The Art of Learning, The Heart of Success

October 3, 2007 at 9:38 pm 4 comments

My father-in-law recently sent a book for my husband, which I grabbed first and couldn’t put down. It’s called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.

Waitzkin was the child world chess champion who inspired the lauded early-90’s book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fisher. As a young man, he also became world champion several times over in the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan (related to Tai Chi, which my father-in-law practices religiously). Now 29, Waitzkin writes with the wisdom of one many times his age.

The book was fascinating on many levels, and I highly recommend it (DH can’t put it down now!). Waitzkin writes on the premise that he is “not good at chess, or good at Thai Chi Chuan, but he is good at learning.” Then he painstakingly breaks down his learning processes in becoming world champion in two very different pastimes — and becoming a happier person in spite of his titles, not because of them.

Here are just a few messages that struck me from this book:

1. Understand the true nature of success.

Waitzkin writes in the introduction, “I had won eight national championships and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.” He realized young that fame is “profoundly hollow,” he says. The love of chess he started with began to dissipate the more tournaments he won.

It’s a familiar warning, one we see often — as in lately with poor Britney Spears in her miserable fall from the height of fame. Waitzkin, unlike many young celebrities, though, had the good sense (and good family) to pull back and try to rediscover what made him happy. He understood that it is a deep sense of inner joy that makes one feel successful, and no amount of external praise or rewards can create that. This knowledge led Waitzkin on a mental, physical and spiritual journey that he outlines in the book.

2. Have a certain attitude toward learning.

As a recovering overachiever and a parent, I was particularly interested in Waitzkin’s research on a certain theory of intelligence and learning, which categorizes people as either entity learners or incremental learners. In brief, entity learners see their skill or intelligence level at a given task as a fixed entitity (as in, “I’m good at cooking” or “I’m bad at drawing”). Incremental learners tend to attribute their successes or failures at tasks as attributable to their amount of effort or work, truly believing they can master anything with enough energy put in.

Entity learners tend not to take risks, and tend to get emotionally crushed by any type of defeat. Incremental learners have been found to be much quicker to accept a challenge they may not succeed at, and don’t tend to take defeat as a personal failing. They push themselves farther, and enjoy it more.

Please read Waitzkin’s discussion of this, as I’m not doing it justice, but here is the bottom line: Most of us are entity learners. We don’t risk a lot of tasks we are afraid we may not be good at. We let failures destroy our self-confidence. We don’t truly believe we can do more. And there is another way!

I admit to being an entity learner (witness my first-grade failure story and discussion of overachievers); and my husband, too, finds himself in the description. (He remembers a teacher telling his mother in fifth grade that he wouldn’t try anything he didn’t think he’d be good at. This describes many an overachiever I know!!). It’s like taking the easier class because you know you can get an “A” instead of the class that’s unfamiliar and more challenging.

I’d love to learn to become an incremental learner. Mostly, I’d love to encourage our daugther to be one. It simply opens up a world of joy and possibilities we simply miss out on by saying “I’m bad at ______” or by being afraid to fail.

3. Flow calmly amidst chaos.

Waitzkin has a real Buddhist sensibility, and uses Eastern principles in his training. A key principle for him is understanding that success comes when one allows chaos and change and the unexpected to happen, and works with it, rather than against it. To remain calm and present in every moment.

He describes dirty tricks in both chess and martial arts competitions, designed to get competitors angry or distracted, that often work. (Chess players kicking their opponent under the table; martial arts officials changing the rules for foreign teams at the last minute…)

Then he outlines how he learned to see these dirty tricks for what they are: opportunities for him to dig deeper and concentrate harder. How many of us really see mean people, unfair actions, or major annoyances as opportunities? It’s much easier said than done. But Waitzkin explains in a way I haven’t seen before exactly how he does it.

There is so much more to this book than I’ve written here; it truly got me and DH thinking. I’d say it will do the same for anyone open to it. (And all 27 Amazon reviewers gave it five stars!) Please, if you read it, let me know what you think!

And, in the spirit of the book, I offer you these questions: How much of success do you think is internal, rather than external? Do you think you are an entity learner or an incremental learner? How do you handle the unexpected “dirty tricks” that come your way in life?

Entry filed under: Books, Spirituality, Success/Failure.

Tomorrow is a Working Hypothesis Helen Keller on Success

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Melissa  |  October 4, 2007 at 1:45 am

    You know… I think our temperaments lead us to start out as either entity or incremental types, but that we can choose to learn to be more of the other. Or at least that’s what I hope. I think I’m naturally more of an entity learner who tries to act like an incremental learner. But I’ve noticed that my kids tend one way or the other, regardless of how I frame the situation for them, you know?

    Maybe I should get you to lend me the book!

  • 2. Elrena  |  October 5, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a really good book! Thanks for posting about it, I’ll have to check it out.

    And I tagged you with a meme! It’s here if you want to play:

  • 3. Mrs. Jones  |  October 12, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    The first few weeks of our first homeschool year, I lavished my daughter with “Wow, you are so smart” whenever she did the littlest thing. While that seemed to be a good thing to do, I realized that she became less and less open to learning new concepts. So before throwing in the towel, I decided to do a little reading. I was fortunate enough to come across an article (that I can’t place my hands on right now) about Entity versus Incremental Learning. This is my simple explanation:

    Entity learners are typically told that they are so smart or so good at something (which they come to believe is a natural occurence), while Incremental learners are praised and rewarded for their effort (reinforcing the good-better-best idea). The Entity learner may believe that he is good at science but may not have done so well in writing, so rather than be a “failure” at something, avoids it like the plague. Whereas an Incremental learner knows that trying is the only way to achieve a positive outcome, so will attack an unknown with effort until a positive outcome is achieved.

    Now instead of my daughter being praised for being smart, we tell her how great it is that she is trying so hard. When she aces an assessment, she gets the BIG high-fives to give her the desire to try for more of those “wins.”

  • 4. Megan  |  October 15, 2007 at 1:48 am

    Do you read Alfie Kohn, Mrs. Jones? And I bet you’d like the Po Bronson article under “Resources” on this blog. As always, thanks for commenting!


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To spark conversation about redefining success (as individuals, families and institutions) and to counter "never enough" messages currently circulating in our culture.

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Megan Pincus Kajitani: Writer, Editor, Former Academic Overachiever and Career Counselor, Mom, Wife, Feminist, Gen Xer, Californian who believes that change is possible View Megan Pincus Kajitani's profile on LinkedIn

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