Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Steps to Take

So last week I wrote about myself, and it felt pretty good to do so.  It also seemed like a lot of people had similar experiences because I received numerous comments in person and online to that effect.  So that felt good also.

But the catch here is that although I described my experience in general terms, and said "it's getting better," I didn't really elaborate on specifics.  Anybody who has ever had a counselor or a therapist knows that when you have emotional issues or irrational biases that you've been nursing since childhood, they don't go away just by saying, "hey, I have this problem."

The reason is pretty simple; it's not enough to know facts about your emotions.  You must believe those facts strongly enough to turn them into new emotions.  And you don't do that just by reading a blog post that makes you feel good, you do it by.

One of my favorite books about happiness is "59 Seconds," by Richard Wiseman, precisely because it asks a simple question: "what concrete steps can we take to make ourselves happier?"  What experiences can we forge for ourselves that will take these distant facts about happiness and self-worth and turn them into real experiences?  Ideally, you pick steps and decisions that have been tested and demonstrated to actually work.  And even though I don't think all the material in the book is guaranteed to work, some of it is definitely useful (particularly gratitude exercises), and this question helped me keep focus when trying to improve my own mental state.

If a soccer coach said, "you need ball control," but didn't give you drills and exercises to improve your ball control, you would question his ability as a coach.  If you math teacher says, "you must learn how logarithms work," but then doesn't give you examples and doesn't show you how to use them, you would know they weren't a very good teacher.  Likewise, if somebody tells you, "hey you should be more compassionate towards yourself," but doesn't teach you ways to transform that "idea" into action, experience, and positive emotion, you should find somebody who gives better advice.

This is typically where you might find somebody who says, "well it's different for everybody.  You can't make people happy and you can't force people to change the way they think."  Sure, yes, okay, but that's no excuse not to put the advice out there.  There were things I did--not just words I heard or articles I read, but specific steps I took--that worked for me, and things that didn't.

So enough warm-up.  These are the things that I actively focused on, the exercises and rituals and practices that I used--and continue to use--to give myself more strength and stability in my emotional life.  Next to the name of the thing is the skill that it has been teaching me.

Metta Meditation -- Self-Compassion

The first and most important one--the one you must pick if you only pick a single one from this list--is called Metta meditation.  I read about it in a book called "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane, which is another very interesting read.  The exercise doesn't take long long, but it has huge positive consequences.  I would say that of everything I have ever done to improve my energy levels, my self-esteem, my motivation, and my resilience in the face of failure, this is the single most important and successful one.  When I am tired, down on myself, feeling stressed or pressured, I spend a couple minutes doing this exercise.  The few minutes I would take in between sets at Kings of Cali 2, for instance, were actually devoted to briefly running through this mental exercise.  This is the way I structured mine; anything in quotes is taken from Cabane's book.  Otherwise, I'm paraphrasing.

Here's how it goes:

1) Start by taking three deep breaths.  Imagine all the clean air rushing up to the top of your head, and then exhale in a rush, blowing out all stress and negative feeling.

2) Stop for a moment and think about something good that you have done.  It can be anything, from making somebody smile by holding the door for them, to driving a few minutes out of my way to give a friend a ride, to stopping before I post something angry online and reconsider what I wrote.  Personally, I try to think of a time where I have put forth genuine effort, and I compliment myself for trying my hardest, or for putting forth effort when I would have rather flaked or quit.

3) From the book: "Now think of one being, whether present or past, mythical or actual--Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama--who could have great affection for you."

4) "Picture this being in your mind.  Imagine their warmth, their kindness, and compassion.  See it in their eyes and face.  Feel their warmth radiating toward you, enveloping you.  See yourself through their eyes with warmth, kindness, and compassion.  Feel them giving you complete forgiveness for everything your inner critic says is wrong.  You are completely and absolutely forgiven.  You have a clean slate."

5) Say the following to yourself: "With all your imperfections, you are perfect.  For this phase of growth, you are perfect.  You are fully approved of just the way you are, at this stage of development, right now."

