Darkest Before the Dawn

There’s an old adage about it being darkest before the dawn. What this translates to is the idea that things are toughest before they get better. In short, you have to work the hardest right before you reap the rewards of a break through in any challenge. Be it music or chess, the road to mastery is a tough and often long journey. You have to work to master anything in life because, after all, if mastery was easy, everyone would be a master of their chosen field of study. I mentioned in a previously article that one’s training regime has a major impact on whether or not they make advances in their studies. With the right plan, one can make enormous strides and with the wrong plan, one becomes frustrated because they don’t seem to get anywhere. The journey to mastery requires breaking through a number of ceilings or barriers that must be broken through to continue making educational gains (improvement).

I realized that I needed to address a couple of concepts in greater detail than I did in that article, namely patience and old fashioned hard work. These two ideas go hand in hand when it comes to the mastery of anything. You cannot have one without the other when it comes to reaching one’s educational goals. The study of chess is similar to, for example, the study of chemistry. In chemistry, which I majored in (one of a few degree programs I went through), my time was spent both studying theory, reading lengthy textbooks, and practicing that theory in a laboratory. While you could jusr read and learn the concepts of chemistry, you’d only have a partial knowledge of the subject because you didn’t experience the theoretical first hand, reproducing experiments in a laboratory. The same holds true for chess, theory or study and practice or playing. Doing both requires patience and hard work!

I’d say that patience is the most difficult skill to develop. After all, we live in a fast paced world in which a job well done is a job done quickly. Trades, such as wood working are dwindling because it isn’t economically feasible to pay someone to hand carve wood details for an architectural project when you can have a plastic cast piece made for a fraction of the cost of the hand carving. As the old adages goes, “time is money” so we plow through our lives at a rapid pace. Patience requires taking your time and working through problems no matter how long it takes. The first golden rule all novice chess players should utterly embrace is that you have work through each phase of your training, each new problem you encounter, slowly. You have to learn to do it right from the start no matter what the cost in time. When you think you’ve learned something, go back and learn it again. In short, take your time. Don’t set a rigid time table to your studies.

While you should have a time table such as studying a specific chess concept for thirty minutes a day for the next two months, don’t think that you’ll absolutely meet your goal within the set time frame. It make take longer. The patient learner will set a goal and if he or she doesn’t achieve that goal, they’ll expand their time frame out until that goal is met.

For those of you who become impatient, you can develop patience skills outside of your chess studies that will make you a more patient learner when you study the game we love so much. In our day to day lives, we tend to rush through chores we don’t have a real interest in. I suggest engaging in that chore but instead of rushing through it to get it done, work through the task at hand at a slower, even pace. You can learn a lot about patience simply doing the dishes. Rather than plow through the stack of plates, pots and pans as if in a race for your life, wash each of the items individually as if each item was the only thing you had to clean and you had thirty minutes to clean it. Of course, I don’t mean spending thirty minutes washing one dirty dish. What I mean is to pick up a dish, for example, thoroughly clean both sides of it, dry it and carefully place it where it belongs. Take you time. This way of thinking slows you down. The key point is to slow down your endeavor and do it properly. I can tell when someone is impatient in the dish washing department when I dine at their home and find the previous night’s meal still encrusted on the dinner plate! Try taking your time elsewhere in your activities and you’ll benefit from it in your studies. Patience requires slowing your pace.

We all learn at different speeds and often we’ll find that we’ve been moving along progressively only to hit a point in our studies at which we hit an educational wall, a key concept or idea we can’t fully grasp. This concept or idea is crucial to the next step in our studies so to ignore it or only partially learn it will greatly hamper our understanding of what comes next. This is where patience becomes extremely useful and hard work enters the picture. We easily work through the first part of our studies only to become bogged down by something we can’t get a handle on, educationally speaking. If you simply gloss over the subject giving you trouble and move on, you’ll find that you’re going to start having real problems with more advanced concepts or ideas. You can avoid this by getting in a patient mode, accepting the fact that you’ll have to work though the problem at hand, no matter what the cost in time, before moving on.

This requires hard work. Mastery’s cost is hard work and lots of it. No one is born with a gift that allows them to instantly master a subject. You have to work at it, long and hard. The people who are masters of their chosen field will all tell you that they put in countless hours of work and didn’t skip over things they didn’t understand. When you think of having to work hard for countless hours, it can discourage you from engaging in your studies. Therefore, I suggest small bursts of hard work. Rather than sit for three or four hours attempting to work harder than you ever have, try thirty minute bursts of hard work. While I can work out on the guitar for four or more hours at a time, I’ve been doing it for longer than many of you have been alive. I can do it because I’ve slowly built up my ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Hard work really translates to the ability to concentrate or focus on your studies for an extended period of time. Like the muscles in your body, you have to build your ability to concentrate or focus. You cannot sit down for the first time and engage in hard mental work for hours on end. Build up to it!

When you do work through that educational barrier and are ready for the next step along the road to mastery, make sure you really understand what you just learned. One way to do this is to explain what you just learned (in your own words) to someone else. See if you can give them an explanation that they fully understand. One thing I love about teaching chess is that I have to explain concepts to my students in a way they can understand them. This ensures that I fully understand the concept. In closing, be patient and slowly methodical in your studies. Embrace hard work but build up to long work sessions but starting off with shorter bursts of hard work. Come to love the hard work and view it as something you’ve proudly done. Always remember, it’s darkest before the dawn! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).