4 insights on learning from Josh Waitzkin | Blog Post by Rob Crews
Josh Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy and adult world champion martial artist, is a totally fascinating guy who can talk at length on (seemingly) almost any subject. I’ve written about his ideas on ending each day on a high, alternatives to starting meditation and reasons to stop waiting for good weather.
I’d heard about Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning via sport psychology coach Jared Tendler’s book The Mental Game of Poker, where it was listed as recommended further reading. I was studying poker in depth and was looking for ways to better understand the learning process. The book sounded interesting, but I wasn’t sold.
Then I listed to Waitzkin’s second appearance on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Whilst the podcast is really interesting, it did leave me a little frustrated — the format just doesn’t allow for the level of detail that I really wanted Waitzkin to go into. He talks about concepts and theories, but doesn’t go into too much detail on the practicalities — how would someone else apply these things to their learning process? I knew that I needed to read the book.
Luckily for all of us, The Art of Learning fills in the gaps. Here are some of the key insights on learning that I picked up from the book.
1. Expertise comes in layers
Waitzkin talks about the development of expertise in terms of layers. First simple themes are considered, studied and practised, forming a layer of knowledge. Then progressively more complex themes are studied, creating further layers on top. The initial layers are vital – they lay the foundation on which more complex concepts are developed. It’s also vital that they are practised until they become intuitive.
Intuition is fundamental to Waitzkin’s approach to learning and in this context can be thought of as the ability to make decisions unconsciously – the layers are so familiar that we can refer to them without having to consciously search our mind.
If this concept seems unfamiliar, think of the process that you go through when learning how to ride a bike. At first you have to consciously think about your balance but over time you can cycle without considering balance at all. Balance becomes intuitive.
Watch as layers disappear
As layers become intuitive, it’s almost as if they disappear. Long periods of time can pass without thinking about them at all – everything is intuitive and automatic.
Some experts will rarely speak of the fundamentals — they don’t think in those terms any more. In some instances, their thought process will be so far removed from the fundamentals that they actually struggle to explain them. Waitzkin talks about his struggles in writing a basic guide to chess – he was trying to explain concepts that he no longer even considered.
My immediate reaction was that ‘forgetting’ knowledge in this way must surely be a negative – why would you ever want to forget the fundamentals?
Clear up capacity
What I hadn’t yet considered was that our minds have limited capacity at any given moment. When a decision needs to be made, we have a limited number of concepts that we can consciously process. ‘Forgetting’ the basics creates spare capacity for higher level thought. This is especially important when decisions have to be made in a limited timeframe.
It’s also worth noting that the fundamental knowledge almost certainly isn’t forgotten. In order to have been learnt to the level of intuition, it will have been rooted incredibly deeply in our memory – it has a very high ‘storage strength’.
It will, however, have seen its ‘retrieval strength’ lessen due to the length of time since we last thought about it. This makes it difficult to recall the information quickly, but the information is still there (we might just need some kind of reminder to jolt it back into our minds). So there’s nothing to worry about – we’re just freeing up capacity.
2. Start with the absolute fundamentals
Waitzkin’s journey to becoming a chess expert began by studying the absolute fundamentals of chess strategy.
His first chess coach started by training him with just three pieces on the table – king versus pawn and king. For those unfamiliar with chess, that is three pieces out of a total of thirty-two that are on the board at the start of a game — it’s a greatly simplified version of the game.
Working with a simplified version of the game allowed him to fully understand the various strategic factors at play in incredible detail. He quickly developed an intuitive feel for the king and pawn which was entirely transferable to more complex situations.
Playing with the moving parts
I think of studying the absolute fundamentals as identifying all the moving parts of a given field of expertise. Once identified, you start moving one part around and see how the other parts respond. You identify the relationships between the moving parts and observe patterns. Over time, these patterns become your intuition.
We can use the bike analogy again and think of two specific moving parts – the brakes and the pedals. You play around with the pedals and discover that pedaling faster makes the bike go faster. You play around with the brakes and discover that squeezing the brakes makes the bike stop. You also discover a relationship between the moving parts – the faster you have pedalled, the harder you have to press the brakes in order to stop. This relationship is fundamental to your knowledge of how to cycle and is soon committed to intuition.
Don’t skip ahead
One major potential pitfall that Waitzkin identifies is a tendency to skip the fundamentals and study more complex concepts from the beginning.
