Freedom above utility

S. Polgar is mentioned in Tough's book. Her website is here:

Susan Polgar is mentioned in Tough’s book. Her website is here:

One of the gifts I received this year is the book How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. It’s a quick read that dovetails many of my interests: education, psychology, character, motivation, philosophy, & childraising, among others. There are several aspects of the book I could write about here; but today my frame of mind has wrapped around one particular passage having to do–well, in the book, with chess–but metaphorically and personally, with why I bother to write poetry.

In the chapter titled “How to Think,” Tough offers the stories of several chess-for-children programs and connects these endeavors with education, as well as with traits of persistence, grit, and critical thinking skills. He cites examples of chess masters the world over, of child prodigies, and of chess teaching methods; then, he connects these strands with the notion of learning “character.” That’s one of the book’s arguments: that character is learned, made up of other habitual traits, that it is not the same as temperament. One skill that good chess players learn is how to fail, how to overcome confirmation bias in decision-making, and how to immerse themselves through the habit of study (persistence). This does not mean that chess players naturally extend these abilities to other areas of their lives, but they could do so since they do possess these abilities. Tough finds it fascinating that many chess players still manage to screw up other areas of their lives…they do not choose to extend, or apply, their chess traits to things like academics, career, or personal relationships.

So choice (“volition” as he terms it, though he defines volition as closer to willpower) interferes with our application of learned ‘good’ habits. Ah, the old ‘free will’ trap…


But I digress.

The part of this chapter that grabbed me is a quote from chess master Jonathan Rowson. He says: “the question of chess being an essentially futile activity has a nagging persistence for me…I occasionally think that the thousands of hours I’ve spent on chess, however much they have developed me personally, could have been better spent…[yet] chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics.”

Sounds familiar to me. People say the same sort of thing about writing poetry. Then Rowson says chess is “a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility.”

Oh, that says it so well. Freedom above utility–choosing to create myself through my actions, which allows me, as poet and as sentient being, to experience all of those messy and sorrowful and complex and delightful human characteristics.


I have spent my 10,000 hours writing and am “expert” at it, yet it has brought me not money nor favor nor fame. So why pursue the path? Because it is beautiful and freeing. Because it is my form of gift–I have a small talent that I have labored at, but I am not “gifted” as a writer…yet I can see my way to thinking of my poetry as part of the gift economy Lewis Hyde elaborates upon in his book The Gift (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post). Ambition is not the same as willpower, and I do not have single-minded willpower in the task of promoting my work or my persona as a poet–no “poetry diva” am I. But I do have persistence in this one area: the writing practice and all it entails; and I do have experience with it, and I possess deep and abiding curiosity about poetry and gratitude that it exists and that I can continue to try my hand at it.

Even if it seems futile or pointless or non-productive to some people.


As an aside, I note that David Orr’s recent book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry has been both enthusiastically and scathingly reviewed, so I must get to it soon. Perhaps Orr’s work will clarify my thinking on the non-remunerative, generally unacknowledged occupation that chose me long ago.

Or perhaps it does not need clarifying. Perhaps celebration is enough.