Friday, November 22, 2013

Who Is Your Best Friend?

How do you become good at something?  Whether you’re talking about life or games, what is the thing that teaches you the most?

The answer is adversity.  Challenge.  Opponents, rivals, circumstance, restrictions. You act against the challenge, and receive feedback. That information tells you how to act differently, and that is how you acquire skill.

You might be inclined to answer “teachers,” but they can’t teach you much without also setting up challenges for you to overcome.  You can’t really learn unless there’s an opportunity to fail.  Even being asked a question, “what is two plus two?” has a failure parameter of failing to demonstrate, in some manner, the number four.  The consequence of failure may vary, but the success or failure remains. A teacher can help the process along (or hinder it, if they're bad) but ultimately it comes down to you, responding to a challenge.

I would argue that a skill comes down to three basic parts: recognition, decision, and execution.  Recognition involves seeing the situation and understanding it.  Decision-making involves deciding on a response to the situation.  Execution means performing the response successfully.  Each of these elements is trained under a circumstance where you have the opportunity to fail.  A skill’s difficulty represents the range of actions--in all three categories--that leads to improperly performing the skill.  If you can’t possibly interpret the situation incorrectly, or make an incorrect decision, or execute in a way that leads to failure, the skill is infinitely easy.  If there is no range to interpret, decide, or execute correctly, then the skill can be considered impossible.

The way that we grow at skills is by testing the boundaries of failure with our bodies and minds.  Adversity, challenge, and restrictions impose those boundaries on us, and teach us to act within them.  If we’re interested in growing on our own, then we have to impose those things on ourselves somehow.  When you’re playing any kind of game with an opponent, then your opponent is the person who helps impose those boundaries upon you.

Which is why, of all the people you interact with, it will be your opponents, your challenges, and your adversity that are your best friends.  They will give you the feedback necessary for success, by demonstrating to you where you have failed and succeeded.  They let you know you can grow and change and improve and strive. Whether it's the environment forcing you to become stronger to survive, or somebody challenging your viewpoint in a debate, or a sportsman opposing you on the field, they force you to examine where you are lacking and pick up the slack.

It’s why it can be difficult to become highly-skilled without a strong community of opponents around you.  The main skills that people tend to master under these circumstances are often mechanical, and even then those tend to have holes.  If you don’t know that something will fail against a live opponent, you can’t really incentivize yourself to improve or change that thing.  You can be paranoid and obsessive, but odds are something will slip through.

You also want to trust that your community is interested in helping you get better.  If you want to be stronger, it helps to have strong rivals.  Strong rivals are not necessarily bred through hiding information from them.  If you can go out of your way to engineer an environment that challenges you, you can improve further.  (In nature you might call the rigors of a challenging environment “selection pressures,” because those rigors determine which characteristics increase the odds of survival).

Please note that this kind of attitude actively opposes continued, guaranteed success.  By shrinking the boundaries of your successful skills and making it harder to act within them, you increase the odds of failure.  That’s what it means to increase difficulty.  Increasing skill at something increases the odds you will act within the boundaries of defined success.  So if you want to continue growing and increasing skill, you must shrink your boundaries of success, and then improve your ability to act within those boundaries by learning and training.  If real-life resources come into play, and you don’t want to risk losing (or failing to obtain) them, then growth ends up taking a backseat to continued success.  Of course, if you can improve your skills you will be more likely to succeed over time, but if failing now is not an option for you, then you might deliberately avoid a bigger challenge.

If that isn’t the case, if you really want to continue improving and developing yourself, then you need help from your best friend.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Once again a great read. I remember you and I briefly discussing this while I was in Arizona last week and it made me realize that my smash bro's scene (along with many other competitive scenes I'm sure) actually held each other back because we cared more about the small, present win over the long term push. Great read, my friend. -Twin_A

  2. A beautiful read my friend. my eyes continue take in more and more light each time i read your posts. :D

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