All I want to do, ever, is play chess.
– Bobby Fischer
Between the ages of 14 and 18, I wanted nothing more than to be the next Bobby Fischer. Sure, I started a bit late by World Champion standards, but I wasn’t going to let that slow me down. I read several books on Fischer’s life and games, including the most famous one written by the man himself, My 60 Memorable Games. When I was at school, I thought about chess. When I was working, I thought about chess. And during the rest of my waking hours, I was studying or playing chess.
I never became a World Champion, unfortunately, but I did enjoy a great deal of success. I won my section of the 1994 Canadian Open. Within a couple years, I was beating my uncle, a National Master, with increasing regularity. I even scored a tournament win over FIDE Master Jack Yoos, who was and still is one of the top players in the country. Rating-wise, I ascended to the top two percent of all competitive players.
I’ve found myself able to repeatedly make this leap into the upper echelons of almost anything I do. This might sound like bragging, and if I were issuing these examples in a look-what-I-can-do-and-you-can’t sort of way, it would be bragging. But the truth is, you’re probably a lot more intelligent, disciplined, articulate, and talented than I am.
The only thing I’ve got going for me is the thing that matters most, the thing that can turn any dream into reality, and any Clark Kent into Superman. The key to achieving the biggest, hairiest, most audacious goals in life is obsession.
The Genius Myth
Genius. It’s a word. What does it really mean? If I win I’m a genius. If I don’t, I’m not.
– Bobby Fischer
I don’t believe in genius. I do believe in talent, but I think it’s an entirely optional component of achieving the impossible. In my opinion, the idea that some people are just supernaturally gifted is a fear-based model of human achievement; it gives second through last place a convenient safety net to avoid having their egos bruised too badly. Instead of taking responsibility for an inferior work ethic, a weaker effort in learning from their mistakes, or even the completely wrong choices they’ve made to pursue dreams they’re not really passionate about, they can simply say that the guy who won is a “genius”.
But let’s consider this rationally. Continuing with the chess example, an obvious question arises: How can you be a “natural-born chess player”? How can nature equip you at birth to excel at something as completely artificial as chess?
And even if nature somehow did equip certain people to excel at an artificial invention like chess, what are the odds that, generation after generation, those “extremely rare talents” also coincidentally keep stumbling on what nature built them for? Of all the possible fields of human endeavour, and the supposed rarity of the geniuses that inhabit the top levels, shouldn’t we see at least some sports in some generations where the top levels take a huge dip in ability, because none of the “extremely rare talents” of those generations found what they were really talented at?
Of course, that doesn’t happen. The highest levels of almost every discipline in which human achievement can be objectively measured (e.g. competitive sports) are actually increasing, year after year, generation after generation.
But there’s yet another astounding coincidence. Not only does every generation apparently give birth to these amazingly rare talents, and not only do these superachievers somehow keep figuring out what they’re good at, but they all seem to discover their talent as a young child and follow a strikingly similar path of single-minded devotion.
For example, Bobby Fischer is considered by many to be one of the greatest chess players who ever lived. But consider how he got there:
- He started playing chess at age six.
- By age seven, he already showed a lack of interest in all but those who shared his passion for the game.
- He became so preoccupied with chess at an early age that his mother took him to a mental hospital to have him looked at.
- He was constantly getting in trouble at school for studying chess during class.
- At 16, he dropped out of high school to focus entirely on chess.
- When he started living on his own, he devoted 10-14 hours a day to studying chess, and did almost nothing else.
He wasn’t a genius. He was a maniac.
It’s incredibly hard to do what Fischer did, but it’s not incredibly hard to imagine that superhuman effort equals superhuman results. Indeed, every World Champion since Fischer started playing chess between the ages of four and eight years old and they all followed a similar work ethic, with perhaps a little less eccentricity than Fischer himself.
Even more interesting is the well-known story of the Polgar sisters, Susan, Sofia, and Judit. Their father, Laszlo, a Hungarian psychologist, believed that genius was made, not born. He set out to find a wife to help prove his hypothesis and that’s how he met Klara, a schoolteacher. They had three daughters, all of whom were homeschooled and trained from the beginning to be chess champions.
The results were nothing short of amazing. In 1989, at age 14, Sofia won a strong grandmaster tournament in Rome, with a score of 8.5/9, producing by far the highest tournament performance rating of any player ever, man or woman. Susan Polgar became a Grandmaster and a Women’s World Champion. The youngest sister, Judit, became ranked among the top ten players in the world, making her by far the strongest female chess player in history.
