Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Healthy Improvement Attitudes

Today's post is a day late, because I decided that what I was working on yesterday--after some consideration--was just not very interesting to read.  A conversation earlier this morning inspired this one instead.  It's about improvement, and why the people who might deserve to have the most self-esteem and cause for celebration can be extremely down on themselves.

The reason is simple: in order to improve, you need to focus on things you don't do well.  People who are really interested in improving and succeeding are going to therefore pay lots of attention to their mistakes, and become their own worst critics.  If they have other critics willing to chip in with helpful advice, it might diminish their self-perception even further.

So let's say you're somebody interested in playing better.  You want to meet a high-standard of performance or behavior.  So the logical thing for you to do is ask, "what am I doing wrong?" because you don't need to fix what's going right.  As you become more knowledgeable and self-aware, you see more and more mistakes.  And over time, because you focus on the mistakes rather than the successes, you don't even think you're getting better.  You might think you're getting worse!  And the only reason you'd be thinking that is because you're trying very hard to get better.  In short, the people becoming more knowledgeable, the ones who put in the most effort, can be the people with the lowest self-esteem.  It's from this kind of perfectionism and dedication that both skill and frustration are born.

How do you keep this from happening?  How do you maintain the drive and dedication to improve when that same drive can make you feel like you aren't getting anywhere?

One of the most important things you can do is to remember to give yourself credit for your successes.  The whole point of training is to become more skilled and successful; if you don't stop to appreciate the things you do well and honestly evaluate your skill (both for better and worse) then you will never experience the emotional payoff that comes from improvement.  Did you do something today you normally don't succeed at?  Is your play a little sharper in some respect as a result of your practice?  Be honest!

One problem I've had in the past was comparing myself to the highest possible level of skill, no matter what I did, no matter what skill level I was at.  I would imagine the best known player of a game, or even simply compare myself to absolute perfection, and if I fell short, assume that I wasn't any good.  Even if you don't take it quite that far, that can be a really disheartening way to look at yourself.

Also don't forget that when you have competitors and rivals, they are probably trying to get stronger too.  If you're all improving together, you might not detect a relative difference in performance, even as you all become more skilled.  One way to avoid this trap is not to just evaluate your wins and losses, but also the different things that you and your opponents are doing.  Victory and failure are relative, but the precision and difficulty of actions can be more objectively measured.

They key here is to remove absolute focus from your errors.  There are no perfect players, and even amazing players have off days.  The thing that sustains you during these difficult times is to remember that your worth is not equal to your failures, because--and this is just a guess, but I think it's a good one--you don't only fail.  You might screw up in embarrassing ways, sure.  They might seem like screw-ups that nobody else experiences.  But I can guarantee that if you sit and watch other players and only look for their mistakes, you will find a surprising number as well.  And since you're doing that, also try paying attention to how they respond to those mistakes.  My own experience is that players who laugh and joke about their errors, or shrug them off and say, "whoops, I'll try and watch out for that next time" without obsessively dwelling on them, seem to make fewer, have more fun, and play better overall.  They're also more fun to be around and promote more positive training sessions.

Remember; your mental energy and your attention are limited resources.  When you spend time thinking about one thing, you can't spend that time thinking about something else.  Time that you spend obsessing over mistakes and convincing yourself that you're a weak player is time you could spend focusing on the game and becoming a stronger one.  If you have an even split between between positively reinforcing your successes and examining your failures for information, you get the best of both worlds.

Keeping this in mind, it's interesting to consider the ego-champ stereotype: why is it a common notion that champions and highly successful people are more likely to be egotistical jerks?  A big part of it is confidence.  It can be hard to have confidence if you perceive that you make many mistakes, but high confidence is important for performing well under pressure.  So it's a useful cognitive shortcut to just assume that you make none.  The kinds of people who think that they are perfect are--as you may have experienced--actually far from it; they believe they can do no wrong, and refuse to notice mistakes and flaws even when you point them out.  These kinds of people never improve or change... so how do they ever become champions?  The stereotypical ego-champ is that person who realizes over time that they are super awesome at their game, and equates that with infallibility.  They see the fruits of their training, let it inflate into an identity of imagined perfection, and become immune to the reality that they aren't perfect.  Ironically, that denial can serve them very well under pressure that would normally crack other people.

Which isn't to say that all champions and skilled players are egotistical.  To repeat, the people who become good and keep themselves grounded are the ones who do all of the following:

--Constantly focus on self-improvement;
--Take the time to appreciate their successes, and congratulate themselves for doing things well;
--Give themselves room to make mistakes without equating those errors with low self-worth.

It can be really hard to tell a player interested in improving that it's okay to make mistakes.  The more you want to be successful, the less likely you are to be okay with errors, and the less you want to become complacent.  But if you only think in terms of mistakes, and never assign credit to success, you have to wonder why you're bothering to try and succeed in the first place.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Giving Up, Part 2

Okay so last week's post was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was also serious at the same time.  I don't think it's really okay to give up and quit.  But what do I mean by that?

