Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Losing, Participation, and Feeling Good

When it comes to losing and how you should approach competition, I guess my stance on the whole subject is a little weird.

Part of it comes from a belief I've come to develop, which is that pain, discomfort, frustration, and failure are not the same thing as unhappiness.  In fact, the happiest people seem to be the ones who deal with pain, discomfort, frustration, and failure the best.  It's not about avoiding those unpleasant emotions, it's about learning how to weather them and channel them.  It's about confidence in knowing that your mind's architecture is solid enough to handle any storm.  And there's really only one way to develop that strength, which is by experiencing the negative emotions.  You don't learn how to do things by not doing them until you're good at them, and the same thing comes from learning how to handle the unpleasant aspects of life.

Another analogy you could use would be comparing your emotional responses to your immune system.  The immune system gets stronger by experiencing diseases, provided those diseases don't kill you or cripple you.  Healthy people are the ones who experience a tolerable amount of invasion that their body learns to handle.  So as long as you aren't ravaged by a disease (or traumatized by an unpleasant event) then it does, indeed, make you stronger.

And competition, as we know it in the forms of games and events, is mostly useful for one thing, which is teaching us how to handle life.  So if we're going to learn how to bounce back from (inevitable) failure, we need to experience it.  We need to learn to deal with being tired and unmotivated.  We need to learn to deal with looking stupid in front of people who want nothing more than to see us fail.  We have to learn to do necessary stuff that isn't any fun, and we have to learn to focus and be stoic even when we aren't inspired or excited to show up to life that day.

Another belief I have is that winning is important, which is why you shouldn't focus on it.  That's kind of goofy.  Consistent performance matters, and obsessing over short term results can often lead to bad habits, so you have to ignore results initially.  When you focus on getting your routines right, you end up with more success.  An analogy for this case would be working out; you want to work out with good form even if it means you have fewer repetitions than your gym buddies, because if you cheat and kip and spaz to get higher numbers, you inhibit your long-term progress and run the risk of injury.  If you obsess over winning now, you might cripple your chances of winning later... so because winning (or achieving your goal) is important, there are times when you have to ignore it.  The real question to ask is, "did I do this the right way," not "did I get a good result?"  Even though there (rightfully) is overlap between the two, you focus on the first because it leads to more of the second.

Do I believe in things like participation ribbons?  Well, sort of.  You start your successes by showing up to the game, and you shouldn't tell kids that "if you don't think you're gonna win, don't bother showing up."  But the thing is, you participate to learn, and you learn so you can succeed, and you try to succeed because you don't want to fail.  So reward kids not just for showing up, but for showing up and trying hard to win.  For investing and improving.  Don't reward them for talent, reward them for effort, since talent already rewards itself.  And if they screw around, kick them in the shins.  Or, I don't know, scold them.

Something I don't believe in is telling people to "find what you love, and do it," because you end up not doing anything.  Like I said before, everything sucks sometimes.  People don't love what they do everyday.  It's not how things actually happen in real life.  Some days you get up and the last thing you want to do is write, or plant seeds, or make another blasted chart about the behavior of rats in a lab.  If you tell people "when you do what you love, it doesn't feel like work," then they will often equate that lesson with "if it feels like work, I shouldn't be doing it."  Which is a really useless way to maintain a healthy mindset (or society, really).  You learn to do stuff even when you don't love it.  Otherwise you end up with parents who leave their baby at a Chuck'E'Cheese so they can road trip to Las Vegas because the darn thing was crying too loudly.

It's like above, you teach people to become comfortable with discomfort, with losing, with being annoyed, with being frustrated.  You teach them to channel the unpleasant energy somewhere useful so they can focus on what matters.  So that when they're tired and unmotivated after their shift at the bank, they still have the fortitude to work on their novel while other people are putting it off, even though they definitely don't love the idea of writing that day.

Because what it comes down to isn't how we avoid adversity and unpleasantness and loss forever.  It's how we teach ourselves to weather them and channel them and use them.  That way we do what we love even when we don't love it, and we keep getting stronger.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Advice regarding advice

If you know me (or, you know, have read anything on this blog), you know that I like to give lots of advice.

But I've come to believe that many of the pieces of advice I give just don't work for other people.  I think it's because your brain is a big pattern-recognizing, association machine.  Patterns and associations are formed from experience, and experiences differ from person to person.  So my advice might not fit you.

This is a personal example: one of my biggest problems is that I always, always, always have extremely high expectations of myself.  Sometimes it drives me to keep learning and trying to perfect the things that I do (which helps me become better, which is great), but it also kills my motivation when I first start out.  I may have no expectations of myself at the start, but as I learn more about my field (or game, or skill), I create an image in my head of what it means to be perfect at it.  Then I start comparing myself against that perfection.  The farther away from it I am, the worse I feel.  If I feel that perfection is within reach, I keep going, and if not, I stop.  Not very efficient, or enjoyable.

So I'm very good at starting lots of new things and trying lots of new ideas, in the same way that somebody can be good at quitting smoking after trying it twenty times.

