Training Wheels

A few months ago, I decided I should learn to do crossword puzzles.

My dad’s done them as far back as I can remember, always opting for the hardest ones—which for the New York Times means those at the end of the week, while the easier ones are relegated to Mondays and Tuesdays.

It seemed like the sort of thing I would enjoy, and after tackling sudoku last year (attaining a fair bit of skill within a relatively short period of time) I thought it would be nice to expand my puzzling-portfolio further—the folks I know who solve these things habitually tend to enjoy them, there’s some evidence that chipping-away at puzzles is good for your brain, and I typically prefer pastimes that require I remain sharp and engaged rather than passive.

So I did some reading, tinkered around a bit, and snagged a Times puzzle app subscription.

After the first week using the app I was able to tackle Mondays without too much trouble, while Tuesdays were attainable, but more time-consuming.

By the end of the month Mondays were almost too easy, Tuesdays were my low-grade warm-up, and Wednesdays were the challenging median.

After that first month, I decided to move on to a hardcopy crossword book and some other apps, hoping to spread my word-puzzle wings beyond the confines of this single interface and puzzle archive.

While attempting Wednesday-difficulty puzzles in these other books and apps, though, I realized that I may have overtrained my NYT-puzzle skills and disregarded my more general, crossword-puzzle capabilities.

It’s easy to become dependent on training wheel-like elements that are baked into the tools we use.

This is true of puzzle apps, but also design software, writing tools that spell- and grammar-check (and increasingly, suggest alternative ways of phrasing things), and boxed meals that provide cooking instructions and pre-packaged food materials, ready to sauté and serve.

These stabilizers can be great fun and excellent confidence-boosters early on in the learning process, as they make us feel like we’re riding a bike for real, which can help us develop skills that’ll carry-over into unassisted bike-riding, someday.

But it’s important to be cognizant of these elements because if we don’t someday strip them away, we may find ourselves struggling with the reality of (for instance) shopping for ingredients at the store, not knowing how to differentiate ripe from not-ripe fruits and veggies, or we may accept a job that requires we use different software suites or physical tools, only then realizing that our way of doing things (and thus, our capacity to make) has become ultra-reliant on invisible-to-us, software- or service-specific training wheels.

A long time ago, I wrote that it’s better to be a chef with inferior tools than someone who doesn’t know how to cook, but who owns the most magnificent knives and pots and blenders available (because the former can make something delicious with whatever’s at hand while the latter becomes reliant on their tools), and I think this is a variation of that same concept.

Rather than thinking in terms of ignorance vs. expertise, though, this is a distinction between developing one’s internal capacity vs. developing one’s capacity to utilize a specific, external resource.

There’s a reason athletes tend to use free weights rather than sticking exclusively to machines that guide their movement: the latter would allow them to lift more weight and do more reps, but the former also works their smaller muscles and other bits of bodily scaffolding.

Working on the whole of their bodies rather than just the most overtly useful muscles and tendons grants them rounder, more malleable and resilient capacities—even if it doesn’t fluff-up their most impressive and superficially important-seeming sinew as rapidly.

Looping back around to crossword puzzles, I’ve stepped away from a familiar puzzle-related workout machine, only to find that I can’t lift the same weight without that (previously invisible-to-me) assistance.

That’s frustrating! But it’s not an unfamiliar frustration.

I know from experience that my focus, now, should be on maintaining my practice (consistently trying, learning, exploring, and experimenting) while more consciously integrating those missing pieces into what I can now see was a structurally unsound training regimen.

It’ll take longer than anticipated to achieve the casually competent skill-level I’m aiming for, working out my puzzle-muscles in this way.

But the training wheels have to come off at some point, and an interface-agnostic rewiring of my approach will put me on a path toward (someday) riding this bike for real.

If you found value in this essay, consider buying me a coffee :)

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