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The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence Hardcover – May 8, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 400 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Waitzkin's name may sound familiar—back in 1993, his father wrote about Josh's early years as a chess prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Now 31, Waitzkin revisits that story from his own perspective and reveals how the fame that followed the movie based on his father's book became one of several obstacles to his further development as a chess master. He turned to tai chi to learn how to relax and feel comfortable in his body, but then his instructor suggested a more competitive form of the discipline called "push hands." Once again, he proved a quick study, and has earned more than a dozen championships in tournament play. Using examples from both his chess and martial arts backgrounds, Waitzkin draws out a series of principles for improving performance in any field. Chapter headings like "Making Smaller Circles" have a kung fu flair, but the themes are elaborated in a practical manner that enhances their universality. Waitzkin's engaging voice and his openness about the limitations he recognized within himself make him a welcome teacher. The concept of incremental progress through diligent practice of the fundamentals isn't new, but Waitzkin certainly gives it a fresh spin. (May 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Waitzkin, a champion in chess and martial arts, brings enthusiasm and obvious love of learning to this amazing look at what he aptly describes as the art of learning. He begins by recounting his own quirky journey. At the age of six, Waitzkin learned chess from a motley crew of street hustlers, gamblers, junkies, and artists. Since then, he has been among the highest-ranked chess players. He recounts the distractions of adolescence as well as fame after the publication of his father's book and, later, the film based on it, Searching for Bobby Fischer. He later discovered that chess principles could be applied to learning tai chi. In fact, he found a respect for artistry, meditation, and philosophical devotion within both chess and martial arts and realized the possibility for broader application to learning in general. Waitzkin integrates his personal experiences in mastering chess and tai chi with research on psychology and learning techniques to offer a vibrant and engaging look at the love of learning and the pursuit of excellence. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743277457
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743277457
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (400 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #279,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin Quinley on August 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Josh Waitzkin transformed himself from a warrior of the mind into a top-level tai chi martial arts practitioner. This is somewhat an unusual, as many/most chess players (with a few exceptions) appear to be pallid who would get sand kicked in their faces at the beach. (Too much library and study time, perhaps.)

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.
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Format: Paperback
The Art of Learning as an autobiographical story makes for good reading. However, the book introduces itself, and seems to be marketed, as a practical guide for people interested in improving their own learning skills. I question how well the majority of people will be able to make much use of the book in that way.

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".
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Art of Learning is not about learning. At least a couple reviewers said it ought to be retitled, "The Art of Josh." This is a pretty good idea. But a perhaps even more accurate title would be, "Some Basic Truisms about Sports Psychology."

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.
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