Why this works:

The goal of this exercise is to improve your self-compassion.  Not your self-esteem or your self-confidence, but your self-compassion.  The difference between self-compassion and self-esteem is pretty simple; if self-esteem is the strength of the animal that you're riding, then self-compassion is your ability to get back on it when you fall off.  It's the ability to forgive yourself, to acknowledge that you will make mistakes (sometimes big, goofy mistakes) and that you're still a worthwhile person even when you do it.  It's kind of ironic that you improve self-compassion by visualizing someone else showing it to you, but that's how we function most of the time.

Another distinction should be made here, which is that self-compassion is not the same as self-pity.  Self-pity involves looking at yourself and saying, "you suck.  You made a mistake and it's dumb.  How pathetic, how pitiful, how inferior you are.  How sad it is to be you.  I pity you."  Self-compassion is looking at yourself and saying, "obviously you make mistakes.  You're human.  What has happened to you is unfortunate.  But like all other humans, you now have a chance to move forward and improve, to do it better and move on.  You are a worthwhile human being as you are, and you have the capacity to become even better in the future."

When I do this exercise, I sit up straight somewhere comfortable, and I take a few deep breaths.  Then I try to congratulate myself for times when I put forth great effort, or when I refused to let a bad situation get me down.  I give myself credit for the things I have been trying to do.  Then, I visualize Mr. Fred Rogers telling me that he likes me just the way I am.  I tell myself, "I know you are trying your hardest to improve.  And you're not there yet, but you're moving forward with all your effort.  At this phase of growth, you are perfect as you are."

(Another analogy I use for myself is this: when I get in my car with the intent of driving somewhere that's five hours away, I don't get upset that I'm not there after one hour.  Likewise, in the process of self-improvement and learning, I have started far away from my destination, and not being there right away is not a sign that I'm driving in the wrong direction)

The immediate result is that I end up feeling more motivated and energetic, and I also feel a deep sense of okay-ness.  It isn't exactly blissful joy, but I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle my problems and goals with renewed vigor.  It also tells me that even if I do make mistakes like the rest of humanity does, I'm still a worthwhile and valuable member of their club, and with that fixed firmly in mind, I'm free to try my hardest without reservation.

Self-compassion is, as far as I can tell, the best way to neutralize fears, hangups, and the sources of stress that keep you from fully investing yourself in things.

Stillness Practice -- Impulse Awareness and Control

The exercise here is simple.  Pick a time of day when you have even five minutes to yourself.  Five minutes before you go out to get drinks, five minutes after you shower before you go to work or school.  Five minutes whenever.  You have it, trust me.

1) Sit down on the floor, or on the edge of your bed and set a timer for 5 minutes.  Use a phone or stopwatch or something.

2) Take some deep breaths, settle in, get comfy (but not too comfy).

3) Pick a simple sitting pose that you can hold for five minutes.  My posture is sitting on the edge of my bed, with my hands folded together and the fingers interlaced.  I lean forward with elbows on my knees.

4) Start the timer and assume your pose.

5) Don't move until five minutes have passed.  At all.  This includes itches, aches in your hands and feet.  Don't rustle from side to side.  Don't sweep your hair..  Don't lick your lips, don't yawn or swallow.  Breath, blink, and that's it.

Why this works:

What is the point?  One of the biggest challenges in our life is that we make decisions we are not aware of.  And this is fine, if those decisions are things like "check your mirrors for people about to rear-end your car," or "brush your teeth before bedtime."  In this case, we normally move and shuffle and scratch and adjust ourselves frequently without thinking about it.  The goal of this exercise is, for a scheduled period of time, to focus entirely on our impulses to move and get comfortable, and to push them away.

As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, our goal in life is not to avoid negative emotions and impulses, but to handle them with grace and control.  There are days when you must work, but you really don't want to.  So rather than say, "I won't work because I don't feel like it," you must stop and say, "I am aware that I don't feel like it, but my choice is to work anyhow."  And, personally, I derive a tremendous benefit from just spending 5 minutes keenly aware of my impulses to shift and move, and intentionally, consciously resisting them.  It sends me a message that my behavior is under my control, and my impulses are just suggestions, not the arbiters of my behavior, and I feel charged and in control as I go about my day.

When you sit there with a simple instruction like "sit still," you can't help but notice your impulses to move.  And as you become aware of your impulses, you also practice the ability to control them.  This feeling of control and security (for me, at least) spills over when I need my willpower for other things.

