the art of learning book summary

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Summarized by Vishal Kataria

The Book in One Paragraph

Learning is a means to an end, but it’s also an end in itself. The ability to learn how to do new things is better than being good at something. In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, the multiple-time National chess Champion and World Championship at Tai Chi Chuan, breaks down his learning process. He reveals the inner workings of his methods, from systematically triggering intuitive breakthroughs, to building resilience, to mastering the art of performance psychology.

The Art of Learning Book Summary

This is my book summary of The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. It’s a collection of quotes, key takeaways, and lessons from the book.

  • “Things and self are governed by the same principle. If you understand one, you understand the other.” — Er Chung Yishu

  • Pure concentration will stop thoughts or false constructions from impeding one’s awareness.

  • A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. Eventually, the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived.

  • If you want to write an instructional book for beginners in any field, you have to dig up stuff that is buried in your unconscious.

  • If a teacher wants to bring out the best in a student, the balance lies in teaching students to be more disciplined without dampening their love for a subject or suppressing their natural voice. Many teachers have no feel for this balance and try to force students into cookie-cutter modes. Such methods are profoundly destructive for students in the long run.

  • Being unhindered by internal conflict is fundamental to the learning process.

  • Confidence is critical for a great competitor, but overconfidence is brittle. We are too smart for ourselves in such moments… When things start to go out of control, there is little resilience to fall back on.

  • Children who are learning theorists, or who have the growth mindset, often describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” Such children tend to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped. Step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

  • The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not live in a shell of static, safe, mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

  • Someone stuck with a fixed mindset — one that believes intelligence is fixed from birth — succumbs to the entity theory of intelligence. He uses terms like, “I’m smart at this” to describe his success or failure. Such a person is like an anorexic hermit crab, starving itself so it doesn’t grow to have to find a new shell.

  • Just as muscles get stronger when they’re pushed, good competitors tend to rise to the level of the opposition.

  • Short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting.

  • The state of your concentration when you’re focused on something—a piece of music, a work project, or driving—dictates how you will react to interruptions or distractions. If you’re tense with your whole body straining to fight the interruption, you’re in the Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. You’re brittle like a dry twig and can snap under pressure. But when you’re quietly, intensely focused, apparently relaxed but the mental juices are flowing inside, you’re in the Soft Zone. You’re resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds.

  • A  man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options—one is to pave his own road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is an internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it doesn’t base success on a submissive world or an overpowering force. Rather, it depends on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.

  • Three critical steps for a resilient performer to adapt better to chaotic situations are:

    • Learning to be at peace with imperfection.
    • Learning to use that imperfection to one’s advantage.
    • Creating ripples in one’s consciousness to keep inspiring oneself even when external conditions feel dull or discouraging.


  • Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously.

  • When we’re present with what is, we are in sync with time and events. But when we make a mistake or get frozen in what was, we stop while time moves ahead. Suddenly, we’re living or going through the motions with our eyes closed in memory. If we’re not careful, an external factor can derail us and cause terrible damage.

  • If you want to become a conscious high performer, it’s important to keep the relationship to your pursuit in harmony with who you truly are. If your natural voice is taken away, you’re left without a center of gravity. You struggle to balance yourself when your face countless obstacles along the way.

  • A large obstacle to our calm, healthy, present-moment living is the constant interruption of our breathing. Distractions interrupt our breathing and make it shallow. Being mindful about taking deep breaths daily alone can reduce stress and anxiety substantially.

  • One of the most challenging leaps in the learning process is to release the ego, to allow yourself to fail or be tossed around while you learn how not to resist. When resistance reduces, you become open to learning.

  • Minimize repetition of mistakes as much as possible by having an eye for consistent psychological and technical themes of error.

  • To be the best, you have to take risks others often avoid, keep optimizing your learning potential, and turn adversity into advantage. You should always come off an injury or a loss better than you were when you went down.

About The Author

Vishal Kataria is a writer and podcaster who shares lessons he has learned about productivity, learning new skills, and self-improvement.

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