Just Walk Away

In the last few months, I’ve written about the amount of work one has to put in if they wish to master a specific area of study or just gain a greater knowledge of that subject. I became so engrossed in creating a rough map that would guide you along the road to improvement and/or mastery that I forgot an extremely important action you will have to engage in (at times) while traveling the road of enlightenment and knowledge, and that is the often difficult skill of walking away or stopping your journey temporarily. When I say “walking away,” I’m not talking about giving up. I’m talking about taking a break, be it short or long. Stopping to regroup your thoughts or re-energize your tired brain can keep you from simply giving up due to a high degree of total frustration. Many a student has completely given up on a subject because they reach a frustration point that stops them dead in their tracks. Let’s look at this in more detail.

I should start by saying that we all face frustrations in life. Be it discovering that you don’t have the one screwdriver you need to fix a leaky sink or having your car break down in the middle of nowhere. There are literally thousands of things that cause frustration. Frustration is similar to a wall that suddenly appears in front of you, seemingly appearing out of thin air. You look at the wall and think, “alright, I can climb over it. It’s a bit tall but I can do it.” Suddenly, the wall grows in height and now you’re facing a wall so tall it blocks out the sun. Using our screwdriver and leaky sink analogy, the initial wall of frustration is not having the right screwdriver. The wall of frustration grows when you try to use a kitchen knife to tighten the screw and end up gouging your brand new sink and breaking your only culinary knife. What if you simply took a trip to the hardware store and bought the right tool? The frustration would be over and the sink fixed. Thus, being properly prepared for the task at hand is a good way to avoid frustration.

When we study anything seriously we inevitably reach a point at which we just don’t understand the concept or idea that is crucial to our academic advancement. It could be something as simple as math formula. We read the text again and again, trying to see how the formula works, eventually becoming glassy eyed. We keep at it until we’re ready to start throwing things around the room. I’ll give you an example from my own experiences.

One day, I started my daily practice routine on the guitar. The day before my playing was nearly flawless. However, on this day I was tired and I got stuck on a long lead guitar line. The more I tried to play it, the worse my playing became. I seriously thought that I had a minor stroke in my sleep. I started to think my career as a guitarist was suddenly over. The more I tried to work through this problem, the worse things got. I finally had to stop. In fact, I didn’t play that entire day. The following day, I got up and went into the studio, opened my guitar case, pulling my arch-top guitar out and guess what? I was playing well again. This taught me a valuable lesson and that lesson is this: When you start to get frustrated in your studies, walk away immediately and take a break. If your new to the game of chess or even playing guitar, don’t think that becoming frustrated is a problem reserved only for beginners. It happens to experts as well. I’ve been a professional guitar player for decades and I’m considered quite good (and it’s not just my mother and wife making that claim), yet I suffer the same frustrations that beginners face, which we’ll talk about next. The only difference is I now know when to walk away.

Learning the game of chess is very similar to learning a musical instrument. It’s a balance of theory and practice. Theory is all about hitting the books and engaging in some long study sessions in order to gain practical knowledge. Practice is about applying that new found knowledge by actually playing chess or your guitar. You have to do both! I study the works of various musicians that are extremely difficult to master, so I often hit the wall of frustration early on and this is after decades of playing. When I first started playing I hit points of frustration as well. Simply put, it’s part of the learning experience. When you study chess, your brain is forced into a state of high concentration. For beginners, this state of mind can quickly turn against you because you haven’t built up the mental muscles to concentrate for long periods of time. Don’t worry, you’ll build up those muscles but it takes time. Therefore, you should study in short bursts rather than long marathon sessions to avoid become frustrated. Then move on to longer blocks of study time, once you’ve at least toned those mental muscles. Still, what do you do when you hit a concept or idea you just don’t understand?

Before you walk away and mentally regroup, try a few things first. Let’s say you’ve just read a section on the opening principles as a beginner and they are a bit unclear. Try going online and seeking out another explanation. Just because your book’s explanation doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean there’s not a brilliantly simple explanation somewhere in cyberspace that will clear things up. You can try comprehending the information sentence by sentence as well. We tend to mentally digest things in context of paragraphs rather than the individual sentences that make up each paragraph. If you read each sentence, put it into your own words and then move on to the next sentence, you may fully comprehend the entire paragraph. Putting ideas into you own words by creating an analogy will help improve your comprehension. In short, don’t walk away until you’ve tried the above mentioned techniques.

Don’t try and study when you’re tired or stressed our. While I can play guitar to un-stress myself, if I try to study technique or play chess, I hit the world’s biggest wall of frustration when I’m stressed. A great deal of avoiding frustration has to do with picking exactly when you study. If you’re a morning person, study in the morning but don’t do it at night when you’re tired and apt to become, dare I say it, frustrated! A good night’s sleep also greatly helps!

As for walking away, sometimes you just have to give up the fight and walk away. I don’t make many promises here but I will promise you this: If all else fails and you have to walk away, I promise you that you will not lose any of the knowledge you acquired from your earlier studies. In fact, you’ll probably come back to your studies stronger after a little break. As to how long to stay away? That’s up to the individual, but start at least with a full twenty four hours. Patience is the handiest skill to have because learning is all about patience. Knowing when to walk away and actually walking away (and returning) will aid you greatly in your quest for knowledge. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with walking away when things get too frustrating regarding your studies. Just remember to come back to your studies at some point! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).