Effective Rest -- Compartmentalizing

One of the biggest problems I've had in the past is that I filled my rest time with mentally draining activities.  My father, one of the most effective and hard workers I know, during some of his free time, seems to completely switch himself off.  He will spend it in an armchair looking at nothing, or sometimes he will have the TV on (though later if you asked him what he watched, he barely remembers).  And this is because, just as your body must rest after running or lifting weights, your brain needs time to rest.  It needs honest recuperation from its work.  If you spend your rest thinking about all this other work you need to do or should do, or you go and practice something else that's really hard (while worrying about what you "should" be doing with your time), then you aren't resting.  You are actively engaging your mind with stress, and possibly frustration and guilt (which are remarkably unrestful emotions).

The answer is to compartmentalize your time.  When you work, work fully and unabashedly.  When you rest, rest completely.  Don't use your rest time to sit around talking with your friends about how stressful and tiring work is, because then all you're doing is activating the parts of your brain associated with work.  You recall all the problems and difficulties, you tell your brain "no, we can't rest, we're still working."  And that's where that feeling of "oh no not again" comes from when you wake up and have to go back.

And browsing Facebook, playing video games, paying attention to what's on TV, all that does is engage your brain constantly with more facts to keep up with.  You give it more questions of, "is this relevant information, should I discard this, that cat is posed hilariously but the caption kind of sucks," and then for some *strange and unimaginable reason,* you feel like you haven't rested at all.

But the brain is not so easy to switch off.  As long as it feels like something needs to be done, it will try to keep tabs on it.  But if you genuinely believe work time is over, then your brain will say, "okay, new environment, new rules."

1) Schedule your stopping time, and stop at it.  Period.  When work is over, work is over.  Still have something you need to get done?  That's fine, you will do it tomorrow.  Could you have worked harder, and guilt is setting in?  Well, use that guilt as fuel tomorrow.  No thinking about it now.  Work is over.  If you have something that must be done (your final piece of work on a project of some kind, perhaps), then stop when that thing is done, and don't schedule a time.  But schedule a clear stopping point, whether it's a specific action, or a specific time.  Do not keep pushing.  If you feel a strange compulsion to keep working, celebrate your desire to

Why would this help?  One of the biggest drains on mental resources while we're not working is, very simply, the guilt that we're not working.  But with a scheduled stopping time in place, you can safely say to yourself, "I worked the amount I was supposed to."  Clearly demarcate the boundary between work and not-work.  Don't let them blur.  Don't permit yourself to do mentally draining activities during your rest time.

2) When you stop working, don't evaluate how much work you got done, but how hard you worked.  The harder you worked, the more you celebrate and congratulate yourself.  I've mentioned time and again how much more valuable it is to celebrate a good process (hard work and honest attempts at improvement) than a good result.  A big part of this is because results aren't always under your control, but the process that you choose to use is.  If you're picking a genuinely good process and working hard at it, then good results are likely to come.  Reward yourself for a good process, and actively say, "I am proud that I worked hard today."  Again, destroy residual guilt you feel for not being busier.  If you are genuinely working hard and you aren't allotting yourself enough time to get things done, then you can easily say, "okay, I'll add another thirty minutes," or "I'll add another hour of work."

3) It works backwards.  When you work, permit no leisure related activities.  If possible, disable your internet and turn off your phone.  Your work time is your work time.  It is valuable.  It is the time of day that you produce and earn.  If you're a student, it's when you learn.  So schedule a stopping time for your rest as well.

Again, one of my problems has always been constantly worrying that I'm not achieving enough with my time.  Since I started designating specific times for work and achievement, and specific times for rest, I have simultaneously been more productive (and more rested) than ever.  The simple act of scheduling your starting and stopping points.

Does this seem like laziness?  It might.  But consider holidays.  Consider Sabbaths.  Even among the most hardcore, do-or-die religions out there, there are days of rest where you are forbidden from working.  I imagine this served a purpose beyond acknowledging the power of their respective deities, but it also kept people from running themselves into the ground.  Study after study shows that the most successful people have clearly designated the time they will rest.  They get good sleep, and they don't appear to be busy 100% of the time.