One of the only ways that I can fix this is by telling myself repeatedly that I'm going to fail.  Doing this relieves my stress.  It relieves the pressure that I feel to be perfect and always present a perfect image to other people, because I know from the start that things won't work out.  Then sometimes they do.

I don't know of a lot of people who suggest that you boost your self-confidence by telling yourself that you're going to fail and lose.  But it works for me, much more than the belief that I'm going to win.  This is because my thought processes, my associations and my experiences, have conditioned me to increase pressure and frustration the higher my expectations.  So if I say, "hey, I'm going to win," then I create "victory" as my new baseline.  Anything that deviates from the baseline frustrates and upsets me, hindering clear thought and performance.

But if my expectation is "constant failure," then I don't experience the performance-killing stress and frustration that normally comes from my perfectionism.  There are people out there who are afraid of failure.  I'm not.  I just hate it so much that it makes me want to break stuff.  The only way to counteract it, for me, is to assume it and believe it from the outset, and get comfortable with it to begin with.  If I know I'm going to fail, but I try anyhow, I can't be mad.   Not getting mad lets me concentrate and succeed more, at which point I tell myself it isn't going to last.  I hope that doesn't sound depressing, because it actually puts me in a pretty good mood.

Like I said though, how am I supposed to recommend this to other people?  I can't.  Some people shake off unexpected failures a lot better than me, and will gain more strength from believing, "not only can I win, I'm guaranteed to win."  Some people benefit more from thinking neither about winning or losing, but simply from having a gameplan that they focus on, without worrying about the outcome.  I'm guessing there are a million and one tricks and routines you can try that will help you get into the winning state of mind.

Why?  Because you have a personal, optimal emotional state for performance.  You have also lived a unique life, obtained different experiences from other people.  Those experiences trigger different associations, triggering different emotions.  Following that chain is part of understanding what makes you tick, and what puts you in the right frame of mind for doing your best.  And that's why a blog that tries to dispense helpful advice isn't always very helpful.  And why even if your very wise and very understanding mentor gives you advice that sounds sage and timeless, it actually just might not apply to you.

I'm worried about saying that, because it's the kind of thing somebody might use as an excuse to just totally ignore advice.  You shouldn't ignore advice, especially from intelligent and successful sources.  But you must always think critically about the advice you receive.  You need to test it, collect data on it, see the results, and try to understand yourself more as a result.  Figure out if and how that advice fits for you.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Doing Things The Hard Way

Randomly pulled from a Facebook post quoting a comment on a picture on a website somewhere:

"The idea that vinyl djs are better is a bunch of bull****. Why, because it requires more physical labor to switch to the next song than on a computer? Because you have to know where a song starts and ends by heart since you don't have a program telling you when it will end? Because you have to beat match in your head?"

The subject, if you can't tell by context, was whether DJ'ing manually--that is, doing it with vinyl and manually switching the made you a better DJ.  So today's post is about doing things the hard way, and how that relates to technology.

Technology is making it possible to automate things we used to do manually.  Technology means we can get dangerous tasks done without risking ourselves.  A machine's capacity for precision and rapidity over long periods of time lets it do the tedious faster and better than a human can (or wants to).  And with technology we can do things that are otherwise impossible, based on the limits of our body and mind.

There are several benefits to not using technology to do work for you.  My stance in most cases is that even if--at the highest level--you do use technology to amplify performance, you should learn how to do things without it.

First, and most obvious, sometimes technology fails you.  Maybe the tool you are using breaks.  Maybe it just doesn't work in this specific, weird scenario.  Maybe you leave it at home.  Whatever.  If you rely on technology to do things for you, and your technology doesn't work, then nothing gets done.  Since most people value the technology for its ability to produce results, this ought to be a valuable enough reason in its own right.  If it's really important that something get done, then someone out there needs to know how to do it manually.

Second, understanding how a skill works only improves your ability to utilize technology.  You will get more mileage out of digital editing tools if you are already a strong artist.  You will be more efficient with a calculator if you can skip over lots of little steps by relying on your own math, and using it for the parts that are beyond your human capabilities or would require lots of double checking.

Third, there's an element to technological assistance that is simultaneously a strength and weakness; it eliminates choices.  That can be really great for a beginner, because too many choices overwhelm us.  When you're a beginner at something and have no idea what kinds of choices you want to make, the best option for getting results is choice restriction.  Options and choices are for people who know what they are doing to begin with.

Sometimes technology is designed to make things easier for people who aren't ordinarily skilled.  The only way to keep the beginners from making some of those bad choices is by not permitting them to begin with!  But, like I said at the beginning of the article, many things don't boil down to "good" or "bad," or "better" and "worse;" things are relative.  The right answer is almost always "well, it depends."  Part of being skilled is knowing when to break rules.  If you want to learning as much nuance as you can, it typically means doing things on your own and making mistakes.

