The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

Reading Time: 4 minutes


In becoming a chess and Tai Chi Cuan champion, Josh Waitzkin cultivated a penchant for lifelong growth, excellence, and mastery. Through his personal story, he shares his unique strategy for the art of learning and the pursuit of excellence. You’ll come away with timeless principles that you can integrate into the domains that you care most about.

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Key Takeaways

Excellence and long-term learning

“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.”

If you want to be excellent, you need to maintain a high-degree of curiosity and remain on the steep part of the learning curve. This often means choosing to stretch yourself more than what is comfortable, but the long-run benefits of such an approach can bear lots of tasty fruit.

Incentives influence outcomes

“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”

If you never fail, you aren’t aiming high enough. Without failure and pushing yourself to the limits, you’re unlikely to learn and grow rapidly.

Using adversity as fuel

“If I want to be the best, I have to take risks others would avoid, always optimizing the learning potential of the moment and turning adversity to my advantage. That said, there are times when the body needs to heal, but those are ripe opportunities to deepen the mental, technical, internal side of my game. When aiming for the top, your path requires an engaged, searching mind. You have to make obstacles spur you to creative new angles in the learning process. Let setbacks deepen your resolve. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than when you went down.”

Big setbacks and adversity are often the greatest teachers. These are the moments where you confront the scary pain of life, but have the opportunity to learn from these moments and take yourself to the next level of growth.

Shoot for the stars

“In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.”

Dream and pursue big achievements. You may miss the mark, or you may hit it, but you will learn far more in the process than if you set your eyes on small goals.

Presence and mistakes

“One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error.”

When you make a mistake, it’s important not to lose yourself to the emotional volatility of mistakes. Learning how to remain clear, present, and focused will allow you to learn from those mistakes and grow.

Mastery of the basics

“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.”

Success rarely comes from unique genius. It’s daily grunt work that compounds over time to cultivate mastery of basic skill sets that other people never master. This will be your greatest competitive advantage.

A comparative lens

“The human mind defines things in relation to one another—without light the notion of darkness would be unintelligible”

Humans look at the world through a relative lens. You compare your success to your friends, not to the average. You compare your intelligence to your peers, not to other groups. Looking at everything through a relative lens gives meaning to opposite ends of a spectrum.

Mastery involves integration

“In the end, mastery involves discovering the most resonant information and integrating it so deeply and fully it disappears and allows us to fly free.”

When you master something, you operate at the highest level with ease and grace. While skill development requires hard work, repetition, and patience, mastery is the fluid and harmonious integration of what you’ve learned in your life.

Develop a growth mindset

Instead of living with a disempowering fixed mindset, cultivate a growth mindset. Develop a love for learning. With a growth mindset, crisis and failures become opportunities for you to learn and grow.

Invest in loss

Learning to invest in loss will allow you to put yourself on the line and see what’s on the other side. Sometimes, it’s not good. Other times, it’s what propels your growth.

Dealing with uncomfortable emotions

If you face uncomfortable emotions, lean into them and understand them. Sit and observe them without having them rock the boat. Create a stillness even when the waves get big.

Use your emotions

Use your emotions to sharpen your game. What emotional states fuel your performance? Once you know this, learn to create those emotional states through triggers or routines that put you in the state for creative expression and inspiration. Or learn to be effective in different states you face.

Put someone in the rain

You can learn a lot about a person by observing their reaction to discomfort or disappointment. If they get unusually worked up over little discomforts – rain, waiting in a line, etc. – that tells you a lot about how they might handle larger discomfort or disappointment.

Learn to be present

Being present and clear-minded is essential to learning, writing, and being the best. With presence, you can maximize the creative opportunity of each moment. You have an inner-focus no matter the external environment. You are unstoppable.

Interval training

Instead of always trying to be “on,” learn to take short rests to allow yourself to recharge. Your thinking is often clearer after a period of rest. To learn how to ebb and flow quickly between being “on” and “off,” introduce interval training into your exercise routine. It between sets, you let things go and relax the mind. Then, you get going again. Your new abilities will flow over into your performance outside of the gym as well.

Your inner dialogue

What does your internal dialogue look like? What are the stories and questions you ask yourself? How you speak to yourself and the stories you tell matter. Being aware of these patterns can help you identify the ones that are not serving you.

Meditation as observation

Meditation enables you to realize that most of thinking is noise and reactive. It’s not about calming your mind; it’s about becoming an observer, not a controller of your thoughts. In observing your thoughts, you gain a stronger awareness and understanding of them.


Fearlessness is just people who learn to sit with their fears; you will always have fears and anxieties, so instead of trying to “overcome” them, learn to better relate to them.

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