Let’s start this one with a story.
For the past month or so, I have been putting roughly 30 minutes per day into what you might call a formal study of chess middlegame concepts.
The form I’ve been using for this study has been a book called Teach Yourself Better Chess, which appears to be part of a branded Teach Yourself series (titles include everything from Complete Spanish to Be a Better Flirt).
I picked Teach Yourself Better Chess because it was the book that was currently available at the public library, and then when I ran out of renewals I bought myself a secondhand copy online, and I have been duly working my way through the exercises.
These short, simple puzzles have taught me to make obvious moves before optional ones; that bishops love the long diagonals; that having “three pawns abreast” can make you “ready for anything.”
So I sat down at the board with my head full of pithy little lessons, got my bishop on the long diagonal and my three pawns lined up side by side, and then then L took my rightmost pawn with his knight and threatened my previously contented bishop.
I began to suspect that Teach Yourself Better Chess wasn’t actually teaching me how to play better chess.
It’s not that the book’s lessons, in and of themselves, were bad. They might not even have been the wrong things to learn. Someday, I may find myself at the beginning of a middlegame and I’ll remember that lining up three pawns could help me achieve my goals and/or prevent my opponent from achieving his.
But reading Better Chess is not helping me achieve my goal of becoming a better chess player. There’s a disconnect between what I was hoping to do with my chess study and what I’m actually learning. The book asks me to solve discrete, themed puzzles in which I am only required to provide one or two moves. It’s a completely different problem than the one you face in an actual chess game.
A lot of educational tools are like this. They present ideas — often very good ideas — but they don’t ask you to put those ideas into focused, repeatable practice. They don’t ask you to test those ideas against the real world. They don’t actually ask you to change the way you think or act, as long as you can deposit the right answer into the discrete question and then turn the page.
That’s one of the reasons why nearly every class I teach includes a rubber-meets-the-road component. When I teach my course on how to develop a writing practice, for example, I spend the first two sessions working with students on what they hope to get out of their writing practice, how they can schedule their writing practice around the demands of a busy life, and how to structure their writing practice to maximize their creative energy — and then I send them off for a week to put their writing practice into practice.
And then the third class session is always about how developing an actual writing practice is much harder than talking about the discrete components of a successful writing practice.
Because that’s the lesson you need to learn before you can start changing the way you write.
If I want to become a better chess player, I need to combine my daily chess lessons with daily chess games — because I tricked myself, for nearly a month, into thinking that learning terms like fianchetto and solving single-move puzzles would help me solve the problem of not being able to beat L at chess.
(That is, by the way, the real problem here. Learning the mechanics of chess and how to manipulate them to my advantage is a side benefit.)
And, as we continue our study of discipline, specificity, and problem-solving, I’m going to ask you to complete one discrete, themed puzzle:
Are you using any tools that aren’t actually helping you solve the problems you want to solve?
More tomorrow. ❤️
(p.s. I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for my next course, but I will be teaching a month-long online version of my writing practice class at HappyWriter starting February 1; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info)