The Art Of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (Anglais) Broché – 21 juillet 2008
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'This is a really superb book, one I wish someone had given to me a long time ago. The title is accurate - at a profound level, it's about real learning from hard conflict rather than from disinterested textbooks. It will take a ferocious interruption to make you set this book down.' - Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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As the details of his life are unfolding, Waitzkin explains how these principles apply to his own story, creating a narrative that is as inspiring and instructional as it is gripping.
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This is open-minded and deep reflexion of process learning.
In addition, this talk about Josh Waitzkin's life.
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You may recall that Josh Waitzkin was the main character in the best selling book and popular movie, "Searching for Bobby Fischer." As a chess prodigy, he received intense publicity and attention, which wore thin on him as he progressed into his late teens and early 20s. Even though he was a top level chess player, the pace of his progression did not advance to the point where he was challenging Garry Kasparov or anyone else for the world championship. Being under the microscope became tiring, so he shifted his focus into tai chi.
This book is an unusual and difficult one to categorize. It is part autobiography, part chess memoir, part martial arts philosophy. Essentially, Waitzkin offers his own approach to becoming a student and applying certain disciplines and habits toward learning and eventually mastering any skill. Your mileage may vary, but for a 29 year old, Waitzkin's insights seem mature beyond his years. It is almost unfair for a young person to be so accomplished and insightful, and I mean that as a complement.
In many ways, "The Art of Learning" reminded me of "Flow" by Mihaly Csiksentmihaly. Focusing on the task and hand in getting better at it rather than obsessing over results and outcomes can be a liberating experience, paving the way toward learning and eventual mastery.
Whether you are a chess player or martial arts practitioner, "The Art of Learning" is a very effective study in one approach to building your skills in any realm. The book could have benefited from both an index and bullet-point suggestions for the reader, but these are minor quibbles regarding what is an excellent book.
Waitzkin's presentation and description of learning techniques is pretty vague. While I have little doubt that Josh Waitzkin is an accomplished learner, I don't think that he successfully, practically transmits what he knows about learning to the reader. It seems that he has an unusual capacity to learn, and while I don't think that that capacity is necessarily "genetic" or somehow hopelessly unavailable to those not blessed with it from birth or a very early age, I don't think that most people will improve their learning skills very much through Waitzkin's description of techniques that he may understand and be able to apply very easily, but which refer to and rely on processes and perceptions internal to him that can't, or at least aren't in this book, adequately conveyed through the written word. Though I think I may understand what "smaller circles" (one of the learning strategies Waitzkin outlines) means on some level, how to actually apply it to something I'm trying to learn is not clear to me (and the ideas behind it seem fairly cliche, like take one step at a time, you have to walk before you can run, etc.).
Though it could be argued that it's scope is more limited, for a book that provides more concrete methods for improving learning and performance, I'd recommend "The Inner Game of Tennis". I think in that book more people are going to find techniques that they can try out and from which they can make some real progress in learning tennis and in understanding how we learn. It can also be applied to endeavors other than tennis.
Read "The Art of Learning" for its interesting stories and to get a peek into the life and development of an uberachiever, but for a practical guide on improving your learning ability and acquiring new learning skills, look elsewhere.
The first 50 pages of the book begin innocently enough. I was enjoying it quite a bit. Josh tells his story as a child chess-champion and national celebrity. It's a rather charming story, which is probably why they made a movie of it. Waitzkin also lays out a few introductory ideas about learning theory, namely that the idea that intelligence is fixed is a fallacy, and that anyone can learn. Wonderful theme! Worthy of a whole book! But this is the last we hear of learning theory, and the last we hear of how ordinary people are prone to underestimating their ability.
It is clear that Waitzkin did almost no research into learning theory for his book. He references no more than two or three theories and studies. This really shows a great lack of effort in versing oneself in the subject matter one claims to be an expert on. Learning theory is actually a hugely active field in academia. It's been a hot topic for decades among psychologists, and studies are published just about every day in the study of learning. Then there is a whole other more theoretical field of education philosophy: what the aims of learning should be, and what are the best ways to learn and teach. Don't expect any of this kind of discussion from Waitzkin. This book was a marvelous opportunity to popularize and synthesize scholarly work in the field of learning, the conclusions of which are very uplifting in their insistence on human possibility.
