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The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence    by Josh Waitzkin order for
Art of Learning
by Josh Waitzkin
Order:  USA  Can
Free Press, 2008 (2008)
Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence won his first National Chess Championship in chess at age nine, and the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on his life - and nearly derailed his chess career. He did not limit himself to mental mastery, but went on to train in martial arts, becoming a Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Champion in 2004.

Impressive? Surely! Both sets of achievements clearly take not only a strong degree of natural gift but also self discipline, intense training, and the ability to enter bouts in the frame of mind that results in wins. In his book, The Art of Learning, Waitzkin talks about his chess and martial arts endeavours, and what he discovered along the way about learning. He applies his brilliant chessic (an adjective new to me, used frequently in the book) analytic skills to the process and approach that best facilitates human learning.

Waitzkin explains to readers 'a method of study that has been critical to my growth ... the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form' - in which deeply internalized fundamentals become the building blocks to mastery. He speaks of research by developmental psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck which shows that a 'child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped - step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.' (This mirrors his own experience.) On the other hand, kids who are entity theorists quit more easily when challenged by difficult material.

Other gems in this fascinating read include remarkable tributes to both the author's parents early in the book; a compassionate look at what intense competition can do to children; a brief lesson in the Tai Chi Chuan coordination of breath and mind; the importance of the investment in loss to raise your game to a higher level; the value of practicing 'the ebb and flow of stress and recovery' in performance training and incorporating this technique into all aspects of life; and how to trigger peak performance.

In his Afterword, Josh Waitzkin sagely reminds readers that 'No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we'll be in unfamiliar terrain ... That is when we have to perform better than we ever conceived of performing.' While it is interesting as a memoir alone, I highly recommend The Art of Learning to anyone interested in helping children learn more effectively, or in improving their own lifelong learning skills.

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