Embrace Your Experience (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 3)

The superpower of adult learning, and why you must connect the things you learn to things you already know.

Leonardo da Vinci, it’s fair to say, was good at learning.

History remembers him as a master artist, but we see his influence across engineering, medicine, geometry, biology, and the theater. He was one of the world’s most famous polymaths, mastering many domains in his lifetime.

There are a few reasons Leonardo could do all this, but there’s one in particular I want to discuss here. Something you can apply immediately to your journey as an adult improver.

Leonardo da Vinci was a master of applying his prior experience. He was excellent at connecting the things he already knew to the things he was learning.

His art taught him the skill of observation, which helped him notice fine details in his study of biology. His geometry skills allowed him to design gadgets for his theater work. Engineering skills gave him an understanding of the physical world, improving his painting.

His art enhanced his science. His science enhanced his art.

In Renaissance Italy, intellectuals actively sought connections across disciplines. They considered it the key to innovation and genius.

They would carry a notebook with them to jot down any ideas or knowledge they encountered in their day. Paper was expensive, so they filled every inch of the books in a chaotic jumble of topics.

In Leonardo’s journals, we see sketches for paintings scribbled alongside shopping lists. Notes for a project squeezed between observations on how a dragonfly’s wings work.

Totally different ideas, jammed together all on one page. This was a feature of their notebooks, not a bug.

Leonardo understood that true innovation, creativity, and learning come not from a single domain, but from connecting many domains.

Somewhere along the line, this definition of learning faded away.

Our school years taught us that we go to one room to study history, another for mathematics, and another for language studies.

It taught us these domains have nothing to do with each other.

Nothing could be further from the truth. No domain of knowledge exists entirely separate to any other. Everything is interlinked.

Chess is no different.

The Second Law of Adult Improvement: Embrace Your Experience.

Adults have a learning superpower that kids don’t have. We have the wisdom, knowledge, and skills that come from decades of prior experiences.

No one else comes to Chess with the exact combination of skills and perspectives that you have. You are unique, one of a kind.

Your experience can give you insights, ideas, and advantages that no one else will receive.

And most of us leave that on the table when we approach our Chess training.

Josh Waitzkin, in The Art of Learning , writes about how his Chess taught him to be logical and calculating in his Tai Chi. And how his Tai Chi taught him to be in tune with the energies of the Chessboard. Both fields enhanced each other.

GM Avetik Grigoryan from Chessmood told me his UFC training was an asset in OTB tournaments. It taught him the psychological power of stance, confidence, and appearing in control. In his Chess, he found he could often psych out his opponents through his physical presence alone. It became his secret weapon.

It’s critical, as adult learners, that we make as many of these connections as we can. Not only will they give us unique perspectives like with Leo, Josh, and Avetik, but they do something else that might be even more important.

Every connection we make helps our adult brain retain the new information and skills.

When we learn something, our brains create a neuron to hold that information. Like a tiny dot on the brain, filled with the new knowledge.

Our brain creates links between each neuron and other related neurons. These links are how our brain finds and uses that information later.

The more links a neuron has, the more important our brain considers it. If a neuron has 15 links, it’s clearly more important than the lonely neuron with the single link.

Popular, well-linked neurons are protected and supported. Neurons without many links are weak, in danger of deletion. There’s only so much space and energy up there, and our brains don’t like lonely neurons hogging it.

The more links a neuron has, the easier it is to hold and access the information inside that neuron.

And we can create these links consciously, by simply associating the things we learn with things we already know.

“Oh, this reminds me of that!”

Ta-da! A link is formed.

With more links, our brain acts as if the new knowledge is important and responds by actually retaining it.

This is why it’s such a superpower for adults. We have a wealth of connections we can make, millions of neurons we can connect to any new thing we learn.

Embracing our experience allows us to transfer skills, create new perspectives, and helps our brains take in any new knowledge!


Here’s where you can start.

Reflect on the things you know and how they apply to Chess.

Grab a sheet of paper. At the top, write a problem you’re currently having in your Chess. Now divide the page into 3 columns. At the top of each, write a non-Chess skill or topic you know well.

In each column, write key lessons or insights from your other skills that could apply to your Chess problem. It could be to do with the skill itself, or how you learned it, or whatever else occurs to you.

After you write a few points in each column you’ll likely have at least one “A-ha!” moment. It might not solve the problem on the spot, but it will give you a new perspective, idea, or approach to it.

Freely associate whenever you’re learning something new.

When studying your Chess, link each new insight to something you already know. Skills, movies, trivia, whatever. Don’t be afraid of “ridiculous” associations!

When I was starting out with Chess, I cemented a key habit by connecting it to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Kindergarten Cop.

Whenever my opponent moved a piece, I asked the piece in my mind, “ Who is your daddy and what does he do? ”.

It reminded me to check whether the piece is defended, if the move left other pieces undefended, and what threats the move created.

It’s a ridiculous connection. It makes very little sense to anyone else. But I’ve never forgotten it, and that’s all that matters. The lesson stuck, because I connected it to something I already knew.

Your connections only need to make sense to you and your brain. Let your mind run free.

ABC. Always. Be. Connecting. ( I couldn’t resist. )

When you build a habit of connecting knowlege, you’ll find the benefits go far beyond improving your Chess game. It’s one of the most valuable things you can learn to do.

Let the things you know inform your Chess. Let your Chess inform and change the other things you know. Make connections. And use the perspective those connections give you.

If it’s good enough for Leonardo da Vinci, it’s good enough for us.

Embrace your experience!

You’ve worked hard to build it. Use it.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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