As Carlin Flora asks in her article The Grandmaster Experiment, “What are the chances [...] that three girls destined for stellar achievement would be born to a man convinced that geniuses are made?”
In fields where the measures of success are subjective, like art, music, writing, or acting, the word genius is thrown around even more liberally, giving it even less reason to be taken seriously.
I’m not claiming that anything I say above is scientific proof one way or the other–it’s no more conclusive than anything that the Church of Sciencology would try to sell you–but I’m fairly certain that nobody ever became a World Champion at anything by convincing themselves that poor genetics relegated them to a life of mediocrity.
Your beliefs have a profound impact on your results. The most empowering belief you can have for achieving any goal, and the one which will give you the greatest results, is the belief that hard work is the true nuclear weapon.
The Power of Maniacal Determination
Action trumps intelligence. If you want to get smart, get doing. In my experience, few things are impossible if you’re willing to exert an extraordinary, almost fucked up amount of effort to make your dreams come true. True genius goes by the name of obsession.
But what is obsession, exactly? And how do you cultivate it to achieve great things?
I define obsession as the intersection of passion and commitment. Obsession provides the fuel to put in the necessary work to get where you want to go. It leaves no opportunity for failure, and makes you work extremely hard to learn from every mistake, even when things already seem to be going well. Obsession gives you the courage to constantly venture outside your comfort zone, changing your strategies and taking new risks–anything to gain a new level of insight. Obsession maximizes your resourcefulness and can turn a hopeless position into a draw. Or even a win.
I’d go even further and say that the only way you can ever know the full extent of your potential in anything is by practicing an unshakable commitment to achieve the desired result. If you give anything less than every fibre of your being, you’ll never know if your business idea sucked, your training methods lacked effectiveness, or if you just didn’t try hard enough.
Cultivating obsession requires understanding the forces that guide our actions. In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins suggests that all human behaviour is guided by our desire to avoid pain and gain pleasure. I can think of many examples in my own life of how this principle has shaped my results.
In chess, for example, I got a huge amount of satisfaction from winning. There was a profound joy in working really hard on my game, gaining new insights, and seeing my results rapidly improve. Elsewhere, my goal of losing weight several years ago was made easy by the fact that I was so overweight that I developed stretch marks. I was devastated when I found out what they were–permanent scars–and my desire to avoid more of them was so great that I felt no other option than to lose the weight. (If you have them, they never go away, but the good news is that they fade to invisible when you get skinny.)
An obsessive drive comes from setting goals in activities for which you associate massive pleasure to success and massive pain to failing. For me, this has always been a pretty natural process. I find my passions by trying a lot of different things, and a natural polarity seems to emerge that pushes me strongly towards what I want, and strongly repels me from what I don’t want.
This is actually one of the few times where the ego can come in handy and act as a catalyst for growth. The immense pleasure we get from winning, getting promoted, or seeing our business take off, and the massive pain we associate to losing, getting fired, or crashing our startup into the ground, are often fuelled by our need to protect our notion of who we think we are, i.e., our egoic identity.
In Awaken the Giant Within, Robbins offers a technique he calls Neuro-Associative Conditioning, where he teaches you how to consciously wire the right kinds of pain and pleasure sensations into your nervous system to create the drive and zeal that will carry you towards your purpose. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a more structured, analytical approach to personal growth.
My own latest obsession is the game of Go. I’m deeply fascinated by the fact that I have absolutely no understanding of how this game works. A Go board is almost six times the size of a chessboard, and even the best computer Go programs in the world are barely stronger than a good novice. This is much different from chess, where the best computers can beat world champions.
But do I have the passion and commitment, the obsession to generate the kind of results I want? I’ve only just started, so I don’t yet know. I’ve committed myself to learning Go for 30 days to see how it feels. No matter what, I want to study the game for at least one hour per day, and play at least one game a day. I believe that one month will be enough to show me whether my interest in this game is more than skin deep.
So what are your goals? Are you obsessed with achieving them or are they just nice-to-haves? If you still haven’t found that passion that lights you up, what have you tried so far? What could you do next? Feel free to join me on a 30-day exploration of something new.
Good things come to those who wait. Great things come to those who don’t.
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