Knowing vs. Guessing
Knowing that I can just guess, over and over again, teaches me how to guess instead of think.
Our refrigerator stopped working this morning (technically, it probably stopped working last night). None of the food got so warm that we had to throw it out; the freezer ice trays hadn’t even begun to melt before we had everything out of the fridge and into another (temporary) refrigerator.
We suspect it’s a compressor issue, since something we believe to be the compressor had been buzzing angrily at us for the past two days. Interestingly, as soon as we removed all of the food, the thing-that-is-probably-the-compressor started right up again, a happy little hum this time, and the refrigerator went back to its proper temperature(s).
There are several reasons why this might have happened. Maybe the compressor was failing, and the fact that it started up again after we took the food out was a fluke. Maybe something in the freezer was jamming the compressor function, which is why it started buzzing and then decided to stop compressing completely. Maybe it isn’t even the compressor at all, and we just think it is because that’s one of the refrigerator parts we can identify by name.
The point is that we don’t know yet.
And the fact that we don’t know is making it a lot harder to solve the problem.
Knowing vs. guessing: Chess
Last week, I told you that I was changing the metrics by which I measured my chess study:
I would play the Hardest Robot until the point when I lost tempo. (Tempo is a music word that is also a chess word, and losing tempo means losing the advantage.)
Then I would resign the game and start another one, and play until I lost tempo again.
I’m going to keep track of the number of moves it takes me to lose tempo, and the types of blunders that cause me to lose tempo, and work specifically on increasing the number of moves and reducing the number of blunders.
This has turned out to be an incredible way to learn how to play chess.
It took me less than a day to figure out how to go from 10 moves (without losing tempo) to 20 moves (without losing tempo). I did this entirely through iteration; I’d play until I made an error—which is to say that I’d play until Chess.com told me I’d made an orange or red move instead of a green one—and then I’d immediately resign and start a new game.
I’ll go ahead and answer the two obvious questions:
Why not keep playing after making an error? Because I didn’t want to waste my time finishing games I was likely to lose. If I want to know how to win chess games, I need to practice winning.
Why not keep playing after making an orange move, which only means questionable and not terrible? Because I wanted to train myself to only make green moves.
After a couple dozen iterations, during which I studied patterns and memorized common sequences, I was able to consistently get myself into the middle of the middlegame before making an orange or a red move.
It took the rest of the week to learn how to get all the way to the endgame. This is not a bad thing. Middlegames are more complicated; they literally have more moving pieces.
Now I have to figure out how to memorize common endgame patterns, which is going to be even more complicated because there are mathematically more endgame possibilities than there are opening game possibilities.
But I will tell you this: I tried doing the thing where you turn on the “undo move” option, play all the way to the endgame without allowing yourself to undo a move, and then practice moving and undoing and moving again until you pick a green option.
This quickly proved to be a terrible way to learn, or at least a terrible way for me to learn something. Knowing that I can just guess, over and over again, and undo all my guesses until I pick the right one, teaches me how to guess instead of think.
Which means I have to do it the slower-but-better way, and start the entire game over from the beginning if I make an orange or red move during the endgame.
Because if you want to know how to choose green moves, every single time, that seems to be the best way to do it.
A short note on book-learning vs. experiential learning
If you’ve been following my blog for a while (before I started posting on Substack) you might remember that I spent a lot of time over the past year reading chess books and completing Chess.com tutorials.
Those books teach you things like “it’s a good idea to create bishop pairs.”
This is true. Having two bishops next to each other gives you a lot of offensive and defensive options.
But there’s a huge difference between thinking “I’m going to use my next move to create a bishop pair because the chess manual said it was a good idea,” and thinking “wow, the best move in this situation will result in a bishop pair.”
Because that’s the truth, about chess—and I didn’t understand it until I spent all week iterating and watching for patterns.
The best moves automatically lead to the book-recommended scenarios: octopus knights, connected rooks, etc.
And you can only learn that by playing a hundred games against a grandmaster-level opponent.
