Problem-Solving Series

On Play, Focus, and the Ease That Comes With Understanding

Nicole Dieker thinks that writing this blog post might have changed her life a little bit.

That’s why she wants to share it with you.

I should tell you just how much my focus has increased since I specifically started trying to increase my focus while I practiced.

I should tell you how much easier it is for me to notice when I am daydreaming about results instead of trying to solve the problem in front of me.

I should tell you that yesterday, when I was finishing up my taxes, I kept feeling the desperate urge to take a break, to go find a nice longread, to see if I had a new email — and then I thought to myself “distraction is your brain avoiding uncertainty” and I started asking myself what was still uncertain about my taxes (so many forms, so many numbers) and then I addressed the uncertainties and got ’em done.

I should tell you how I unlocked (is that the right word?) a new level of note-learning efficiency (also maybe not the right words?) that seems to be helping me standardize and memorize music more quickly, because the work you have to do before you can play doesn’t really start until —

Except that’s not true, because the note-learning work I was doing this morning also felt like play. I was immersed in the moment (I literally lost track of time), and I was making discoveries throughout.

Are those the two components of play? Being present and making discoveries?


The other night L and I were talking about whether you could truly play if you were unsure. If you were approaching a performance from a point of anxiety, for example, because you hadn’t done the work of going from guessing to knowing yet.

But I just spent 90 minutes on that particular work, and it felt almost like the way it feels to play a piece you’ve already come to know.

Probably because I was transferring more and more problems from the “guessing” column to the “knowing” one.

Maybe that’s another component of play — that “I know this!” feeling.

Or “I know this, so now I can do something new with it.”


There’s something else I just thought of, and it’s the connection between “I know this” and “I know how to know this.”

I often get that feeling when I write — even if I haven’t put anything on the page (or screen) yet, I know enough about the process of writing to trust that I can do the work.

When I initially wrote that preceding paragraph I called it “the ease of understanding.”

An even earlier draft referred to it as “the essence of being yourself; of feeling comfortable in your own skin.”


The trouble is that I want that kind of ease of understanding for everything.

I want to feel so comfortable in social situations, for example, that they feel like play instead of work. (All too often, I spend most of a party feeling anxious or uncertain, like I have to guess all the time about whether it’s my turn to stay something. I want to walk into a room full of people, when we can start walking into rooms full of people again, thinking “I know this, so now I can do something new with it.”)

I want that kind of facility when I play chess — and I’m so close, L and I now get well into the endgame before he gains the advantage that allows him to win — and I keep joking with L that we need to go out into the backyard and literally play catch until I finally learn how to catch and throw a ball.

When we go out to the lake, I could actually swim instead of clinging to a floatie.

When we hear a bird call, or see animal tracks in our backyard, I could actually identify them.

The amount of effort it would require to gain this body of knowledge (to get the knowledge into my body, if you’ll forgive the pun) would be — well, it wouldn’t be effort so much as it would be time multiplied by focus, as Cal Newport puts it, and while that kind of sustained, problem-solving focus might feel like effort at first, it is starting to feel more and more like play.

Because I know that I know how to do it.

Which means that I can use this knowledge to do something new. ❤️

p.s. I just realized that when I teach my next class — writing, music (because I bet I’ll get back into teaching piano soon enough), personal finance, the business of freelancing, maybe even Shakespeare again I need to focus on helping my students understand the process, which will give them the ability to trust that they can do the work

p.p.s. that’s what the philosopher is trying to teach the youth in The Courage to Be Happy, isn’t it — that the real work of teaching is helping his students understand the process of learning, and once the youth becomes comfortable with the process this kind of teaching requires, he’ll start to trust that he can do the work too

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