By closely watching a master, following instructions before fully understanding them, and copying masterpieces you could not have thought of yourself, you gradually absorb the skills of the master – they live on inside you. This is the ancient tradition of apprenticeship or discipleship.
The blog of secular wisdom, Farnam Street, has another short masterpiece recently: “What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill?” Somewhat surprisingly, the answer seems to be: 1) Watch someone else do it, but watch very closely, as if imagining that it was you doing it. 2) Repeat what experts have done, even if you could not have done it on your own, because it builds a mental blueprint within you which you can draw on later.
Well, surprisingly if you have not watched the motivational anime Hikaru no Go, about a sixth-grader who encounters the ghost of a long dead master of Go (igo), the ancient Asian strategy game. The ghost attaches itself to the young boy and badgers him to play go. Hikaru finds the game tolerable once he has won a couple times by simply following the instructions of the ghost, but he understands very little beyond the basic rules. (Kind of like me, regarding Go at least!) But then as summer vacation starts, he begins to spend his days at an Internet cafe, playing Go over the Internet. The ghost tells him what moves to make, but it is the boy who has to actually use the mouse and keyboard. They do this every day for most of the summer. When fall comes, Hikaru has actually become a decent Go players – by high school standards, at least – simply by focused observation of hundreds of hours of well-played Go.
Later in the same anime, we learn that young Go students aiming to become professional, often spend time replaying great games from the past, trying to understand why each move was made, slipping inside the mind of the masters. This is an actual practice, and I see from the quote in Farnam Street that chess players do the exact same thing. By repeating the decisions of others, while paying constant attention, they absorb the skills subconsciously even if they could not have figured them out for themselves, or at least not for a long time yet. The subconscious absorbs skills in a different way from how we talk and think logically.
That sounds quite useful, because beginning is often hard. Even I, who used to be pretty smart, constantly fail to learn to play Go well. Perhaps I should give it another Go…?