Learn in the Wrong Order

If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed that I’ve been getting back into playing and studying chess. As is my standard with hobbies, this includes listening to podcasts about it. A new podcast by Chessable called How to Chess (Episode 3 - Getting past a rating plateau) touched on a concept that I find extremely important to learning beyond chess - the idea of min/max learning vs fun.

What is min/max?

Min/max is a gaming phase that refers to a gameplay approach that refers to a competitive approach of trying to optimize gameplay. Often there is an undertone that players that min/max care more about winning than having fun (although some will argue that winning is the fun).

Throughout this article, min/max will refer to the optimization portion.

The problem with min/max learning

In chess, the min/max learning advice offered to beginners is “The only thing you need to study is tactics, tactics, and more tactics.” In web development it looks more like “You must learn HTML, CSS, and JavaScript before using frameworks”.

However, for each person I see that says, “Learn things in this order. I didn’t and regret it.” I also see someone burning out from learning things in the ‘correct’ order because they end up feeling like they need to have a perfect mastery of HTML before starting anything JavaScript related.

Learn with your hands

When offering advice to someone who wants to know how to learn something web development related, I always tell them to pick a project they want to build. The power of being motivated to complete what you’re working on is greater than any obstacle that might come up while building it. The key here is to still be realistic in project scope - a complex project is still going to take a long time to build and figure out, but if that’s what you really want to do, go for it!

On the chess side, this looks like focusing on openings or positional strategies if that’s more fun for you. While it’s true that drilling tactics might show faster rating gain, if solving puzzles isn’t fun, don’t spend as much time on it!

The destination is more important than the path

Let’s not discount those offering the advice of “Learn things in this order. I didn’t and regret it.” - they are still reaching an amount of knowledge required to offer this advice after all. My concern with this advice is that it’s discounting that there was some reason that they learned things in the order that they did. For every person, this reason will be different - but the common theme is that they all made it to a high level of knowledge about a topic, and learning in the wrong order is better than giving up.

For some people, learning in the theoretically correct order will be the fun path. Seeing improvements and having a clear path will absolutely work for some, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t feel you need to slog through and burn out before you get to the fun part.

Regardless of what you’re learning, don’t let someone discourage you from working on it in a way that is enjoyable to you, even if you take longer to get to your target.