The thing to remember about difficulty and learning is that results are for the audience, and process is for the creator.  If all you care about is having cool music at your fingertips, there's no requirement that you make it yourself.  Becoming a musician isn't about the desire to have music, it's about making it.  And that isn't always about "having made music," but about going through the part where you explore your chords and melody and counterpoint.  Having something make it for you destroys that part of the endeavor.  Going back to comment that sparked this post, using technology without learning the manual aspect first is a shortcut to quick results.  If you want people to think you are a good DJ without having to learn the ins and outs of being one, then you're not a DJ, you're a tool.  If you just want a neat mix for a party, then heck, why not?  If you want to make something that genuinely surprises people and makes them sit up, then you would want real understanding, which is usually obtained by doing things the hard way first.

Perhaps you've heard the common joke about a dad forcing his kid to mow the lawn or do tedious chores, and when asked why--"why should I make my bed when I'm going to make it messy again?"--the answer is "because it builds character."  It's a terrible way to explain it (and media often makes the dad look like a jerk), but it's accurate.  Learning to concentrate and focus through tedium is a skill.  Learning to perform and succeed even when bored or uncomfortable is a skill.  Learning to do things slowly and agonizingly without technology is a skill.  Even if the only thing you learn is to be appreciative of the technology you have, then that's a valuable way to spend your time.  Doing things the hard way and the tedious way does build character.

Here's something else to consider: the main reason that sports, games, and art excite us is because humans are involved.  We want to see what others are capable of.  We want to test what we are capable of.  Technology is only useful in this regard as long as we continue to be involved.  If technology lets us expand and capitalize on our own creativity and skill, then we remain interested.  Once the technology eliminates us from the equation, self-centered as we are, we tend to lose that interest.  From a purely practical standpoint--useful but uninteresting or dangerous tasks--this isn't really a big deal.  In the case of art and competition, it's everything.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Teaching New Players

There's a lot that goes into teaching somebody a game or skill that's completely new to them.  And there's also a reason why people who make excellent players don't always make very good teachers, and vice-versa.  This isn't always true, and it's definitely less true in certain fields and games than in others, but it is definitely a trend.

The main issue comes down to extrinsic knowledge and intrinsic knowledge, which is another way of saying, "stuff you know that you know" and "stuff you know without thinking about."  In more fast-paced games with quick, snap-decisions, a lot of it comes down to intrinsic knowledge.  You want to make decisions instantly without thinking.  You "feel" the right choice, because you don't have time to logically map stuff out.  The more fast-paced your game, the more important this is.  The more slow-paced, the more you can analyze and break things down.  You need both to be a successful player, but the extent depends on the game.

Good teachers have lots of extrinsic knowledge.  They can explain the things that work, and why they work.  There's a surprising number of players I've seen who, when asked what a newer player can do to see better results, reply with "play better."  Which, while technically accurate, isn't always the most helpful.*

A more helpful answer might be, "you aren't paying enough attention to this enough, and it's causing you to make poor decisions."  Or, "you need to widen your stance, so you don't lose balance in this situation."

Compare that to really intuitive players.  Though they can definitely be successful, they typically don't teach quite as well.  "I don't know, I just kind of do it," is the kind of thing you hear from them.

This is why even if your training partner is the best player in the world, it's possible they won't be able to help you except by being an inspiration.  But if you have a knowledgeable and experienced player teaching you, one that understands improvement and skill development (even though they may not be a high-ranking player), you might become an amazing player with that person as your guide.

Not all knowledgeable people with high levels of extrinsic knowledge are good teachers.  Good teachers also know how to transform it into intrinsic knowledge in somebody else.  They know how to drill new players, they understand which skills should be learned first and what to prioritize.  They can help you unlearn bad habits and how to avoid them.  Just being a fact dispensary and trivia master isn't enough.  Teachers can't just possess, they must transfer.

And we haven't even touched on the personal aspect of teaching!  Personalities need to mesh.  Your student needs to trust not just your knowledge, but your character.  You need to do little things that maintain their interest--you can't turn a completely unwilling student into a great one, but there ARE little things that can turn material that's hard to digest into stuff that's fun and engaging.  And even if you can't take a bad student and turn them into a great one, there are lots of little things that can take an agreeable and enthusiastic student and make them unhappy and closed off.  When your student is amazing, just avoiding lots of little mistakes as a teacher is even more important than being an amazing empath.

It can also be very hard to be a teacher and a player at the same time; the time you spend teaching is time you could spend practicing.  Teachers are also expected to have more knowledge (and when the student is very new, more skill) so it can be tough to try and play your hardest and push yourself while you're taking it easy on someone new.  If you completely stomp a new player too much and don't give them the chance to try the things you teach them, then you're wasting both of your time (and probably discouraging them).

A decent way to mitigate that problem is to set up drills that both of you can work on.  If you're a higher level player than the other person, it sets a solid standard for them to work to.  If it's an important fundamental, then there is never a reason not to be drilling it, no matter how good you are.

Thanks for reading!  See you next week.

*"Play better" isn't very helpful.... except when it is.  Sometimes players look for gimmicks and secret answers that will immediately solve all their problems, when really, the answer is just "train and improve the things you're already doing."  When you avoid the trap of magic bullet hunting and strive to improve your fundamentals, you move to becoming a solid and amazing player.  Sometimes, just hearing that from a pro is what it takes to get better.