But Josh is more interested in mulling over himself. After the story of his childhood ends and he expounds his one basic idea about learning, the rest of the book is all about his tai chi (much less interesting than chess); his armchair dabblings in Taoism, Kerouac, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; and his commonplace tips on competitive psychology. Josh tells us all about his coming of age and transition into manhood. The story loses all its charm here. The book becomes a phallocentric and narcissistic male fantasy. Josh talks about he moves to Slovenia to be with his femme fatale girlfriend, escaping the suffocating fame surrounding him in New York, hiking through the mountains of Balkans thinking about chess and Taoism, being a dharma bum and backpacking through Europe playing chess tournaments, waxing philosophical about being a winner. When I read this portion of the book I got the impression that Waitzkin in his fame is cut off from and doesn't understand the way life is for ordinary people.
You can tell this is the case because the book lacks warmth and compassion. It's not about learning, its about "destroying opponents." Not once does Josh say, "you don't need to be a world-champ to be a somebody." He never says, "whether its gardening or being a great parent that you want to learn, you are a champion in your own right." No -- it's all about how to kill your opponents, how to win fights with a broken arm, and how to stay focused during grueling six-hour struggles. The books devolves into chapter after chapter of banal tips about how to compete, stuff Josh is too self-absorbed to realize is not relevant to any audience other than himself. You hear several times about how he likes to wash his face and do a 100 meter dash to clear his mind during a chess game. Or, how eating greasy food before a tai chi fight is bad. Thanks, Josh. Next time I'm at the World Championship of Awesomeness I will remember that. One whole chapter is about how Josh allegedly conquered this other guy's performance anxiety by having him build up calming associations to Bob Dylan and other things, and recalling these associations right before he was expected to perform. This amounts to nothing more than a dumbed down lesson in Skinnerian classical conditioning (experiments famously conducted on dogs, let's recall). If Josh truly thinks you can attain transcendental focus just by linking it to a proverbial jingle of a bell, then he really has no concept of the depth of human psychology. (On that note, David Foster Wallace once correlated professional sports performers with profoundly simple psychological makeups.) But I don't think Josh actually believes this; he was just trying to fill up pages because he ran out of things to say about learning theory about 150 pages ago.
If I had the opportunity to write a book like this, I would use every word trying to uncondition people from the tragic fallacy that they are static creatures and cannot learn new proficiencies and raise their overall intelligence. In this culture, the cult of the champion is just a reflection of the sad myth of making us all believe we're born-losers and lack the stuff of greatness. So we give up and limit ourselves. Education, media, and scientific institutions all conspire to tell us we cannot change ourselves and our lot in life is perfectly just. Josh doesn't understand any of this because he is the typical champion. His book is about being a winner, with the occasional addition made by his editors about seizing the day "in the boardroom" (ugh). It is therefore an alienating read that is not likely to motivate and instruct ordinary people in growing as individuals. The truth is, you don't need some spoiled narcissist who can't write, like Josh, tell you how to grow. The power lies within.
A person interested in studying learning theory and how to be a more "effective" person ought to, instead, begin by browsing by category "Learning" on Wikipedia and discovering the immense amount of topics in the field.
I have worked in critical care nursing for many years and the intensity can at times be overwhelming. This leads many to burn-out and leave the profession. The insights Josh provides in this book should be an integral part of nursing education. Concepts such as investment in loss, using adversity, and making sandals, are tools I now employ in the workplace challenges I face. I know these ideas could help others whether you are a nurse committed to healing, a business person closing a deal, or a parent raising a child.
Healing is invoking the will to live in others--Josh has done that for me in this work.
Book-learners would probably profit greatly from the application of the principles in this book. I'm not so sure I could say whether other learning modes would benefit directly although I think the principles would still be present in some form or another.
On another level, Josh's book made me think a lot about how I reacted to situations in life where I expected more ethical/moral/considerate/professional/courteous behavior from others. And then I thought more about those times I was the, well-jerk...
Highly recommended for those who love to experience beyond the superficial.