How to Learn and Master Any Skill (part 2)

When you’re acquiring and developing a new skill, you need to learn how to learn. Learning is a meta-skill for life and for sustaining peak performance. This continuation of a two-parts episode builds on the foundation principles covered in Episode 36.

Do you resist learning outside of your element?
Are you presuming answers without really understanding the problem?
Do you love to learn many things fast, but often skip over the fundamentals?

This is Episode 37: How to Learn and Master Any Skill (part 2)

Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your host and productivity coach.

When you’re acquiring and developing a new skill, you need to learn how to learn. Learning is a meta-skill for life and for sustaining peak performance.

In episode 36, I discussed four key takeaways from Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning. He rose to the top of the chess world when he was under age 18, and then became a national master and international master in Tai Chi Push Hands.

In this continuation episode, I’ll review 7 more key takeaways from The Art of Learning. As I go through them, I will start at 5 instead of 1. If you haven’t already checked out part 1, of How to Learn and Master Any Skill, I encourage you do so for foundation principles and more context.

Here are the additional takeaways to apply in the learning process:

#5: Keep a beginner’s mind. In 1850, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “I begin to see such an object when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this.”

Be willing to make mistakes. Stay open to information and learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. Probe the details and practice the new skills to get to the next level.

After losing the Under 18 World Chess Championship in 1994, Josh Waitzkin began to take on a more introspective approach to chess. He was learning to experience deep joy in mundane daily life. He studied meditation at a Shambhala Center in Manhattan. When he went to live in Slovenia, he discovered the Tao Te Ching and Taoist philosophy. It helped him distinguish between what is important and what we are told is important. In 1998, after he had returned to the United States, he joined William C.C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan studio. He began to learn the practice of Tai Chi, which is rooted in Taoist philosophy. The focus was on being, not winning.

The core message of his teacher was if I can do it, you can do it. Chen reminded Josh of his Yoda-like Russian chess teacher who encouraged him to use his natural dynamic, attacking style, instead of try to play defensive, prophylactic moves. When Master Chen invited him to begin Push Hands practice in 1999, it opened a new chapter in his life. He was a beginner, relaxing into obstructions, and engaging in playful obliviousness. In skill development, keep a beginner’s mind. Be like the child learning to crawl who is not concerned about how she looks or about whether she’s succeeding or failing.

#6 Invest in loss. This means giving yourself to the learning process. This involves the willingness to lose and the willingness to fail. Only then can you master the skills to win and succeed. Make loss or failure an opportunity come back stronger from setbacks. There is no absolute perfection or guaranteed duplication.

When Josh began his first Push Hands class, he stepped into a more martial environment involving partner interaction. The basic aim of Push Hands is to unbalance your opponent through subtle moves, nonresistance, and being soft and receptive. You’re letting yourself be pushed without resorting to old habits of tightening up and reacting with aggression.

Josh tells the story of how he used to spar with the powerhouse of the school. Let’s call him Evans. He would get beat by Evans, but one day the tables turned. He threw him to the floor twice and just kept doing it. Evans complained his foot was bothering him and called it a night. He would never work with Josh again. Evans lost the opportunity to raise his game and learn the subtle elements of the practice.

Play and compete against others who are better than you. This is a tremendous growth opportunity. But improvement is a balancing act. You should not only work with those who are more skilled than you, but also with those who are just as or less skilled. That way, you’re not completely demoralized by losses.
Any real challenge will lead to mistakes. When you’re expected to perform, it’s hard to stay open to learning. If you want to be great or among the best, you will need to be gentle on yourself when you’re not in peak performance state.

A process-first philosophy or incremental approach does not mean you make excuses for not putting yourself on the line, to not care about the outcomes. Josh writes, it’s not about whether the child should never win or lose, but that he does not fixate on the results. You can use short term goals as a development tool when it’s balanced with long term commitment and rooted in a long-term process. Enjoy and celebrate the win. Learn from losses. Wins and losses are transient. Celebrate and mourn fully, and then move on.

When Josh lost the under 18 world chess championship, he spent 10 hours studying his mistakes. He learned that his knight was defending his king mid game. If he had pulled his knight away from the king, he could have used his opponent’s aggression to counteract and beat him. He later applied this lesson in tai chi by opening himself to attack. He took advantage of his opponent’s aggression and won the world championship in push hands.

#7: Make smaller circles. Depth over breath; focus on the micro to understand the macro. Peak performance usually comes from mastering a basic skillset, instead of applying a unique technique. You integrate the lessons into your subconscious so you can draw from them automatically without conscious thought.

