Learning How to Learn

Josh Waitzkin was a Chess National Champion by 17 years old. He then went on to become a two-time world champion in Tai Chi push hands. And for the past few years, he has been living in an undisclosed location in Latin America working to become the world's best Foiler (P.S. this is so cool and I will learn how to do this), while at the same time coaching the best hedge fund managers & athletes in the world.

How can someone perform at such a high level in these wildly different areas? The answer is the most important meta-skill that anyone can have today: Josh has mastered the Art of Learning. He has learned how to learn.

Why is learning how to learn so important? We live in the modern age of software, technology, automation, and increased information. Information is accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a laptop. Up to 800 Million jobs may be automated or replaced in the next 9 years. And do not think your job is so "elite" that it won't happen to you. It’s the financial analysts, the doctors, the lawyers … and even, the writers. Because of this we will need to learn new skills at a faster pace. The people who don’t know how to learn these skills quickly, will be replaced by motivated, ambitious, and systematic learners.

Luckily, there is a process for learning how to learn. Josh breaks it down into the following areas:

  • The Soft Zone
  • Building Your Trigger
  • Making Smaller Circles
  • Your Unique Disposition

Some of this is paraphrased or taken directly from Josh's own writing. I'll go into each of these below.

The Soft Zone

The Soft Zone is how you imagine the mental calmness and flow state of Lebron in the NBA Finals of Game 7, Yo-Yo Ma playing in front of thousands of people at Madison Square Garden, or Tiger Woods as he sinks a winning put on the 18th hole at Augusta National. You want to get into the Soft Zone.

"Envision the Soft Zone as your performance state. You are concentrated on the task at hand, whether it be a piece of music, a legal brief, a financial document, anything. Then something happens. Maybe your spouse comes home, your baby wakes up and starts screaming, your boss calls you with an unreasonable demand, a truck has a blowout in front of you. The nature of your state of concentration will determine the first phase of your reaction — if you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are in a Hard Zone that demands a cooperative world for you to function. Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure. The alternative is for you to be quietly and intensely focused. Apparently relaxed with a serene look on your face, but inside all the mental juice are churning. You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is 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 road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligence preparation and cultivated resilience."

Achieving the Soft Zone will allow you be more efficient with your learning process, but also give you the ability to truly internalize all that you learn. Consider it your flow state. It’s the feeling that you can move swiftly, concentrate on the task at hand, and be in a state where nothing can bother you. In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, and cool under fire is what separates the best from the average.

So how do you get in the Soft Zone? For many, this is tough because our environments are cluttered with distractions. Similar to the story of the man who Made Sandals, you must prepare and cultivate a trigger to get into your Soft Zone.

Building Your Trigger

It is important to avoid focusing on those rare climactic moments of high-stakes competitive mayhem. To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. Josh’s method is to work backwards and create the trigger. He has observed that virtually all people have one or two activities that move them in a manner where they feel closest to serene focus in their life, but they usually just dismiss those moments as "taking a break.” If only they knew how valuable their breaks could be! It doesn’t matter what your serene activity is. Whether you feel most relaxed and focused while taking a bath, jogging, swimming, listening to classical music, or singing in the shower, any such activity can work.

The next step was to create a four or five-step routine. If there is nothing in your life that feels serene, then start with meditation. The point of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes. Once the routine is internalized, it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge. The next step of the process is to gradually alter the routine so that it is similar enough to have the same physiological effect, but slightly different so as to make the “trigger” both lower-maintenance and more flexible. The key is to make the changes incrementally, slowly, so there is more similarity than difference from the last version of the routine. This way the body and mind have the same physiological reaction even if the preparation is slightly shorter.

Josh did this himself when creating his trigger. As he progressed, he did a little less than the whole form, then 3/4 of it, 1/2, 1/4. Over the course of many months, utilizing the incremental approach of small changes, he trained himself to be completely prepared after a deep inhalation and release. He also learned to do the form in his mind without moving at all. The visualization proved almost as powerful as the real thing. You internalize this exercise so it becomes natural to you. The advantages of condensing your practice extend far beyond the professional or competitive arenas. If you are driving your car, crossing the street, or doing any other mundane activity, and are suddenly confronted by a potentially dangerous situation, if you are trained to perform optimally on a moment’s notice, then you may emerge unscathed from some hair-raising situations. But far more critical than these rare climactic explosions is that this practice can do wonders to raise our quality of life. Once a simple inhalation can trigger a state of tremendous alertness, our moment-to-moment awareness becomes blissful, like that of someone half-blind who puts on glasses for the first time. We see more as we walk down the street. The everyday becomes exquisitely beautiful. The notion of boredom becomes alien and absurd as we naturally soak in the lovely subtleties of the “banal.”

In order to perform, follow these steps: First, cultivate The Soft Zone, sit with our emotions, observe them, work with them, learn how to let them float way if they are rocking our boat, and how to use them when they are fueling our creativity. Then we turn our weaknesses into strengths until there is no denial of our natural eruptions and nerves sharpen our game, fear alerts us, anger funnels into focus. Next we discover what emotional states trigger our greatest performances. This is truly a personal question. Some of us will be most creative when ebullient, others when morose. Discover what states work best for you and build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.

Make Smaller Circles

The concept of Make Smaller Circles, means you are focusing on depth over breadth. The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the micro tick. Our challenge is that we live in a culture of distractions. We are overloaded with more information then we can handle. We are constantly stimulated by television, cell phones, iPads, and the internet. The constant supply of inputs results in a constant need for stimulus. When there is nothing to stimulate us, we get bored, because we’re always seeking some form of entertainment.

During Josh’s Tai Chi training, there were times where he would spend time only focused on small movements. For example, he would spend hours moving his hand out a few inches, then releasing it back, energizing outwards, connecting his feet to his fingertips with less and less obstruction. By practicing his this way, he was able to sharpen his feeling for Tai Chi. As he continued to refine this extremely small movement, he had improved the feeling, which would translate onto other parts of the form, and suddenly everything would begin to flow at a higher level. The key was to recognize the principles making one simple technique tick were the same fundamentals that fueled the whole expansive system of Tai Chi.

When there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.

Your Unique Disposition

I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be a time when we need to try new ideas and release our current knowledge to take in new information — but it’s critical to integrate this new info in a manner that doesn’t violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.

Robert Greene, also discusses this in Mastery, when he talks about your Life’s Task. Your Life’s Task is extremely personal and unique to you. It’s what you cared about before any social pressures guided you to conform. A few questions to identify your Life’s Task are:

  • What is something that feels like play to you but work to others?
  • What is something that you seem to excel at very easily?
  • Is there an area where you seem to have an unfair advantage?
  • What were you interested in before social pressures made you conform to something “normal”?

Staying unique to yourself while you pursue and implement excellence in your craft is what separates greatness from mediocrity.

Learn how to Learn

Josh has done a great job at reducing the amount of "inputs" in his environment. He has no social media and it seems that he has created a very deliberate environment void of distractions. Imagine how much of an advantage it can be to effectively "mute the world" which gives you the ability to have laser focus on your personal mission. With this environment and a focus on the inputs above, he has built the perfect system for learning how to learn.

So how can you do this? Start with a 3-month project. What is a skill that would be helpful for growing your business or career? Maybe it's copywriting. Start with that. And use this framework to begin learning.