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.

7 comments on “Freedom above utility

  1. bussokuseki says:

    I spent a vacation week last week teaching my seven year-old son to play chess. I would consider it to have been priceless 🙂 … Happy new year & be well ~


  2. KM Huber says:

    Like you, I am devoted to my “writing practice and all it entails”; it is one door I gladly walk through daily. I suppose it has kept me curious about life in general. Have no idea whether or not I am an expert at writing (10,000 hours) but I do know that I am constantly curious about the process of thought translated into word. I am completely enamored of the possibility inherent in the process.

    Lovely post, Ann. Thank you.


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  4. I have been catching up with your posts and this one really resonates with something I’ve been teaching. I’ve had my students read Jorn Bramann’s essay on Mill, in which he writes: “A person who appreciates knowledge as nothing but a means to achieve practical ends is not free. A person like this is tied into limited necessities and partial ends, and he or she will be anxious with regard to outcomes and use. The attitude of calm detachment and quiet contemplation will be alien to individuals caught in such a nexus. It is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and understanding for the sake of understanding, that expresses the freedom at which liberal education aims. And this freedom may well be inherently attractive to all who are familiar with it, and its value in this sense self-evident. . . . A certain inner distance to things characterizes the ability of human beings to enjoy objects and people without bringing into play their practical needs or personal desires. A person who can see in a tree nothing but so much usable lumber, in a naked body nothing but prurient stimulation, or in an ocean nothing more than a giant seafood factory, is someone who has not developed the aesthetic dimension of his or her life. To perceive things as unrelated to practical uses or narrow desires, to see them as fascinating in themselves (to have a ‘disinterested interest’ in things, as Kant called it), is a sign of a person’s emancipation from the limiting necessities and pressures of an animal-like existence, and his or her transformation into a free being.” It’s a wonderful essay. You can find it at


  5. Thanks! I will indeed read it. I have been thinking about aesthetics–and the value of disinterested interest (and the idea of inner distance perhaps, too)–this semester while I try to convince college students that there are reasons to learn to read poetry. Twice weekly I have a roomful of people whose tendency is to “see in a tree nothing but so much usable lumber,” etc…and who encounter a poem as pretty much “just reading words” as one student put it.

    I also think this relates to John Cage’s rephrasing of Suzuki that if something seems uninteresting after seeing it for two minutes, look at it for four minutes, or eight minutes, and eventually it will become fascinating, in some unexpected way.

    But in a world so full of distractions and hurrying–how do I teach anyone to take the time?


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