There is attention deficit due to entertainment and information consumption. You have the TV, internet, smart phones, video games and other stimuli to avoid boredom and increase distraction. Josh writes, “If caught in these rhythms, we are like the tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below.” Distractions have a negative effect on the learning process.

Depth over breadth is one reason I re-read books and make my own notes from what I read. These notes become part of the concepts I use in podcasts, presentations, productivity coaching and my own life. I build on and integrate concepts to make my own personal systems and philosophies. As I discuss in episode 17, I do smart note taking to increase understanding and in, turn, productivity. For me, speed reading or listening to podcasts and audio books at 1½ or 2 x times normal speed doesn’t cut it. Quality over quantity.

Getting real world, practical experience is one way to learn. But you still need to start with the basics and then move on to the complex. Drill with purpose. Master the fundamental principles that connect things within a discipline. Mastery leads to the flow state, where you’re operating at a high level with little struggle. Focus on a single technique or concept and feel the essence of it. Tactics come later once you understand the fundamentals.

Josh calls this “numbers to leave numbers,” or “form to leave form”. You study and practice technical information repetitively and consciously, to the point where it is integrated into your natural, unconscious intelligence.

Experts learn to make their subject of expertise a part of their subconscious, automatic thinking. They sometimes don’t realize that novices are unaware of the fundamentals. Even with experiments and projects designed to gain practical experience, you still need to know the basics through drilling and repetition.

You can play piano without learning music theory, but the most skilled are usually masters of the fundamentals. Theory helps you to understand your mistakes and how to correct them. Theory facilitates mastery of the notes you play (pitch, scales, chords and melody), how you play them (rhythm, timbre, dynamics, articulation and expression) and how the notes interact (harmony and texture). Only exceptional musicians like Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCarthy can rise to the top without really knowing music theory.

You can’t just boost your motivation to develop a skill. You first have to learn and understand basic concepts. Build a strong foundation before you add layers. Focus on one thing, practice consistently, and when it feels natural, you add more complexity.

If you want to be a figure skater, you first master the fundamentals: glide, turn, skate backward, relaxing and feeling the movement. You don’t start with the triple axil. Take smaller steps and condense larger circles into smaller ones. You learn to do each critical thing properly until it becomes part of who you are.

Internalizing and refining key skills are more important than the quantity of what you learn. Josh won his first push hands national championship after just 2 years of study because he mastered a few essential moves. He would learn 1 punch and drill it over and over. He would refine the body mechanics and sharpen his sense of how a move felt when he was in deep relaxation. Many others knew more about Tai Chi, but he was very good at what he did know.

#8: Use adversity. In episode 36, I talked about cultivating soft zones – accept imperfect situations, take advantage of them, and work on your mindset so you stay inspired regardless of the external circumstances. Change internally to adapt to an uncontrollable environment.

Josh once broke his right hand, his dominant hand, in tai chi training. In 7 weeks, he would defend his title as Ti Chi Chuan Push Hands Middleweight US champion. His doctor told him the bone would fully heal in 6 weeks, but his arm would atrophy due to lack of movement from the elbow down. Still, he would go on to win the Nationals.

Instead of taking time off, he trained with his weaker side, the left arm only. His left side learned new skills. The non-dominant arm learned to do the work of both arms. He visualized energy flowing through the broken arm in a cast. He used the injury to work on the mental aspects of tai chi.

Even when your body needs to rest and heal, you can still work on the internal, nonphysical parts of your area of focus. A setback can get you out of creative ruts and inspire you to move to the next level.

#9: Slow down time. Your intuitive edge allows you to connect the unconscious and the conscious mind. With chunking, you collect and study ideas under one big idea. Because working memory is limited, you assimilate large amounts of information into clusters connected by patterns or principles in the discipline. You create neural pathways, chunks, and navigation systems between the chunks.

Chess masters look at less on the board, but see quite a lot. Chunks help them see more with less conscious thought. If you can find a consistent strain among different parts of information, you can access it more efficiently as a single piece of data.

When learning chess, you need to understand how each piece moves and their values. There’s the pawn, the knight, the bishop, the rook, the queen and the king. Josh says you start with an empty board with just a king and pawn. Then learn about bishops in isolation, then knights, rooks and queens. When the network is forming, he can see all the pieces at once when he looks at a chess position. He can process more information and see the whole board. He understands the value of the pieces in relationship to each other. In sum, learning becomes unlearning. You learn to embrace paradox and relax with tension of competing truths.

