Jul 14

What Josh Waitzkin Can Teach Us About Learning Approaches

Learning Approaches

I recently read the The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and in it there is a section about learning approaches and how they differ. Two categories were established:

  • The entity learning approach.
  • The incremental learning approach.

In the entity learning process, individuals determined their ability to learn or perform based on their perception of who they are. An example would be the belief that some positions or submissions are a waste of time for you because you are x, y, or z. That thought process places an artificial limit on what is possible.

If you tend to view things that way, it is really difficult to reach your full potential. Nothing is set in stone though. The entity method of thought is a learned behavior. All you have to do is break the connection between success/failure and your ingrained attributes.

Now the incremental learning process can be summed up simply. It is the belief that even difficult material can be mastered with a step-by-step approach. Another way to look at it is that if it can be done, you can do it if you put in the effort.

This doesn’t mean that if you put in an hour’s worth of effort you’ll master anything though. It means that you have to put in consistent effort over time. In short, you have to commit yourself to the process and the incremental growth that comes as a result.

Also understand this: It’s entirely possible to have an incremental learning approach when it comes to math and then be all entity when it comes to writing. Learning approaches are situational, and they are dictated by our core beliefs about our potential.

Applying the Theory of Learning Approaches to BJJ

Have you ever heard someone say that they will never be good at triangles because they have short legs? That’s a clear example of entity thinking. In that instance, an individual is taking something that cannot be changed about themselves and using that as the primary determinant for what they can or cannot do.

I have a personal example as well. During my early years of training, I avoided some techniques that either required or were improved by full flexion of the knee. My knees were really bad, and I couldn’t sit on my heels comfortably.

What I realized is that I could do two things to improve that situation. The first is to alter the techniques so that they worked for me, and the second is to work on addressing the physical limitation. Now I’m really close to full flexion because I’m figuring out the muscle imbalances and addressing them.

So in that instance, there was a shift from entity-based thought to incremental thought related to a specific situation. Even in the first example, such a shift is possible since there are steps that can be taken to make the triangle work with short legs.

The lesson from these examples is that we can adapt to overcome any challenge, so it is always possible to improve and learn.