In short, the three biggest tools for me to feel better and be more active and productive have been:

1) Self-compassion -- being ready to forgive myself and acknowledge my value even when being imperfect.
2) Keener impulse awareness -- having a more active eye on what I want and why I want it.
3) Compartmentalizing my time -- Having clear stopping points, resting well.

If I had to pick the one that had the most dramatic and important improvement on myself, it's definitely #1.  Meditating on my value and giving myself the equivalent of a big mental hug jumpstarts me, it frees me from many of the biases and hangups that have bothered me since I was little.  And most importantly, it has given me strength when my other exercises and ideas aren't panning out.  If I screw up something, I don't just say, "wow, guess I was garbage after all."  I feel a surge of compassion for myself, followed by a renewed drive to work harder.

#2, however, was also very important to me, because I came to realize that my goal is not "avoid all negative emotion," but "understand, spot, and channel negative emotion before it turns to negative action."  I wanted something simple and something harmless that would let me briefly feel a shock of self-discipline that would carry over and help me resist other temptations, and this stillness exercise worked amazingly.

And #3 is important, because while it is very fruitful and very useful to learn to act in the event that you don't feel motivated and you don't feel energetic and you don't feel very happy (#2, at its finest), that is not a reason for you to deprive yourself of energy and motivation for the sake of busy-ness.  It makes you miserable and there's evidence that it even makes you less productive in the long run.  So if in the very short-term you must deprive yourself of rest to get something done, then so be it; if you have more long-term control, always opt for an efficient, compartmentalized rest/work cycle.  A failure to do so makes you feel like you're working intensely hard yet getting nothing done; without compartmentalizing, this is actually true, because your brain never stops working even when you stop producing.

The last point is that these exercises and strategies did not magically solve my problems immediately.  They give me short boosts.  I still fail.  I still get down on myself.  I still overreact.  I'm still not at my full capacity for productivity and happiness.  But it's getting better, and I return to my efforts even when I fall off the wagon.  That is why I think it will stick when other things have failed; I've targeted a root problem (my conditional and flimsy sense of self-worth), I frequently use an effective strategy to fix it, and as a result I'm improving more than ever before.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

About Me

The thing about this blog is that I write it as much to learn as to teach.  I force myself to have something useful or interesting to say about competition and games once a week, every week.  That forces me to try and think about interesting things and process them intelligently so I can express what I've been thinking.

This past weekend I took second place at Kings of Cali 2, and just by looking at me you could tell a lot of things are different from how they've been in the past.  I laughed at my losses and learned from them, I focused almost immediately after making errors, I had an amazing time, I neutralized all my stress and jitters, and--this was a nice bonus--I won most of my matches.  So I placed second, played well and won against a lot of amazing players, and had a great time.

If you've read much of what I've written on this blog so far, then a lot of the concepts I'm about to say won't be very new.  Instead, it's more personal.  It's about how the lessons I've tried to learn and communicate relate specifically to me.  It's pretty long, so get comfy.


Two things put me on the map as far as competitive Super Smash Brothers went.  First was popularizing the Ice Climbers' grab infinite--which was then named for me--and second was my temper.  People knew that I was good, but that I handled losing extremely poorly.  And it was very true.  I had a tendency to spike my controller after losing, cuss when I made mistakes, get depressed and angry after errors, and so on, ad nauseum.  It made playing with me quite a chore for most of my friends.  Some people thought I was a sore loser, some people thought I was a spoiled baby; both of which were actually kind of true, but the answer wasn't as cut-and-dry as that.

The thing is, I really wanted to be good.  A lot.  I wanted to play well, I wanted to believe that my efforts were paying off, I wanted people to recognize me as a solid player.  And losing--particularly in some of the very embarrassing ways I did--ran perfectly against my goals and desires.  So the natural responses were 1) get angry or 2) become depressed.  Like the champ I am, I typically chose both.

But WHY were those my goals?  Was it purely a love of the game?  That didn't quite explain it.  I also seemed to have a similar problem in every other endeavor, with everything else I tried.  I got mad at tiny mistakes.  I became depressed when I wasn't the best.  It didn't even matter if I liked the thing in question, so clearly "love of Smash" didn't make a whole lot of sense as an explanation.  Perhaps the "spoiled angry baby" hypothesis was more applicable.

