Incremental Growth

Updated: December 10, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes stage: complete

In “The Art Of Learning”, Josh Waitzkin talks a lot about "incremental growth" as a core part of his learning philosophy.

The key, says Josh—who has used this technique to become a chess grandmaster and a Tai Chi Chuan world champion—is to focus on the fundamentals, practicing them over and over and add to them slowly, piece by piece.

There's nothing new here. Josh is simply putting ancient wisdom to practice. For thousands of years, the great Zen masters have repeated the same things: practice the fundamentals over and over. Or as George Leonard put it in his book "Mastery", “The master of any game is generally a master of practice.”

Contrast this to the modern belief that everything has a shortcut, that we can learn anything just by Googling and watching random five-minute YouTube videos. For example, many of us want to read more books to become wiser and learn new things. But instead of making more time to read every day and patiently go through the pages, we try to master the latest "speed reading" technique, look for summaries and transcripts. Thriving businesses have been built on our short attention spans. Blinkist can provide you practically any book in summary form, consumable in 15 minutes or less.

While this might help us get started and gain an understanding of what we want to learn. It will seldom lead to mastery of the craft. If mastery is what we're after, then, we must embrace the work. And, as Josh's experience testifies, one of the best ways to do so is to adopt an incremental growth mindset.

Drill on each core principle, little by little, step by step and you'll accumulate insights that will give you a much deeper understanding of the craft than any hack or top-down approach ever will.

So, rather than spending time browsing for the fastest way to do something, do this instead:

  • Write down the key principles and fundamentals of that which you're trying to learn
  • Pick the first principle and break it down into its constituent parts. Little by little go through the motions of it: repeat until it becomes almost instantaneous until it becomes ingrained in your mind
  • Repeat these steps for the next principle

At first, it might appear as if you're not improving at all. Like most things that compound over time, incremental growth feels like a flat line until it suddenly explodes, with enough momentum.

Your most important task is to keep at it, adding little by little, brick by brick without rushing through the steps.

The power of incremental growth is invisible until it becomes inevitable. Just keep at it.