Some shower thoughts on plateaus and toolboxes.
From time to time I hear frustration from my students or other chess players: "I hit a plateau. I cannot learn anything new anymore, it's like I hit a wall. What we are learning, I am not able to use in my games for some reason." I am sure that this feeling has been shared by most of us at some point. I myself used to blame everything on plateaus, but my viewpoint has changed completely, and I will try to explain why.
When me and my wife got married and moved in together, I was not the most practical man in the world. I am not the most practical man now, either, but I have certainly improved in that area at least somewhat.
When the first thing that needed fixing came up, I was lost. I had no clue where to begin, I did not have a plan for action. I realized that the first step is getting some tools, so I went ahead and bought a single screwdriver. Man, was I happy on my way home. "I am going to screw in that bolt so tight and it's going to be awesooooome!". And I did. And I was happy. And my wife was happy. I used a tool to achieve a certain goal.
Not long after that, another thing came up. But now I was prepared, right? I had my screwdriver! That thing can fix everything in the house by itself, or so I thought. The feeling I got when I realized that not only this screwdriver does not work for this particular bolt, but that I also need another tool was devastating for a little bit. My little dream world of "hey I am getting good at this" was completely demolished by this new problem I had at hand. And so I went to the shop again and bought some new tools. It took me a bit, but I got the job done, maybe not in the best possible way, but it was done. Again I was happy. I had like 4 different tools now - a couple of screwdrivers, pliers and a hammer.
For a while I would only encounter situations where my current tools would be sufficient. I had to master them a bit better, but all in all I thought that I am starting to get a hang of it. It felt amazing to fix a problem while using all of the tools that I had, at the same time. Like some complex, next level stuff (of course in reality it was super simple, but it felt really had to me at that point). It seemed that nothing could go wrong with this fixing stuff anymore!
But it did. I started to constantly encounter new situations, new problems, where my current tool kit was simply not enough. Sometimes I needed a brand new tool that I did not own yet. The other times I would need to learn a different way to use the tools that I already have. It was very frustrating to fail and have to rinse&repeat this process multiple times. I would feel like I hit some sort of wall, a plateau, that I did not have the ability to succeed. And yet if I would not give up on it, I would always get the job done sooner or later and it would feel amazing! And now I am at a stage where if something breaks in the house and I need to fix it, I am sort of looking forward to the process itself - to picking up a new, unknown tool for me and trying to master it, or to simply discover new ways to work with my current tools. I realized that even if I succeed in learning something new, it might only help me somewhere way, way, way down the road - but it will still help. And it will mean that I have developed, at least a little bit, right?
But if you have read this far, you might ask - why on earth am I writing this?
Well, because it is exactly the same thing with chess.
Yes, you read that right. I just made an analogy between chess and fixing stuff in your house. If you think that I am nuts and want to close this blog, I understand. But if you think about it...
When you start your chess development, you are completely lost. No idea where to start. You don't have any tools whatsoever. You start playing and slowly, slowly you start to learn things. You acquire your first tools - maybe it is learning to mate with Q+K vs K or maybe it is the Scholar's mate, or whatever else. It feels good. For a bit you might feel like you understand this game, that you have solved it. But in reality you are just starting to build a foundation for your further development.
Very quickly you discover that what you have learned is not enough. You encounter new positions, new opponents, new problems that your current chess tool kit is simply not large enough to solve. It is frustrating. It feels like you are plateauing, that no matter what you do you cannot improve. You have thoughts about just giving up with this stupid chess thing. But boy, would that be wrong. Just think about how many things have you already learned since you started. You know a LOT about chess. All of you, who are here on Chess.com, know so much about chess compared to a random person. Be proud of that and make that your driving force for yourself. "I've come this far, I am not going to stop and let that go to waste".
What you need to realize at this point, is that nothing has really changed since you were at step 1. The process is exactly the same as it was then. Sometimes you will need new tools. Sometimes you will need to master some new intricacies of the tools you already posess. Sometimes it will take a long time to learn something new, but if you soldier through it, you will. It is absolutely inevitable!
So the next time you feel like you hit a plateau as a chess player, that you cannot succeed anymore, remember or imagine that time where you needed to cut down a tree that was obstructing the light coming in from outside, but you only had 20 different screwdrivers, 5 different plyers and 2 hammers. Remember or imagine, how lost you were at that moment. Remember or imagine, how you realized, that you are back at step 1 - you need to pick up a new tool and to master it, only then can you improve. Remember or imagine how you went ahead and picked up that Husqvarna chainsaw and after some learning you cut that tree down like a champion tree-cutter. Remember or imagine feeling like such things as plateaus do not exist and that everything is possible. Because even the smallest, seemingly most innocent new things that you learn will help you at some point - which automatically means, that the plateau does not exist - it's in your head.