Perhaps no single game has been associated with pure intelligence more than chess. Not checkers. Not video games. Not counting cards at blackjack. Not outsmarting bookies at Canada’s top betting sites for sports.
Why’s that? Well, when we think of the intellect from a traditional standpoint, chess features every element of it. Memory? Check. Pattern recognition? Double check. Forward-thinking decision making? Yes and that’s a clean sweep.
Players that reach the highest ranking — dubbed grandmaster — are almost always called geniuses. It’s an association that’s not common with the top players of many other games. What can we learn from these genius-level grandmasters?
Well, a lot. One player named Josh Waitzkin has been very open about his process for learning — not just chess, but anything and everything. He’s written books and made the rounds on podcasts to distill what it takes to be a genius in any subject. We’ve summarized many of this talking points below for your one-stop convenience:
The Art Of Learning
Waitzkin’s magnum opus is his 2007 book, The Art Of Learning. It’s half a biography about his rise in the chess world at a very early age and also half a self-help book for learners that’s chock full of insights. Here’s a brilliant two-sentence summary of Waitzkin’s outlook on genius-level skills:
“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”
This runs counter to conventional wisdom that eschews some people as being born geniuses fresh out of the womb. In fact, that term is a bit of a slight to Waitzkin, as if his outlier success is innate and not the product of hard, long, and meticulous work.
Waitzkin is a giant believer of growth mindsets, not fixed ones. And as the aforementioned quote says, growth doesn’t just happen. No, it needs to be sought out through challenges and adversity — which comes at the cost of comfort.
Not All Practice Is Created Equal
Alright, we’ve already said it takes work to reach mastery in any field. However, the work needs to be purposeful. In the study of intelligence, this is called “deliberate practice.”
The term was coined by Anders Ericsson, a pioneer in the study of intelligence. He’s the researcher that Malcolm Gladwell borrowed from for his 10,000 hours hypothesis — the required amount of practice time it takes to become a master at something (though, Gladwell’s interpretation of Ericsson’s work is slightly faulty).
Anyway, what makes deliberate practice actually “deliberate” isn’t just the time poured into it. No, it’s the thinking about thinking. One has to completely absorb themselves in the material being learned down to every last nook and cranny.
Waitzkin has a brilliant quote about this delibertness when learning: “sometimes the study would take six hours in one sitting, sometimes thirty hours over a week. I felt like I was living, breathing, sleeping in that maze, and then, as if from nowhere, all the complications dissolved and I understood.”
Don’t Just Work, Relax Too
Thus far, we’ve spent the majority of the article stressing long and hard work. However, the opposite of that — deep relaxation and rest — is also necessary to achieving mastery.
Waitzkin drew this insight from spending time at the Human Performance Institute. Located in Orlando, the institute has studied high-achieving athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in the past. During these studies, researchers figured out outlier performers did in fact have an “off” switch. MJ-level athletes WERE able to completely relax in the moments of inactivity away from playing.
At this same institute, Waitzkin learned the importance of routines, both to ramp up activity and tone it down. There’s something about getting into a routine that allows the mind to slip into the “right” frame of mind. This manifests in early wake-up times or certain working locations which can “trigger” intended mind sets.
The Art Of Learning is a book about meta learning. What we covered is just a snippet of what’s included, but as the world continues to change at break-neck speed, “learning about learning” isn’t a bad idea — especially from a developed-genius like Waitzkin.