I think it's okay to forfeit under the right circumstances.  It's fine (and sometimes the only respectful option) to concede or resign a game.  And there's nothing wrong with retiring.  But I'm not okay with quitting/giving up.  If that sounds like semantics, it kind of is, but here's why.

Conceding and resigning mean you recognize a completely unwinnable position, and respect that your opponent isn't going to blunder repeatedly and give you the game for free for no reason.  It happens in Chess when you simply lack the forces/position to compete with the opponent, and both of you can clearly see it.  It happens in Starcraft when you lose too many resources (units, workers, buildings), and your opponent's victory is nothing more than a formality.

You don't concede just because you're at a disadvantage, because people throw away advantages all the time.  You don't resign because winning is going to be tough, but doable.  You resign when you believe that, due to your opponent's competence and the current situation, your odds of winning have legitimately reached zero.  You concede when you've lost, but the game isn't over yet (I think the term for that is the "lame duck scenario").  I think you get the idea.

What makes that different from giving up?  The mental and emotional processes behind it.  Giving up is deciding that something is too hard or too hopeless from a position of despair, frustration, irritation, or laziness, rather than from your logical analysis of a game's position.  When there are ten minutes left on the clock, and you're down ten points (in something that's not soccer), and you say "ugh it's hopeless I quit," that's not okay.  When it's possible to make ridiculous comebacks with tight and perfect play, you don't say "well I'm not good enough and I never will be so I quit," you strive for tight and perfect play.  You attempt amazing things even when the pressure is on.  You can be three games down in a best of seven series, and win four in a row.  It has happened in the past and will happen in the future.  If your game allows for your comeback, you fight for that comeback.  One percent chance of victory is not a zero percent chance.

When you look at a scenario and decide--based on your knowledge and not on a desperate mood-swing--that it's unwinnable, and you acknowledge your opponent's competence by conceding, that's one thing.  When you quit your game or match from a position of despair or frustration, that's another.

I have a similar attitude towards retiring.  You may decide you legitimately don't derive satisfaction from playing your game.  You may decide that you've reached your goals, or decide that the goals don't matter as much to you as they did before.  Other things in life may crop up, and force you to stop playing the game.  That's fine.

Again, what matters is the process.  Do you come to this conclusion by examining everything carefully based on what you believe and value?  Do you do it based on an honest analysis of your life and future?  Or do you quit in a moment of frustration and rage, then work backwards to justify it?

One of those processes leads to decisions that are healthier for you in the long term.  One of them does not.  If you can guess which I think is which, congratulations, you're literate.

The last one I want to address is forfeiting.  Forfeiting is okay for life and health reasons.  It's okay to say, "hey I have a fracture in my arm, and I'm going to need this arm for the rest of my life, so I'm going to prioritize my long-term health over the desire to win this game.  If I seriously hurt myself I damage my ability to play in the future, and I'll probably regret not listening to my body.  I forfeit."  It's not okay to say, "I'm losing and my arm kind of hurts and I really want to quit.  Hey maybe the problem is my arm, I dunno."

As people we're really good at backwards rationalization.  We can decide that we want to quit--to avoid public failure, because we're having a crummy day, because whatever--and then look for legitimate sounding reasons to justify what we want to do.  We'd rather do what we want than what we don't want (obvious?) and it's really nice to have a "good" reason for doing it.  If you don't clearly establish your values and criteria for decision making beforehand, you can fall into that trap of making poor decisions for ostensibly good reasons.  Heck, you might do so anyhow.  Emotional and logical discrepancies are real.  Our fallibility is real.  What matters is the process we use for making our decisions.  Deciding things based on a momentary, illogical emotion, then reinforcing it with logic afterwards to avoid changing your mind is typically a poor way to do things.  Take it from somebody who has done it many times and regretted each one.

Thanks for reading.

PS:  On another note, the blog is down to once a week, because I'm kind of low on ideas for things to write.  I decided that then forgot to tell anybody.  I might update randomly so you can check the site whenever, but the solid update day is going to be Tuesday until stated otherwise.  Thanks again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Making a Beautiful Game

What is the point of getting good?

Let's put aside the material elements of vocation and occupation.  We will pretend you have a stable job and a wonderful significant other (others? I'm not judging) and somewhere in this materially satisfactory life of yours, you have the time and resources to train and play the game of your choice.

Let's also say that deep down you have no inferiority complex to fight or superiority complex to maintain, no fragile ego to preserve, no stained-glass self-image to keep unshattered.  You just really like the game.  So why not just hang out and unwind?  Why strive and invest and risk failure?

(Remember, no concrete/material/physical gains, and no neuroses involved)

In a story, there is an element that reigns above all others, the thing that every part of the story serves.  When you're learning to write, this is the only effect you truly care about.  Without it, you've lost.  You want the reader to keep asking: "What comes next?"