#10: Be fully present. The ability to stay present separates the best from the mediocre in every discipline. You make peace with pressure and increase your tolerance for discomfort. Being attentive to the learning process itself gives you greater clarity in high stakes moments. With steady practice, presence becomes natural like breathing.

To achieve flow, you first have to struggle. Growth occurs when you move beyond resistance and current abilities. You load the prefrontal cortex of your brain with new information, knowledge and skills. You build skills slowly for the brain to start working automatically.

You will start to feel frustration when you begin to move out of your comfort zone. This is important for growth, but you also have to find the sweet spot in the challenge-skills ratio. Keep mini goals and incremental milestones for instant feedback.

You then release, relax and let go. In the incubation period, you noodle on a project, and create space to think. You can engage in low intensity activity, like drawing, sketching, reading, walking, hiking, stretching, gardening and driving your car.

#11: Get in the zone. When you get into a focus and flow state, it can be hard to break out of it. Over time though, you start to run out of steam. There’s a fear of losing focus and momentum, so you try to keep going without a break. But to excel in any field, you must use the stress-recovery effect. Modulate between physical and mental activity, tension and release, stress and recovery.

When he was in junior chess championships, Josh and his dad would go outside and play catch or he would nap between rounds. Meanwhile, other kids were tiring themselves out by analyzing rounds and going over lessons with their coaches.

As he got older and began playing in tournaments, he put more effort into concentrating. In long tournaments, he would get exhausted from focusing intensely for too long in a chess game. He would do well in the first rounds and then falter in the later rounds. He was also carrying an extra load – the baggage that came with the release of the film on his life, Searching for Bobby Fischer.

In 1996, he began working on his performance skills at a training center for elite athletes, then called LGE, and now named the Human Performance Institute. While there, he was asked by sports psychologist Dave Striegel as to whether the quality of a chess thought process was higher if it was preceded by a period of relaxation. He reviewed his notes and found that when he played well, he had short, bursts of clear thought. And when he played badly, he had long thinks lasting over 20 minutes.

He later learned about the concept of Stress and Recovery from Dave and the institute’s co-founder and performance psychologist, Jim Loehr. They had found that the best athletes are able to relax in short moments of inactivity. Following every point, win or lose, tennis greats like Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras would mindfully pick at their rackets. Other players would fume when they lost or pump their fist when they won a point.

Instead of concentrating every moment of a chess game, Josh began to release tension while his opponent thought of the next move. He would think about the position more abstractly. Or walk away from the board and drink water or wash his face.

Interval training is key to sustaining momentum and performing at your peak over the long run. Without deep recovery after high stress, you will not thrive under pressure. When you find yourself hitting a mental block, renew your energy by getting a real break. Go outside. Take a walk. Mind wander. Do jumping jacks. Sip tea. Meditate on your breath. Interval work builds resilience in tough situations.

Flow occurs when you add challenges incrementally and deliberately. You have enough skills to meet the challenge without being deflated. As you’re expanding your comfort zone, you take on risk, add novelty and uncertainty, but not too much, too fast.

To reach a state of flow, you block distractions and interruptions. You maintain a soft zone. You build energy through proper nutrition, active recovery, movement and sleep. Check out episode 5, Finding and Sustaining Flow, for more.

Make your best performance your baseline. What did you do to make your peak experience extraordinary? Review your actions so it becomes your new baseline. And when you push yourself, don’t push so hard that you melt down.

One of the things I like about The Art of Learning is that it advocates an incremental approach in the learning process. Learning and being productive are connected to sustaining a meaningful life. This book was published several years ago in 2008. But I discovered it just a few weeks ago when I decided to do a podcast episode on skill development. The running theme of being an incrementalist inspired two-part episodes on how to learn and master a skill.

Learning, developing and mastering a skill requires practice. Even if you have the best teachers or resources, you still have to do the work. Don’t wait for inspiration or motivation to spark action.

Lack of time is not the real problem. You make the time. You make the thing a priority. You choose the start date and set the time block for when you will do the thing, no matter how bored, anxious or frustrated you might be. The time block could be as little as 5 to 25 minutes. But if you keep practicing, you will strengthen your focus muscle and move into a flow state. These are some of the principles I discuss in my book The Incrementalist, which is now on

The most effective way to tackle any big project – including learning a new skill - is to break it down into small chunks and take one step at a time. Sign up to my e-newsletter at to learn when my online course, the Busyness Trap, becomes available. It will cover key habits for navigating the peaks and valleys on the path of mastery and meaningful productivity.

You will experience the richness of life only if you appreciate the simple day to day, and stay present in the moment. Incremental growth is a stable, universal principle in the art of learning and mastery.
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