Chess openings and learning like a chef

Amateur chess coaches start by teaching their students opening variations. Students learn by memorizing the “right” openings and by avoiding problematic ones. Expert chess coaches, on the other hand, start with the lowest amount of complexity. They start with just three pieces on the chess board – king and pawn versus a king. Then, they might substitute a pawn with a bishop or rook.

Piece by piece, expert coaches build an understanding of the power of each piece and a comfort with space on the chess board. Over time, they add more pieces to the board and build their student’s understanding of the game from first principles.

The contrast between these methods of learning is akin to reasoning like a cook and reasoning like a chef – an analogy from Tim Urban at Wait but Why. Cooks focuses on cooking by re-creating existing recipes. However, a chef starts by understanding the nuances of single ingredients and slowly builds from there. Tim argues that we ought to pick a few areas of our life (e.g. our careers) where we reason like chefs and behave like cooks (e.g. our choice of clothing) for the rest. This is similar to the balance we need to strike between being satisficers and maximizers.

(Thanks Wait but Why for the illustration)

While that approach is true when applied to approaching aspects of our life, I think learning works differently. Our dominant learning style is somewhere along the above spectrum and the art of learning lies in approaching all learning like a chef. When you’re able to do that, you begin every learning journey by understanding the building blocks and achieve competence with surprising efficiency. If you’ve read Richard Feynman’s autobiography and wondered about how he became competent in topics as wide ranging as theoretical Physics, lock picking, painting and Brazilian drums, well, you now know how he did it. Feynman was the textbook chef-style learner.

I was a cook-style learner for most of my life. It was thanks to writing here that I began understanding my shortcomings and exploring what learning like a chef feels like. And, while I’m still working on applying that learning style consistently, I have come to appreciate its power.

And, my synthesis is that the reason chef-style learning matters is because it is the only way you attain real competence – the kind that flows unconsciously and without effort. That’s because elite performers don’t get there because they copied someone else’s style. You can’t take the fighter out of Rafael Nadal’s tennis game and ask him to switch to become more like Federer. No, Rafael Nadal is who he is because he became the best he could be.

To achieve unconscious competence at a craft, we need to understand themselves and the first principles of our craft. Over time, we integrate who we are and what what we do and move as one.

And, to do that, we need to approach learning like a chef.

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