I spent a lot of time exploring depression and bipolar disorder as the reason why I had such poor emotional control.  A chemical imbalance potentially covered the bases; why could I logically explain to myself that little mistakes weren't representative of my skill level, but flip out when I made them?  When things didn't go my way, I totally overreacted, even though I knew how irrational it was.

Yet therapy and medications didn't seem to really help.  There were placebo short-term benefits from feeling like I was finally taking care of my problem, but the results never lasted.  And soon I'd throw a controller, or become a depressed recluse, or maybe do both.  I had to be good, or I was terrible.  There wasn't a middle-ground that was okay with me.  Why?

Well, I wanted to figure out exactly what the problem was, so I started reading and writing.  I started my first blog, Eskimo Sister, to be about Melee and also about my personal journey.  So I wrote things and thought about things, and still made relatively little progress.  I would take a few steps forward, and then backslide completely, sometimes ending worse off than before.  Still nothing.  I wanted to quit Smash--and everything else I had ever liked--but I had to figure out why I couldn't handle it.  Smash, by this point, had become the measurement of my mental stability.  And the measurement was pretty poor.  I still became irrationally angry over little errors, and still judged myself ruthlessly whenever I wasn't perfect, which was always.

I started to read more about psychology and rationality just because I wanted to know what my own deal was.  And so I would read a book about focus, and an exercise or study would cause me to reach a new book or blog, and so it would go.  And I learned, but the underlying cause of my problems evaded me.  It felt like I was always chasing new ideas and wacky schemes for improving myself, searching for magic pills while on a deep, innate level, I was just flawed.

At this point, I still hadn't graduated from college, and I was twenty-four years old.  I'd finally found a happy relationship after one emotionally abusive one followed by years of rejections and disappointments, and even that ended, leaving me lower and more depressed than ever.  I was still mentally and emotionally unstable across the board, and it was just getting worse the more effort I put into it.  I continued reading--when I felt I had the energy to do so--and continued searching and failing to improve.  Up and down, up and down.

This was just a little more than a year ago.  It was only very recently that I found a piece of the puzzle that helped put into perspective most of the things I read and discovered, to create a comprehensive picture of my problem.  So without further ado, here's the big secret.

The answer is that I felt I had absolutely no value as a human being unless I was amazing at something.  Incredible success was the standard I held myself to, and anytime I didn't meet it, I was completely worthless.  So if I began something, any endeavor at all, if I wasn't perfect, I was garbage.  And, for a reason I'm about to explain, I believed this on a deep emotional level that resisted any attempt at logical persuasion to the contrary.

The reason I thought this way originated from when I was younger; I tended to be good at things when I first started, and I loved throwing all my effort at stuff.  If I played a game, I would practice and learn and read about it and practice more and try to be great at it, because learning was a lot of fun.  And I received the compliment you should only give a child sparingly, which is I was told I was talented.  I was smart.  I was gifted.  And as I heard this over and over again, I slowly expected that I had to always succeed at things.  Because if I didn't, then I clearly wasn't all those things.  If I wasn't talented, smart, and gifted, then I wasn't anything at all.

I heard it again and again, that I had such great gifts.  People thought I was "just good" at stuff, without seeing that I also tried very hard to be good at them.  This isn't to whine, because these people clearly meant what they were saying as a compliment, and not a complaint.  Who wouldn't feel great about being told that they had a talent and a gift?  They thought it was great.  And I thought it was great too.  But over time, friends and family just kind of expected me to be good at things.  If I was, that was just me being me.  If I wasn't, that was something to comment on.  Something was wrong or weird.

My high scores on tests were expected and rarely complimented.  My low scores were problems.  I could pick up most things quickly, but when I ran into obstacles, I began to panic that I didn't have talent, or that it just wasn't "for me."  I would freak out when I didn't do perfectly, and when I did do things extremely well, I didn't feel any satisfaction, because all I'd done was hit my baseline.  And my parents didn't really notice this for a few reasons.