Plot, characters concept, dialogue, similes, metaphors, motifs, themes, atmosphere, setting, point-of-view, exposition, climax, none of it matters when the reader stops caring about what comes next.  That curiosity, that feeling, that's what every part of the story serves.  That effect is how you measure the strength and allure of the story.  You only want them to stop wondering what comes next when there's nothing left to read (sometimes not even then).

When it comes to our games, if you strip away material needs (like contracts and prizes) and insecurities and neuroses (like obsessive perfectionism and the need for validation through victory), that is the only thing that can last as motivation.  What will our game be tomorrow?  What can be done?  How good can it be?  How beautiful can we make our game?

That's why communities share knowledge, even when it isn't beneficial to the individuals.  The point isn't to defeat the ignorant.  We wouldn't distribute information, otherwise.  We wouldn't seek stronger opponents.  We would be content to remain the bigger fish in a tiny bowl with one smaller fish that we could bully forever.

But winning isn't valuable to us that way.  Our competitors are our friends and colleagues, because they help us create the game anew each time.  They help us make it better, sharper, faster, smarter, more cunning, more layered.  We want our opponents to know the tricks and find a way to land them anyhow.  We use sleight-of-mind, deception, mental artistry, we make them forget the things they thought they knew just long enough for them to work.  It's always fun to impress laypeople with simple magic tricks, but the real satisfaction comes from making a colleague think, for a breathtaking moment, that you might actually have supernatural power.

The following (very related) excerpt comes from a book by Patrick Rothfuss, called "The Wise Man's Fear":

"I think I'm finally getting my teeth into the game," I said an hour later after losing by the narrowest of margins.

Bredon pushed his chair away from the table with an expression of distaste.  "No," he said.  "Quite the opposite.  You have the basics, but you're missing the whole point."

I began to sort out the stones.  "The point is that I'm finally close to beating you after all this time."

"No," Bredon said.  "That's not it at all.  Tak is a subtle game.  That's the reason I have such trouble finding people who can play it.  Right now you are stomping about like a thug.  If anything you're worse than you were two days ago."

"Admit it," I said.  "I nearly had you that last time."

He merely scowled and pointed imperiously to the table.

I set to it with a will, smiling and humming, sure that today I would finally beat him.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  Bredon set his stones ruthlessly, not a breath of hesitation between his moves.  He tore me apart as easily as you rip a sheet of paper in half.

The game was over so quickly it left me breathless.

"Again," Bredon said, a note of command in his voice I'd never heard before.

I tried to rally, but the next game was worse.  I felt like a puppy fighting a wolf.  No.  I was a mouse at the mercy of an owl.  There was not even the pretense of a fight.  All I could do was run.

But I couldn't run fast enough.  This game was over sooner than the last.

"Again," he demanded.

And we played again.  This time, I was not even a living thing.  Bredon was calm and dispassionate as a butcher with a boning knife.  The game lasted about the length of time it takes to gut and bone a chicken.

At the end of it Bredon frowned and shook his hands briskly to both sides of the board, as if he had just washed them and was trying to flick them dry.

"Fine," I said, leaning back in my chair.  "I take your point.  You've been going easy on me."

"No," Bredon said with a grim look.  "That is far gone from the point I am trying to make."

"What then?"

"I am trying to make you understand the game," he said.  "The entire game, not just the fiddling about with stones.  The point is not to play as tight as you can.  The point is to be bold.  To be dangerous.  Be elegant."

He tapped the board with two fingers.  "Any man that's half awake can spot a trap that's laid for him.  But to stride in boldly with a plan to turn it on its ear, that is a marvelous thing."  He smiled without any of the grimness leaving his face.  "To set a trap and know someone will come in wary, ready with a trick of their own, then beat them.  That is twice marvelous."

Bredon's expression softened, and his voice became almost like an entreaty.  "Tak reflects the subtle turning of the world.  It is a mirror we hold to life.  No one wins a dance, boy.  The point of dancing is the motion that a body makes.  A well-played game of Tak reveals the moving of a mind.  There is a beauty to these things for those with eyes to see it."

He gestured at the brief and brutal lay of stones between us.  "Look at that.  Why would I ever want to win a game such as this?"

I looked down at the board.  "The point isn't to win?"  I asked.

"The point," Bredon said grandly, "is to play a beautiful game."  He lifted his hands and shrugged, his face breaking into a beatific smile.  "Why would I want to win anything other than a beautiful game?"

Knowing that you and your opponent are both strong, and that you have an amazing, intense match full of incredible moments is what ultimately makes the game rewarding.  The process of learning and creating greater and more beautiful matches is what keeps us coming back.  It's why we stay to watch the finals even when we've been eliminated.  Because we hope to see a beautiful game.  And the childish sense of wonder and want you feel when you witness it, the feeling of "man, I wish I could do that," is the hope that you'll be able to make one yourself.

Thanks for reading.