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Learning about Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin

Posted Jan 21 2009 12:00am

In 1993, Paramount Pictures released Searching for Bobby Fischer, which depicts Joshua Waitzkin’s early chess success as he embarks on a journey to win his first National chessJoshua Waitzkin championship. This movie had the effect of weakening his love for the game as well as the learning process. His passion for learning was rejuvenated, however, after years of meditation, and reading philosophy and psychology. With this rekindling of the learning process, Waitzkin took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan at the age of 21 and made rapid progress, winning the 2004 push hands world championship at the age of 27.

After reading Joshua’s most recent book The Art of Learning, I thought of a million topics The Art of LearningI wanted to discuss with him–topics such as being labelled a “child prodigy”, blooming, creativity, and the learning process. Thankfully, since I was profiling Waitzkin for an article I was fortunate enough to get a chance to have such a conversation with him. I hope you find this discussion just as provocative and illuminating as I did.

The Child Prodigy

S. Why did you leave chess at the top of your game?

J. This is a complicated question that I wrote about very openly in my book. In short, I had lost the love. My relationship to the game had become externalized-by pressures from the film about my life, by losing touch with my natural voice as an artist, by mistakes I made in the growth process. At the very core of my relationship to learning is the idea that we should be as organic as possible. We need to cultivate a deeply refined introspective sense, and build our relationship to learning around our nuance of character. I stopped doing this and fell into crisis from a sense of alienation from an art I had loved so deeply. This is when I left chess behind, started meditating, studying philosophy and psychology, and ultimately moved towards Tai Chi Chuan.

S. Do you think being a child prodigy hurt your chess career in any way?

J. I have never considered myself a prodigy. Others have used that term, but I never bought in to it. From a young age it was always about embracing the battle, loving the game, and overcoming adversity. Growing up as

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