Number one--and this is why everything I'm saying is meant to have no trace of bitterness or grudge or disrespect in it, whatsoever--is because my brother had a serious stomach problem.  For years he was constantly ill and nobody could figure out what was wrong.  My mother pushed and fought with doctors and yelled at hospital staff and made herself look like a lunatic because nothing they recommended or did was working.  They thought she wanted my brother to be sick, but everyone in the family knew that he vomited half of what he ate and missed school constantly.  And finally, after years of pushing, we finally found out what the problem was; his digestive tract was misaligned due to an organ being rotated strangely, causing it to malfunction about 97% of the time.  This also coincided with his appendix nearly bursting, and he barely survived this whole ordeal because he got surgery in time.  After this was all fixed, he became a dynamo of energy, handling school work and numerous after-school clubs with ruthless fervor.

Reason two is that I was getting pretty solid grades and I wasn't causing problems.  I kept quiet when I was depressed because my parents were (rightfully) busy taking care of my brother.  And because I didn't get in fights, do drugs, or fail my classes, it seemed like everything was going well.  The fact that most of my free time was spent on games and my response to stress was to hide in my room, eat junk food, and wait until everything blew over was a non-issue; after all, I was meeting every standard measure of success.

I developed a lot of bad habits in that time (like poor study skills and low-self discipline), but the most important one for purposes of this little memoir is that I thought I had to be perfect all the time.  And it seemed like nobody cared when I tried my hardest and succeeded, and they only cared when I failed.  Failure, of course, being defined as a lack of perfection.  And because I was so rarely perfect (like most human beings we know) I constantly felt like a failure.  Like I had little value.  And nobody was going to notice this, since by this point I'd developed a habit of silence when it came to my problems (because I'd rather deal with problems privately than have people hear about them and comment on them).

What's funny (or rather, awful) is that as I progressed in Smash, the same thing seemed to occur.  When you're the best, whether at the entire game or just in your region or neighborhood, people expect you to win.  If you beat all your friends, only your losses are noticeable.  Why compliment somebody for doing what they always do?  The pattern reinforced itself over time as I became better and better; I had to always win and succeed, but if I did, it didn't matter.

At this point, whether it was in school, or friendships, or Melee, I used most of my energy comparing myself to perfection and worrying about how people perceived me.  So when I screwed up anything at all, I became miserable.  I had little self-discipline because I'd never really needed it growing up.  When things got rough, I panicked and quit, or stuck it out while growing more and more depressed.

And when I realized all of this, only in the past month or so, at first I was angry as hell.  I felt infuriated that I'd wasted my time.  I saw the pattern everywhere.  I was always looking for something to give me value, because unless I was amazing or perfect, I didn't have any.  When I liked a girl and she turned me down, I didn't receive the message, "sorry, I don't see you that way," but I heard "you're worthless."  When I made mistakes, I didn't think, "ah, I thought this here, which is understandable, but should have focused on this, I'll try harder next time;" I thought, "God I'm stupid."  And of course, if I made an error in Melee, I compared myself to an imaginary perfect player, and wondered why I wasn't him, and it left me feeling miserable.

Lately, I've calmed down a lot.  I began to identify my weaknesses and work on them.  I started looking at my mistakes with compassion, and praising myself more for my efforts and perseverance than my immediate successes.  I started trying to use my negative emotions and turn them into positive energy, rather than constantly try to run and hide from them because they meant I was emotionally unstable.  And this past weekend I went to a tournament in California, laughed when I screwed up, stayed calm when I made mistakes, and had an amazing time, knowing full well that even if I made mistakes and scrubbed out early, I was still a great player and a worthwhile person.  And with so much mental real-estate left over to focus on the game instead of all my self-inflicted pressure, I got 2nd place when stacked up against a lot of incredible players.

My victory wasn't just over those players, but it was over a series of long-standing bad mental and emotional habits.  It felt amazing just to be sitting in the company of incredible players, and it felt even more amazing to stay relaxed and focused.  When I was behind, I stayed calm.  When I was ahead, I didn't start panicking and worrying about whether I was just going to ruin it.  I was just incredibly happy.  I'm also confident it's going to stick this time.


So because this is, first and foremost, a blog meant to be instructional and informational, these are the lessons, the most important points I've written about so far.

