Time to Ditch the Training Wheels

I love doing the New York Times crossword. I look forward to 10pm each night, which is when they release the crossword for the next day. Usually I have it done before I go to bed, because I guess I just can’t wait. And I’ve blogged in the past about my journey with the crossword: first about my decision to let myself Google information to find out answers, and then about my decision to stop doing that. Basically. I decided a while ago that I just wouldn’t worry about getting the gold stars anymore. Up until then, I would do whatever I had to to get a gold star each day.

And that just felt silly.

So I decided to let go my fixation on gold stars and just enjoy crosswords. For the first few months, that’s definitely all I did. When I got stuck on an answer, I’d turn on hints and get unstuck very quickly. It was just a crossword. What did it matter? It wasn’t like I’d be able to figure it out with another hour of thinking or anything, right?

Except because I’m so goal-oriented, I started to wonder how many crosswords I’d actually be able to complete with a gold star (no hints). And I started to track how I was doing. In April, I had 15 gold stars. May: 13. June: 11. July: 17. August: 13. September: !5. October: 14. I think that was when I started to think maybe I could try to see just how well I could do. To start working harder at solving the crosswords without giving up as easily.

In November, I had 21 gold stars. December had 26, and in January I just got 29. Saturday puzzles can still stump me, and Sunday puzzles can trip me up because they’re just so big, and finding where I made a mistake can be ghastly. But I definitely discovered that as I put my mind to it and really tried, I could do a much better job on the crosswords than I thought I could.

Some of it is definitely due to having done them daily for so long, but I think a big part of it is because I finally made the decision to commit. To throw myself into the deep end and figure it out on my own. These days, with the internet always at the tips of our fingers, it can be very tempting to just give yourself an out whenever you need one. Not just with crosswords, but with any problems. Puzzles in a game, or finding a solution to a tricky AV hook up. I’m not saying we should ignore the help the internet offers. But at the same time, I think we might end up robbing ourselves of the opportunity to really grow beyond the need to always look stuff up.

If you constantly keep yourself in shallow waters, you’re never going to become a strong swimmer. I know two of my friends who ended up being very successful writers. For both of them, the change happened when they completely committed themselves to it. In one case, it was getting laid off of a job and having to write full time to try and earn money for his family that got him to the next level.

I’m not saying I’m planning on quitting my job. My goal isn’t necessarily to be a writer full time. Would I like it? Probably. But I also really love my normal job as a librarian, so I don’t think I’d give that up. Rather, I’m just saying it might behoove us all at times to see if there are some bumpers we’ve put up in the bowling alley to help us learn how to bowl, and to question if we really need those bumpers up. If the training wheels need to come off.

You get the picture.

I’m glad I started doing the crosswords all on my own. It’s turned them into a really fun mental puzzle that I hadn’t fully appreciated when I was just turning to Google to get myself out of a bind. That principle surely applies elsewhere in my life. I wonder what other training wheels I can ditch in the future.


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