Knowing vs. guessing: Piano
I don’t have a recording to share with you today because I spent a good chunk of the morning moving food from one refrigerator to another, but I will tell you this: as soon as I figured out that “resigning and starting a new chess game as soon as you make an error” helped me anticipate and avoid errors, I immediately decided to apply the same thing to my piano practice.
In other words:
I would begin Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332.
I would play until I made an error. This could be as large as a missed note or as small as “that run wasn’t as even as I hoped it could be.”
I would stop, do some specific practice to fix the error if necessary, and begin the piece again.
This is a tremendously successful way to practice error-free performance. To train yourself to remain focused throughout the entire piece, because if you mess something up you have to go all the way back to the beginning. To train yourself to both create and activate positive controls. To not let anything slide, or tell yourself you’ll fix it later, or tell yourself that every performance has a few mistakes in it.
Imagine being able to play a piece while knowing exactly what you need to do to make every note sound the way you want it to. Imagine being able to trust your own knowledge, instead of thinking “euurgh, here comes the hard part” and then getting nervous and messing things up. Imagine never, ever having to guess—and never getting frustrated because you guessed wrong.
I have felt a bit of what that could feel like, this week.
I want more of it.
And then I want to play for you again.
A short note on practicing even when your refrigerator breaks
When something happens to throw you off your usual work/life routine, you have three options:
Write off the entire day. Do the minimum amount of work required to fulfill your work/life responsibilities; spend the afternoon scrolling Twitter and reading about everything that could potentially be wrong with your refrigerator even though you’ve already made an appointment with a refrigerator repairperson. Grumble about the day being wasted, if you choose.
Cut whatever would have happened during the thing that interrupted your routine—in this case, my morning piano practice—and get right back on the schedule. Grumble about not getting to do the thing you wanted to do, if you choose.
Truncate your routine without cutting anything that’s essential or important. I only practiced the piano for 20 minutes today, and I only played chess for 20 minutes, and yesterday I needed to shorten the time I had set aside for novel-writing by an hour. I still feel really, really good about the work I was able to accomplish. No grumbling necessary.
Knowing vs. guessing: Novel-writing
When I began re-working the novel I had started writing a year ago (after reading the first few chapters to L and having him say “yep, I want to know what happens next, you should finish this one”), there were about five chapters left to write before the book was complete.
These weren’t necessarily the five last chapters, btw. The last chapter of the book was written a year ago. One of the unwritten chapters, which has since been drafted, came very early in the story.
The point is that I should have a completely-written novel within two weeks—at which point I will need to figure out what knowing vs. guessing means, in terms of taking a novel from its fully-written, partially-revised stage to its final draft stage.
So far I’ve been using the metric “If I think this sentence can be better, then I need to make it better.” In most cases, better equals more specific. More detail, for example. More variety, in terms of word choice. Fewer clichés. (Zero clichés, if possible.)
It’s interesting, because I already know how to go from guessing to knowing in my freelance writing. It’s all about understanding the specs of the assignment, creating a path to completion, and making the most efficient choices in terms of both project management and sentence construction.
I’m not sure that’s exactly the same for fiction writing, because you don’t always need to make the most efficient word choice—but you still need to make the most specific one. (Same goes for plot choices, character choices, and so on.)
I wonder what I'll learn as I continue revising. What's the equivalent of an all-green-move game, when you're writing a book?
A short note on how to know when a book is finished
There's one more metric I want to apply to my novel process, once I finish writing the last few chapters and begin the next round of revision passes. It comes from Hank Phillippi Ryan, in the just-released anthology How to Write a Mystery (which I very, very much recommend, even if you aren't currently writing a mystery):
I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.
Want to be interviewed for an upcoming Money Talks post?
I’m putting together some upcoming Money Talks posts for Vox, and I’m interested in talking to people who might be able to speak to any or all of the below:
Couples whose financial priorities changed during COVID
Couples who come from different financial backgrounds/socioeconomic statuses
Siblings who grew up with the same financial background but now have significantly different financial priorities/incomes/etc.
If you’d like to be interviewed for the series, email me at email@example.com.
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