1) You have value regardless of your output.  It's okay not to be the best.  It's even okay not to be that good!  As long as you are putting forth serious, genuine effort and striving to get better, whether as a competitor or a person, then you have nothing to be ashamed of.  And even if you haven't tried your hardest in the past, you have opportunities now and in the future to do so.  You're learning.  You're working.  And even if things don't turn out perfect, you matter.

2) Value your process over your results.  I grew up getting good grades with cram-tactics, fueling myself with misery-inducing pressure.  My results were great at the time, but my process could not last.  The same is true of so many things, where we take shortcuts for short-term results, and end up hurting ourselves in the long run.  And remember lesson 1, because even if you aren't always winning, what matters is that you're trying to do things the "right way," because that's how you'll end up with better results a majority of the time.  And, of course, if you understand the rules, you'll know how to break them when your results truly do matter and you have to do everything in your power to achieve them.

3) It's not about never feeling unhappy, it's about channeling negative emotion.  Your anger, your sadness, your irritations, your stress, they all come from concrete sources.  When you identify the source and understand the reason, you can take those feelings and turn them into fuel.  Don't run from them and don't deny them, because you never end up finding out what's causing them.  Emotions always crop up and will always be in your life; make them your guides and not your gods.  I spent a lot of time wondering why I was always feeling stressed and worried and angry and depressed.  One of the reasons is that I always tried to run from those emotions.  Because I feared them, they were always on my mind, and because they were on my mind, I could never get away from them.  And I never will, because they're part of being human.  But I've started looking at them more honestly, and I've become more comfortable with them.  They have a time and place, and they can all be used to serve my purposes.

So with those things in mind, I hope to see as many of my awesome readers as possible at Evo (since right now, that's the only tournament I have planned in my near future).  There are going to be amazing opponents there so I can't promise anything with regards to my results, but I can promise that you will see me smiling.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Lowering Expectations

Somebody responded to one of my posts, saying that lowering your expectations is a common strategy for people to reduce stress and do better.  I agree with this.

To clarify my own original point, I don't just lower my expectations.  I explicitly instruct myself to lose.  I convince myself that failure is inevitable.  But then, to avoid cognitive dissonance, I think "well, I must be okay with that, because I know I'm going to fail, but I'm still playing.  So clearly I have to enjoy myself."  And then I play better.  I don't know if that's best for everybody.  But it did make me think more heavily about the implications of lowering your expectations, so I want to talk about it today.

The first point I want to address is this: unless we go to great effort to do otherwise, we measure things relatively.  So if your expectations are low, you will measure performance and results relative to those low expectations and almost always be satisfied.  In this way, you are not always the best judge of your performance or results, particularly when your expectations are low.  This idea comes to light particularly when looking at the big fish in the small pond; maybe Jackie is the best player on the local soccer team.  Because his competition is (probably) of a low caliber, he rates himself relative to it, and finds himself the best.  Then he plays somebody who knows a damn about soccer and gets crushed.  If you've ever played a video game with somebody who is used to beating all their friends, you may understand this well!  We measure relatively.

For further, somewhat related reading, consider the psychological phenomenon of anchoring.

However, to counter this, we (tend to) perform better when our expectations are lowered because we are relaxed.  By not wasting mental energy thinking about failure and disappointment and frustration, we free up more to think about the game.  By not tensing up the entire body, we avoid wasting physical energy where it isn't useful.  The flight-or-fight mechanism is useful, but not over a prolonged period of time; it needs to come and go at the right instances.  Unnecessary stress triggers the release of those chemicals long before they're wanted, and low expectations can counter stress.

But how do you trick yourself even when you know better?  How do you lower your expectations so you can perform better, when the reason for performing well is having high expectations?

Well, to start, think backwards a bit.  We are already amazingly good at tricking ourselves when we know better.  Think of all the times you've done it to yourself, when you've felt an emotional response that didn't match with your own logical interpretation of events.  The key is triggering the emotional response.

