Saturday, January 17, 2009

If you aren't struggling, then you aren't learning

When studying becomes easy

If studying is easy for me, then I must be getting better, right?

Well, when there is a choice between repeatedly doing something hard, or repeatedly doing something easy, we all end up repeatedly doing something easy. We may have good intentions at first, but in the end, the result is the same.

A few months ago, I bought Imagination in Chess by Paata Gaprindashvili. It is quite possibly the most difficult chess book I've ever tried to work through. I tried the first 30 or so problems, and got only 1 correct, but even then I did not analyze all of the possible sidelines. Remembering how difficult my first tactics book was when I was 12, Combination Challenge, I challenged myself to work through this book and try not to be discouraged. I worked a few more pages, but I haven't seriously looked at the book in about a month.

Now, my "study" time has consisted of G/15 on ICC followed by "fixing" my openings. I rationalized this by saying that I've been playing chess and then analyzing the game, but it is really just studying openings in disguise. I was more interested in fixing my opening than in fixing my chess. Also, at night, I have been casually playing over games from 500 Master Games of Chess, but not really paying much attention, hoping to learn from osmosis.

I felt pretty good about my playing results, and I felt well-equipped with some new opening tricks. It seemed like I was finally "getting somewhere" with my studies, because it felt pretty easy: just play G/15, fix the opening, go over some lightly annotated games, rinse and repeat!

Staring blankly into space

This semester, I enrolled in a Psychology class at a local college. I arrived late for class on the first day and slid into a back row seat, hoping not to be noticed. The instructor was still taking roll, but she definitely noted my arrival. Then she asked me to introduce myself to the class, and I think I said something clever but nobody laughed. She was probably 5 feet tall at best, hunched over, and in her late 60's or early 70's. I was not looking forward to a boring Psychology class, and I felt resentful because I thought I got shafted by the college again, paying quite a bit of money for a fluff class, and not even getting a decent instructor. She looked like she could topple over at any minute. When she couldn't figure out how to turn on the projector, I put my head in my hands and quietly groaned.

I expected that I would be languishing for 90 minutes, staring at the blackboard just above her face, and occasionally nodding to feign interest. Then she began lecturing. To my surprise, it was immediately clear that she was intellectually sharp and had a vibrant personality. I was actually enjoying the class that I held in disdain.

During the lecture, she made one pithy statement that immediately had a profound impact on me: "If you aren't struggling, you aren't learning." I realized that all the time I have been spending "going over games" and "working on my tactics" has largely been a wasted effort.

Why am I not a GM yet?

It felt too easy, and it was: I was not struggling, and I was not learning. If studying makes you better, and studying is easy, then chess must be easy. So why am I not a GM yet? Why am I still dropping pawns on move 8 to people 600 points beneath me?

When I got back home, I picked up Imagination in Chess again. Now I'm struggling through the problems, hoping that somewhere along the way, I'm learning something new. These problems are hard for a reason: my analytic ability sucks and I need to improve it. While I don't expect to get the same results as when I was 12, I am hoping something will click. I just want to crack 2200. I just want another 120 points!

And flipping through those great games? What a waste, if you do not spend the time to analyze them or appreciate them! Please, do not fool yourself and claim you are studying, if you never leave your chess comfort zone. Do not sit down to study unless you are ready to struggle, or you will be wasting your time.

I am hoping that my renewed motivation will last longer than a few weeks. Hopefully this blog will keep me on track!


Christian F said...

First of all, I don't believe that you "said something clever but nobody laughed;" are they too smart for you, or you too smart for them? :)

You haven't written here in a while... nice post. Very insightful: what your prof said is very true, I think.

Alex Steger said...

They knew better than to laugh at a knucklehead like me!