This is common amongst those who want to become highly skilled as quickly as possible – it can seem more efficient to skip ahead. The problem, however, is that without a fundamental understanding of the moving parts and how they work together, you can’t adapt when taken away from the specific concepts that you have studied.
The example that Waitzkin uses is the tendency amongst new chess players to learn fixed combinations of opening moves (moves performed at the start of a game). These moves can be incredibly effective when performed against weaker opponents but against better opponents (who are able to see what you are trying to do), they will be easily countered. Once countered, the new chess player is taken outside of their comfort zone – they’re great at opening moves, but they don’t understand the fundamentals of chess!
This idea was very familiar to me – I had taken an approach to learning poker that was very similar to learning fixed opening combinations in chess.
I understood isolated pockets of strategy in great detail (often intuitively) but I hadn’t examined all of the moving parts. When taken outside of my comfort zone, I often faltered.
Returning to the fundamentals and examining the moving parts in detail immediately improved my game and re-ignited my love for the game. When you learn something from the fundamentals upward it’s almost as though it starts to become part of you – intuition mixes with conscious thought and everything starts to make sense.
3. Perform repetitions
As mentioned above, development of expertise can be visualised as creating layers of knowledge.
Once these layers of knowledge are in place, they must be navigated in an efficient manner. Some decisions will require information from multiple layers, with the information being located and combined into the correct answer.
Waitzkin describes the process of recalling knowledge as navigating a network — each piece of knowledge in our layered mountain of expertise is connected to many other pieces of knowledge. These connections are the way that different parts of the brain communicate – there are ‘neural pathways’ between related pieces of information. We want these pathways to be travelled efficiently, allowing us to travel between each layer of knowledge and come to the correct answer.
Clearing the jungle
The pathways are dense to begin with, meaning it takes a long time to travel along them – Waitzkin compares them to a jungle. Clearing a path through the dense foliage is possible through repeated repetitionsof the decision. Perhaps you even clear enough of a path to make a road, meaning you can drive through the jungle and cover the distance even more quickly.
With each additional repetition you carve the neural pathways more and more. Your brain navigates instantly between your layers of knowledge and you can make complex decisions incredibly quickly.
‘Clearing a path’ isn’t just a useful way to visualise this concept – it really represents the way that our brains work.
Our brains develop and reorganise throughout our lives through a process called neuroplasticity. In addition to allowing us to grow new brain cells, this process allows us to create new neural pathways. When neurons activate at the same time (such as during a decision), the pathways between them are strengthened – the more repetitions, the greater the strength. This happens through a process called myelination, described in more detail by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code (which I’d definitely recommend reading if you enjoy The Art of Learning).
4. Focus on depth, not breadth
Once the fundamentals are in place, one potential next step is to add as many new layers of knowledge as possible.
With each layer you become further displaced from the fundamentals and eventually become somewhat mysterious – your layers of knowledge are so far removed from the fundamentals that novices can’t even understand what you are talking about. It’s easy to think of being an expert as akin to being a mystic – you speak in mysterious terms, understood by few.
Master the basics
Waitzkin’s view of expertise, however, is quite different. He believes that ‘it is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set’.
He suggests that once the fundamentals are in place the focus should remain on depth of knowledge, rather than breadth. Instead of adding endless new layers of knowledge, add layers more gradually and focus on their quality. Continue to study the moving parts, developing intuition.
The reason for this focus on depth rather than breadth is the same as the reason for studying the fundamentals in detail. If you add too much too soon, you create knowledge that is fragile and limited – you are easily taken out of your comfort zone.
Running out of mental capacity
If too many layers of knowledge are added too soon, none of the layers will be learnt to a level of intuition. As previously mentioned, practising concepts to a level of intuition is incredibly important as it frees up mental capacity. With many layers of knowledge and no intuition, our brains can run out of capacity and grind to a halt.
This is something that I’ve experienced in poker. I originally studied every concept available, thinking that breadth of knowledge was the best route to expertise. I would try to consider every possible strategic factor when making a decision, a process which required massive mental capacity (because I hadn’t taken the time to practise my knowledge of these factors to an intuitive level). I quickly found myself grinding to a halt with many decisions, unable to navigate my dense neural pathways. Changing my focus from breadth to depth has helped immeasurably.
Also published on Medium.