Visualization is useful here; we're very good at emotionally reacting to things just because we imagine them happening.  So imagine yourself losing or playing poorly and loving it.  Imagine yourself laughing every time you screw up and shrugging it off.  Imagine a revered authority figure that you trust giving you a big hug and saying, "it's okay."  Imagine walking off the field after getting slaughtered with your arms held high and having a big smile on your face.  Imagine the worst case scenario and then imagine being insanely happy.

Then go out there and try your best, because you are free to do so.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Five Things

Five Things

This post is a bit haphazard.  It's mostly small, random observations I've picked up over time.  There's not much of a theme, other than "hey, stuff is weird sometimes."

1) People who try to improve sometimes only see failure.

Why do sometimes exceptionally nice and smart people have low self-esteem?  Why?  And why is it that some players are convinced that they aren't good at what they do?

This is because, in the quest for improvement, you can try to create, understand, and implement new strategies and techniques.  You can try to optimize things you already do, and tighten up your game.  Or you can try to eliminate clear errors.  And when you're focused on eliminating your errors, they become all you see.  When you start to see your gameplay as a roof held together by the holes, it's easy to lose track of the things you do right.

So remember that, especially because...

2) The worst of the best may not realize how good they are.

Consider this made-up conversation.

"Hey buddy, you look kind of depressed."
"I was in a tournament yesterday and I got last place.  I'm really bummed."
"Oh yeah?  Which tournament?"
"The 'Five Best Players in All Time And Space Invitational."

Maybe you have the lightest bench press in your gym, so you're stuck at a measly, pathetic, featherweight 850 pound bench press.  The fact that your gym is frequented by a bunch of guys all competing to break the next world record is a point of non-interest.  You're the worst.  Sad little muscle-man.

You will be measured (and generally you will measure yourself) by the company you keep.  If you only keep company with the best of the best of the best, odds are you will feel like the lowest of the low.  Ignoring that you may be better than a few billion other people at what you do.  These five people can do it better?  Yeah, you're a scrub.

Corollary to this?  When the best players of a game face against each other, sometimes they make one another look like idiots.  Most of the time, they aren't actually that bad; when the competition is crazy good and you aren't 100% on your game, they rip into you for every little error.  An off day against some people makes you feel like a leaf in a typhoon.  And no, it doesn't look any better on video, either.

3) Funnily enough, that means that sometimes close matches happen because great players are playing badly.

This one is kind of anecdotal.  I was in a tournament match against a friend of mine, and it came down to the wire in the last game of the set.  The people behind us were going crazy.  I barely clutched out the win.  And afterwards, when we talked about the match, neither of us could stop talking about how bad we were playing.

We were both constantly letting little things slide that we normally wouldn't have let go.  We were making error after error, and since most people couldn't see what those mistakes were, they assumed that we were just doing a really good job of escaping dangerous situations.  We didn't really have the heart to tell them, since at least they were having a good time.

In fact, two players playing magnificently might lead to very boring plays because they aren't making mistakes.  After all...

4) Most openings and advantages come from errors.

If you want to start winning games of ping-pong against people, learn to keep the ball in play.  People give away points for free all the time, so until you're facing people who are pretty decent, you don't even need to try to score.  In fact, if you think about describing somebody's gameplay as "solid," that's exactly what it means!  Stable, sturdy, and free of holes.  And if you're ever at a loss for how you can improve at something, start hunting for mistakes.  The places you are off balance or give away momentum because of an innocuous habit.  And don't forget, the better you get, the more subtle and minor the mistakes may become.

Of course, having done that, please watch out for observation #1.  And to finish off, completely unrelated to the first four points...

5) Your bull**** is unfair.  Mine takes skill.

It isn't fair that your character has ambiguous crossups.  And it's not fair that this character has an instant overhead.  This one has a 60% combo off a throw, and this one has a nasty projectile wall that can zone me indefinitely if you guess right.  It's stupid.

Okay yes, mine has projectile invincibility on this dash.  My zero-frame command grab starts the meanest wake-up game known to man.  My race in this RTS has the fastest aggressive unit for cheese rushes.  I can camp forever because my character has a million jumps and air-dashes.  Certain combos don't work on me because of my character's hitbox.  But my stuff takes skill, okay?  It's actually hard.  Yours isn't.

And that's why I don't play your despicable, easy-cheesy character.  Because I have real skill.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!