Sometimes the best advice is no advice

信言不美,美言不信。

I get a lot of questions that are so general that there is no useful answer I can give, e.g., “how do I get better at geometry?”. What do you want from me? Go do more problems, sheesh.

These days, in my instructions for contacting me, I tell people to be as specific as possible e.g. including specific problems they recently tried and couldn’t solve. Unsurpisingly the same kind of people who ask me a question like that are also not the kind of people who read instructions, so it hasn’t helped much. 😛

But it’s occurred to me it’s possible to take this too far. Or maybe more accurately, it’s always better to ask a specific question, but sometimes the best answer will still be “go do more problems, sheesh”.

Here’s a metaphorical example.

Suppose that someone is learning the game of chess, and they just died to scholar’s mate. So they go on the Internet and write something like,

Some cheapskape used scholar’s mate on me, and I died in four turns WTF!? How do I defend this!? We played e4 e5 Bc4 Nc6 Qh5 Nf6 Qxf7.

Okay, it’s a specific question, at least.

If you’re a nice coach, you could give a straight answer to this. Like, “reply g6 if the queen is on h5 and Nf6 if the queen is on f3”. And maybe some nice words about not getting discouraged.

But I wonder if the best advice is really “go play 100 more games”.

Because, well, if someone (a) saw the queen move out, (b) died anyways, (c) can’t figure out what they should have done differently on turn 3, (d) can’t google the answer themself, and (e) is complaining on the Internet about it, then I think two things are clear. First, they have not played many games, and second, they desperately need to learn how to fish.

In some sense, the Scholar’s Mate issue will correct itself automatically after enough games. So I worry that I do a long-term disservice by giving a specific answer over the general answer, and implicitly suggesting that this is how the learning process should work.

Experience is the best teacher of all. No contest. A pupil who doesn’t internalize this, and instead tries to short-circuit the learning process by overfitting their internal models on too few data points, is going to hit a wall really soon.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t play the tough-coach card well, unlike some other people. So for the foreseeable future, I’m still likely to respond with g6/Nf6. Or maybe I will start linking this post when I’m out of patience, we’ll see.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes the best advice is no advice

  1. Great Post. Completely agree. Not sure why it’s so hard for people to be specific or to use search engines to find at least the way in which to frame their question. I feel like it’s intellectual laziness at times and that by simply answering I might be indulging them in it. But like you, I often just want to help and am not able to be harsh in my responses. I can be a tough coach with my students though, I just need to have rapport with them. Once you have earned their respect, you can be more honest about how they are presenting themselves. In addition, when they are your personal student, you want to help them grow into a responsible citizen/adult/person. For certain we want to offer this instruction to everyone…but we realize that if we have no rapport the information/guidance must be delivered in different packaging if it is to generate a positive outcome.

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  2. Not sure if I completely agree with this. Mainly just because sometimes students don’t know what questions to ask. Usually when I get a general question, I reply in a specific way that may or may not help them. This is because even if my reply isn’t something they need, they get a feel for what kind of advice can be offered which then reflects onto whatever they want to know about. For example, if someone asked me how to get better at ___, I would just describe what I did in medium amounts of detail and that may or may not be helpful. Tbh, I wish people would do this to me whenever I ask vague questions instead of giving non replies like “do more problems”. Sorry if this kind of goes against the topic of this post.

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