The King’s Gambit

I’ve been playing chess since I was about twelve years old. I spent a lot of time getting my ass whooped at our local chess club inside of a Chapter’s, and later at the RA Centre where the heavy hitters in town play. I’ve taken breaks from it but it always manages to find me again.

It has never been easier, pandemic notwithstanding, to find an opponent, do tactical puzzles, learn new openings, and do pretty much anything to improve your game. And the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix simply introduced thousands upon thousands of new people to the game.

But what I find most interesting about chess is the lessons that it teaches me about myself, off the board. I realize that I need sleep to process moves with any efficiency, and working all nighters is going to screw you over. If you start berating yourself, you’re “tilting,” and you’re going to be unable to see anything on the board properly. And even if you spend days or months staring at the same position, you might never be able to uncover the objectively “best” position that an app on your phone could find in ten minutes. And that’s okay.

I have to be in the right frame of mind to study chess. I can’t force it or whip myself into it. Chunking lessons down into manageable bits is a necessary but not sufficient precondition to learning something new. And I have to be prepared to have something stagnate for long periods of time before I notice any real improvement. And if I feel like doing something else one day or my mood isn’t where I want it to be, I have to listen to that.

These are lessons I need to take seriously in all aspects of my life, if I want to improve my rating!

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Why growth?

I have been working my way through David Graeber’s “Debt: the First 5000 years” very slowly for the past few months. I find it to be a very interesting read, which is turning a lot of our preconceived notions about the ways in which finance work upside down, drawing on historical and anthropological resources.

I’ve just started into a chapter about the rise of capitalism, with Graeber offering the suggestion that what can rightly be called “capitalism” came to rise a lot earlier in human history than most of us believe, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s not the point of this blog post. What’s interesting is this one particular line from the passage that I’m reading:

All of this raises the question of what “capitalism” is to begin with, a question on which there is no consensus at all. The word was originally invented by socialists, who saw capitalism as that system whereby those who own capital command the labour of those do not. Proponents, in contrast, tendency capitalism is the freedom of the marketplace, which allows those with potentially marketable visions to pull resources together to bring those visions into being. Just about everyone agrees, however, that capitalism is a system that demands constant, endless growth. Enterprises have to grow in order to remain viable. The same is true of nations. (Emphasis mine)

So what is interesting in all of that? Well, I’m very curious about the usage of the term “growth.” We often talk about growth when describing our desires for self betterment. We grow our knowledge, we grow our wealth, we grow our family, and we grow our business. It seems that we manifest inward that which we see in society; this desire towards constant, unending growth.

But we know from history and economics that unending growth is an impossibility. Eventually, empires stretch themselves too thin and get picked apart at their borders. Corporations become too large and too bloated to be efficient in the competitive market. Nation-states rise and fall. What about individual desires for self-growth? If you grow your family too large you will face financial ruin, or worse yet, starve. If you literally grow too much (i.e., you gain an enormous amount of weight, either through the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut or through steroids in the gym) then you risk an incredible burden to your health that will ultimately factor in your demise. And you will likely also sacrifice your health and well-being if you seek endless growth through your career or through sheer avarice for money and power.

This creates a tricky mental puzzle: is growth even a good thing at all? It seems whether we are discussing people, corporations, or states, the factors which allow something to grow also invariably lead to its demise. I think this is something Marx and Hegel refer to as the “dialectic,” but I’m not well read enough to confirm or deny that. But it seems to lend credence to the fact that endless growth is neither possible nor desirable. But then what is the alternative? No one seems to be happy losing money, or stagnating in a career or personal journey. What if that is exactly what is necessary in order to feel a sense of balance and contentment?

As always, these are pseudo-philosophical ramblings that I have, narrated into a dictaphone. But I think about the ways in which we should try to (perhaps paradoxically) maximize our satisfaction with life and the world around us, without necessarily trying to impose growth on it. Does that make sense? I think it is a matter of being able to change one’s priorities and one’s mindset.

I don’t know if that is possible. And more paradoxically still, perhaps that is a sign of emotional “growth,” where we are able to let go of avaricious desires for growth which hold us back.

On “Whipping,” Pt. 2? Pt. 3?

I recently talked to a friend of mine who is contemplating writing a novel. I’ve started many writing projects myself, only to have them fizzle out each and every time before I had a finished product. She’s reading a book by Stephen King describing all the different skills involved in writing a novel. One of his main takeaways that you should be writing every day. Groundbreaking, huh?

Well, my friend is apparently doing just that, even if some days it’s not working towards her fiction craft, and instead it’s just making detailed notes about what she had for lunch. I guess I kind of want to write in this blog every day, although as you can plainly see if you scroll through all the articles, I took an eight year hiatus where I decided I didn’t want to do this anymore. I got sick of it. There were other, better things to do. And even now, I dictated this into my recorded on a Thursday, and posted it on a Friday, as a result of a combination of fatigue and religious obligation.

I’ve often convinced myself that the only correct way to get a project done is through slow, steady, methodical work. “Write every day” sounds intuitive, obvious, and necessary advice. To its literal end, that means writing every single day (duh), whether you feel like it or not. My problem I can’t seem to square that wisdom, with the advice that I’ve gotten from my therapist, which is that I have this rather pervasive, unconscious habit of “whipping” myself. I wrote about that recently. I tell myself that I have to write every day, with the tacit understanding that if I don’t write every day, I won’t get the novel/essay/project done, and if I don’t get the project done, I will have failed at that task, and if I failed at that task, I am a failure. Do you believe that rabbit hole is true? Maybe just a little? If so, what a horrible way to engage with yourself.

A book I have on self compassion describes alternatives to “whipping yourself,” to get things done more quickly. A better long-term strategy, they say, is to learn to encourage yourself, not unlike a tender, loving parent, or perhaps a very good coach who motivates you to do something by cheering you on from the sidelines and picking you up, rather than benching you when the other team scored a goal and yelling at you.

But “real” writers have deadlines, and things need to be done on a certain day. Successful podcasts come out every week. Columns come out weekly/monthly/daily, regardless of how someone feels. Full stop. That’s not my opinion, go out and look at how the world organizes itself.

So here’s my dilemma: what is the correct way to approach this? Do I whip myself? Or do I lean into the ebbs and flows of how I feel in a given moment, and only write or create things when the spirit moves me?

Perhaps you can tell by the way that I’m phrasing all this and massaging my words, that I question the entire premise. Is every person who diligently and regularly writes, composes, produces art, just doing mental and emotional self-flagellation? That sounds incredibly cruel. I’d like to believe that not all creative people are simply masochistic, and treating themselves with the harshness of an indentured servant.

Perhaps it is the case that if someone is truly destined to be a writer, there is so much momentum, so much energy, so much inspiration, that in fact they have no choice but to write each and every single day. It is a different mindset, maybe one based in flow, that propels them to do something, rather than being forced to drag their feet into doing it.

I just would like to know how to get into that mindset, as it’s something that I think about a lot.

Happy Easter.