware of the movie’s existence (I was apparently 9 when it came out) but I’ve never seen it. It was made from a book written by Josh’s dad.

The book talks some about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I find interesting because I listened to Zen like two audiobooks before The Art of Learning, but my choice to read The Art of Learning was, as far as I can think, totally unrelated to the fact that I read Zen. There was also an interview with Tim Ferriss at the end of the book, which I again found interesting because I just started listening to the Tim Ferriss Show a couple months ago but that also didn’t influence my choice to read The Art of Learning. And then today I noticed that Tim Ferriss’s most recent episode is a second interview of Josh Waitzkin! It’s weird how frequently those seemingly-improbable connections pop up.

I try to distill each book I read down to just one takeaway. This seems like kind of a waste of all the other takeaways the book has to offer but I don’t seem to have the mental capacity to extract more than one lesson from a book, at least not on the first pass. What I took away from this book is that opportunities beget more opportunities. Josh Waitzkin seems to be an exceptional person who has a certain way of mastering skills. Additionally, though, he was born in the New York City area to supportive, loving and intelligent parents and he had access to things like Washington Square Park that someone living in, say, some small Midwestern town wouldn’t have access to. Because Josh played chess in Washington Square Park, he was able to get noticed by a well-known chess coach, and then he gained access to more coaches. Like Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers, opportunities you get early in life often lead to more and better opportunities later in life. The opportunities have a compounding effect resulting in exponential progress.

I don’t think the lesson is that people who don’t get the same opportunities should be bummed about it or use it as an excuse or something. Like Dan Kennedy said, a fact isn’t something to be feared; it’s something to be used. It’s not immediately obvious to me how it might be useful to know that some people are given more opportunities than others. Dan Sullivan said that some people start life on third base and other people start life with two strikes. I guess it can be helpful to observe what your starting point in life was so that you can calibrate your expectations over time accordingly. An 25 year-old Charles Dickens shouldn’t be upset that he doesn’t have the same net worth as a 25 year-old Donald Trump, since (I believe) Donald Trump came from a rich family and Charles Dickens came from a poor one. To compare myself to someone who was dealt a much stronger hand could be needlessly discouraging to me and possibly actually hinder my progress. I might direct my energy toward “What the hell am I doing wrong?” instead of understanding that I’m doing the right things, it will just take me some additional time to get to my destination because I have to put in active effort as an adult just to get to the point where another person might have started out at birth. I imagine that the understanding that my journey might be longer than that of others who have had more luck in their antecedence could be helpful in making that journey successfully.

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