“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance” – Josh Waitzkin. Child chess prodigy, Waitzkin, first shot to prominence as the subject matter for the 90’s film, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”. After achieving world class status as a chess player, Waitzkin went on to become international champion many times over in the competitive martial art of Tai Chi Chuan. “It’s not chess or Tai-Chi that I’m good at”, relates Waitzkin. “It’s learning.” Drawing on his own experiences and examples of other high performers, he outlines a heuristic for the mental, physical and spiritual principles needed to create a mindset for peak performance. This framework of principles, Waitzkin argues, is applicable to any endeavour whether physical or intellectual. A simple review and one reading can’t do this book justice as there’s so much value contained within. Recommended for anyone wanting to raise their own level of performance or teach others the same principles. 5/5
Favourite Quotes – “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.” “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires. The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than t
“Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously…I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable.”
“Imagine” – Jonah Lehrer – Although this is one of my favourite books on the topic of creativity, the author was soon discredited after its release due to some fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. All copies of the book were subsequently withdrawn from sale. Nevertheless, this is still a fascinating read. Often thought to be a mysterious and elusive talent reserved for the privileged few, Lehrer describes how individuals, organisations and schools can optimise the conditions and environment to harness their own latent creativity. Because of the aforementioned fabrications, Lehrer’s credibility and reputation as a writer and journalist have been destroyed, but I don’t think the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater by dismissing the central thesis and overall importance of this book. 5/5
Favourite Quotes – Too many. The books is like one giant quote, but here are some faves.
“In one study, researchers compared the mental development of four-year-olds enrolled in a preschool that emphasized unstructured play with those in a more typical preschool in which kids were taught phonetics and counting skills. After a year in the classroom, the students in the play-based school scored better on a variety of crucial cognitive skills, including self-control, the allocation of attention, and working memory. (All of these skills have been consistently linked to academic and real-world achievement.) According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious — kids are most focused when they’re having fun. In fact, the results from the controlled study were so compelling that the experiment was halted early — it seemed unethical to keep kids in the typical preschool when the play curriculum was so much more effective.”
“According to the psychologists, the different reactions were caused by the act of teaching. When students are given explicit instructions, when they are told what they need to know, they become less likely to explore on their own. Curiosity is a fragile thing. That’s why the best schools ensure that unstructured play —what happens when the child creates and explores on his or her own — is an essential part of the classroom experience.”
“But amphetamines do more than focus the attention. They also make it easier to connect ideas, to translate concentration into better poetry. That’s because the prefrontal cortex — that area in charge of attention — is also a theater of ideas, a mental space to store all of our pleasurable and interesting thoughts.”
“It doesn’t matter if people are playing jazz or writing poetry — if they want to be successful, they need to learn how to persist and persevere, how to keep on working until the work is done. Woody Allen famously declared that “eighty percent of success is showing up.” NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts) teaches kids how to show up again and again.”
“The vocational approach at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts) helps build grit in students. It teaches them how to be single-minded in pursuit of a goal, to sacrifice for the sake of a passion. The teachers demand hard work from their kids because they know, from personal experience, that creative success requires nothing less.
“There is something scary about letting ourselves go. It means that we will screw up, that we will relinquish the possibility of perfection. It means that we will say things we didn’t mean to say and express feelings we can’t explain. It means that we will be onstage and not have complete control, that we won’t know what we’re going to play until we begin, until the bow is drawn across the strings. While this spontaneous method might be frightening, it’s also an extremely valuable source of creativity…the lesson about letting go is that we contain our own creativity. We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all.”
“We need to be willing to risk embarrassment, ask silly questions, surround ourselves with people who don’t know what we’re talking about. We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise.”
“The Shallows” – Nicholas Carr – With a computer in every pocket and a wealth of information at our fingertips, it’s counter-intuitive to think that we’re actually becoming less intelligent due to our ubiquitous use of computers and the internet. With research emerging on the neuroplasticity of the brain, scientists are realising that our surfing habits are literally changing the way we read and think. The shallow consumption of byte sized chunks of information is resulting in fractured attention spans, impoverished memories and an inability to synthesise and evaluate information with any critical thought. Carr’s historical treatment of the evolution of information technology over the ages is fascinating and shows that with each advancement something is gained and something is lost. Definitely in my top 5 reads for this year. Important read for teachers dealing with the ever-demanding digital generation. 5/5
Favourite quotes – “It is the very fact that book reading under stimulates the senses that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem solving functions on the frontal lobe, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking.”
“As we externalize problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers we reduce our brain’s ability to build stable knowledge structures, schemas, that later can be applied in new situations. In other words the brighter the software, the dimmer the user.”
“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively. “Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness? The answer is, in more cases than not, no,” says Grafman. “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become, he argues, more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.”
’Moonwalking with Einstein’’ – Joshua Foer – While covering the international memory championships, journalist Foer, develops a fascination with the subculture of mental athletes and their otherworldly memory feats. He commits a year to learning their secrets with amazing results. Not a ‘’how to self-help book’’, but instead an investigation into the history of memory, savants and a discussion on how education has been undermined by the contemporary progressive models that argue against the memorisation of facts. Fascinating stuff. A hard to put down memoir. 4.5/5
Favourite quote – “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
”Made to Stick” – Chip and Dan Heath – Teachers go to work everyday with the goal to make ideas ”stick” in the heads of an audience that is often resistant or apathetic. Likewise, marketers deal with the challenge of communicating ideas in an already dense smog of information. So what makes some ideas contagious and memorable while others die on the vine? The authors break down a an easy to apply method of increasing the ”stickiness” of ideas and information. An amazingly useful book for teachers, presenters or anyone else that relies on ”selling information” as their tools of trade. 4.5/5
“Think Like A Freak” – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner – Capitalising on the success of their first two works, it’s a no brainer for the two kings of counterintuitive thinking to pen a third book rounding out their “Freak Trilogy”. But what does it mean to “think like a freak” anyway? We are often advised to “think outside the box” and “think laterally” without having a heuristic toolkit to do so. Levitt and Dubner attempt to reveal the “magic” behind the method, encapsulating their methodology into a set of guiding principles and enabling the reader to move above and beyond conventional and “common sense” thinking.
While interesting and presenting a few novel parables and anecdotes, the authors don’t really bring anything revolutionary to the table that hasn’t already been covered in books within the same, increasingly saturated genre. Furthermore, anyone familiar with the Freakanomics podcast will tell you this is basically a lazily compiled compendium of previously published material tied loosely together with (often duh!) recommendations on how to think in alternative ways. Many of the suggestions for creative problem solving hardly seem original and have been covered much more definitively and enjoyably in works like Roger van Oech’s “Whack Pack’, and “Whack Upside The Head”. Add in some works on Systems Thinking, Kahneman and anything by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and you will have a much more complete toolkit for thinking than what’s presented in this book.
If you are new reader who’s just beginning to dip their toes into the waters of, Malcolm Gladwell-esque story based social science and pop psychology then I recommend this work as an entertaining primer. Other than a few helpful bytes for “did you know….?” dinner table conversation, I recommend you check out the much more entertaining podcasts than this book.
Favourite Quotes – “Don’t listen to what people say; watch what they do.”
“people are on average more likely to be better off if they quit more jobs, relationships, and projects”
“When someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind.”