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How to Master Anything, at Any Age

Learn new skills, overcome challenges and find fresh meaning in 9 steps

By Donna Sapolin

A few years ago, I collaborated on a new website for an educational nonprofit, centered on the core concepts of a book called The Art of Learning.
In it, author Josh Waitzkin, the organization's president, dissects the personal learning process that helped him become an eight-time national chess champion, win 21 national championships and several world championships in t'ai chi chuan and serve as an executive performance coach to some of the world’s top financial leaders.

Through his unique lens, Waitzkin unfolds a set of principles that anyone can apply to achieve success.

Recently, I started thinking about how his concepts are relevant to the second stage of adulthood and the goals many of us share during this time. It seems most everyone in my age group I talk to these days wants or needs to learn fresh skills. It's a way to sustain employment, enrich life and keep their brains sharp
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I believe Waitzkin’s principles can help us achieve these new objectives, unlock our full potential and access depths of intelligence and insight we may never have even realized are in our grasp — all at a time in life when conventional wisdom says we're at risk of losing our ability to stay at the top of our game.

Here are nine of Waitzkin's key concepts:


1. Value the process more than the results. True learning takes place through sustained effort and an understanding of each challenge, gain and loss. It's more important to draw insights from every step than to focus on any end reward or goal. Try to avoid labeling yourself a “winner,” “loser,” “smart” or “dumb” — that will just drain your motivation and make it difficult to keep going and evolving.
2. Don't shy away from losses. We expand our capacities by allowing ourselves to confront hurdles, experience losses and take a good hard look at what happened. A willingness to risk losing — and then analyze it, along with the accompanying unsettled feelings — cultivates flexibility. This, in turn, allows us to move forward and gain additional wisdom, no matter what we encounter.
3. Have a beginner’s enthusiasm. Children learning to crawl approach their surroundings with unstoppable curiosity and a joyful sense of adventure. They don't care how they look or what others think. What propels them is a general delight in all that's unfamiliar and a desire to probe the most minute details, over and over again. This kind of openness results in the best learning experience, from being fully awake to gaining even tiny insights and refining one’s method along the way.
4. Rethink adversity. Being able to handle life’s dirty tricks without losing equanimity, interest and joy is a vital part of learning and achievement. We can't call on knowledge or apply it well when we get caught up in our emotions. So instead of denying or stifling them, we should try to understand and make peace with them. By keeping our cool under trying conditions, we can take positive, effective action.
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5. Stay present and engaged. We enrich our experiences by attuning ourselves to subtlety and delving into details. We simply can't excel at a pursuit or fully enjoy it by taking a skimming approach. To really succeed, we have to feel that everything is on the line at all times.
That means being 100 percent engaged at every stage of our relationships, studies and work — not just in the moments we think are critical, but also in the moments leading up to them. By doing this, we'll be able to motivate and monitor ourselves even when there's no one around to give us feedback or cheer us on.
6. Shift between stress and recovery. By alternating cycles of rest with activities that push us to the outer limits of our abilities, we can strengthen the bond between mind and body in a way that fuels peak performance and high-level learning. Because all aspects of our lives are interconnected, a period of recovery should be incorporated into everything we take on. Effective methods include meditation, stretching, deep breathing and play.
By conditioning ourselves to move fluidly between intervals of tension and serenity, we can condense the amount of recovery time needed after a period of exertion. We can then rally our powers of intuition and call on our knowledge, creativity and skills at a moment’s notice.
7. Navigate the middle road. To maximize learning and perform at a high level, we need to exert ourselves — but not so much that we break down. Ideally, we should move the bar a bit higher with each step we take along this balanced middle road, just enough to engage our capacities fully and let ourselves experience some success. The strategy we adopt should sync with our individual learning style and allow us to stay passionate. 

(MORE: How to Discover Your Career Passion)
8. Master the fundamentals. Launch into the learning process by studying the most fundamental principles. Mastering these will lay a foundation for more complex understanding, creative bursts of inspiration and higher levels of achievement. This kind of proficiency will, in turn, develop our brain in ways that allow us to grasp other subjects and practices more deeply.
9. Distinguish the macro from the micro. To excel, our approach to learning must emphasize depth over breadth. We have to resist the attraction to superficial stimulation that our media-driven society cultivates. Instead, we should dive deeply into small pools of information and explore their operating principles. The process of reviewing and creatively exploring these basics over and over again leads to a refined understanding of them. Eventually, we'll be able to integrate the concepts into our subconscious mind, where we can draw on them instinctively and rapidly.
Now, you may be asking yourself, "Why should I bother with these steps?" By this point in your life, you might feel that you've tackled quite enough. But Waitzkin underscores that learning is all about love — a love for what you’re taking on. It seems to me that having more love and passion in your life is always worthwhile.

“I had a long period of my chess career in which I tried to fit into other people’s molds,” Waitzkin told me. “This locked me up. Then I returned to my core, began to express myself as an artist and competitor and found that this led to a much more satisfying life — and fantastic outcomes. Many people say that I am incredibly disciplined, but this isn't really true. I just do what I love in a manner that feels in harmony with the core of my being — and this leads me to some beautiful places."

Donna Sapolin is the Founding Editor of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia. Read More
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