Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

I took the above picture Monday morning, at the peak of Runyon Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. I knew by Sunday evening I needed to be here. You see, I’m a 49er fan.

Sports fandom is a fascinating phenomenon. While there are a minority of sports aficionados who watch for the artistry of sport, a majority of the public watch sports to support athletes on our team, whether the Niners, the Ravens, the Yankees, the Lakers, or whoever, all because, for no other reason, they wear a specific jersey. Our jersey. A minuscule minority of us will ever know any of the athletes personally, and yet we embrace these gladiators, living vicariously through their triumphs and downfalls. We revel in their victories and weep in their defeats. No societal phenomenon can summon the fierce passion from otherwise sensible people like sports can.

Yet if we look at the greater picture, being a fan of the home team is often a losing proposition. The NFL has 32 teams, which means 31 teams end their seasons either with a loss or missing the playoffs entirely. The most dominant professional sports team in America, the New York Yankees, won 27 World Series titles, which means their fans have tasted bitter defeat for 85 seasons, or three-quarters of the Yankees existence. If being a fan means tying our pride to championships, then we’ve assured ourselves of disappointment 75% of the time AT BEST.

Last night’s Super Bowl loss reminded me of the fragility of our ego. When we invest our personal selves, attaching our character to something beyond our control, we put our egos at risk, knowing that failure could leave us shattered. When we define failure to an event that objectively occurs often, like losing, we guarantee ourselves a life that is constantly broken.

Which is why I needed to hike to the top of Runyon. A therapy to help me reattach my ego to sturdier stuff. Stuff that doesn’t fail 75% of the time. Like breathing. Or the warmth of the sun. Or the taste of ice water after a workout. Or receiving the immensity of the world.

I find when I define my life through these life-affirming constants, somehow life no longer seems like a series of failures, but like a place of wonder. A place where I get to see children grow, receiving the lessons they will carry throughout their lives. A place where I get to make real a story that was once a mere thought in another human being’s imagination. A place where I get to witness from thousands of miles away a rookie quarterback making his 10th career start in the Super Bowl, nearly leading his team to what would have been the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Hiking to the peak of Runyon doesn’t change past events. But it does help change my perspective on them. A perspective that better reflects who I truly am. A perspective that more accurately defines what I can control and what I can’t. A perspective of quiet appreciation.

Congrats on a great season, Niners.


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For the last six years I’ve been ever so fortunate in that out of all the survival jobs actors take to support themselves, I get to teach chess to kids. It never ceases to amaze me how children can embrace such a complex, nuanced game that baffles most of the parents who pick them up after class. Which is why I was especially intrigued by the critically-acclaimed documentary Brooklyn Castle which follows the most dominant middle school chess program in the nation, that of New York City’s I.S. 318, a Title I school where more than 65% of the students live below the federal poverty line.

The featured players all have their own compelling stories. Alexis sees chess as a stepping stone to support his immigrant family. Bobo is the most boisterous and charismatic, tying his chess ambitions with his own political aspirations (including a run at the class presidency). Rochelle aspires to be the first African-American female chess master. Justus is already a chess master as a 6th grader and enters IS 318 with heavy expectations. As a student with ADHD, Patrick uses chess to build his concentration and confidence.

At the center of this program is chess coach Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel. I was especially curious about her perspective on success on how to teach it, especially since she must walk the fine line of pushing her students to perform at the highest of standards while helping them cope with the volatile emotions that come from both the pressures of high-level competition and the tumultuous years of adolescence.

On the one hand, Ms. Spiegel (who at the time of filming was still the unmarried Ms. Vicary) stated that a child’s success comes from values we’ve mentioned in previous weeks: hard work, perseverance, determination. She once had a student who lost his first 21 chess games and after two years of sheer doggedness placed first in his section at nationals.

On the other hand, however, she also encourages “a level of negative thinking”:

One [great thinking habit from chess] is this practice of double-checking yourself relentlessly. That you can play really well for fourty (sp) moves, and then you make one miscalculation, and your opponent sees it, and you lose…a level of negative thinking, of finding the problems in your thoughts—and not being like, “Oh, I have a great idea, I’m fantastic.” You know, you have an idea, and you’re excited about it, and then you go and try to find every possible thing that might be wrong with it, and make sure it’s really correct.  – Elizabeth Spiegel, The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

This seems to run directly counter with my own philosophy on immediately acting upon one’s inspiration. Of course, improv and chess aren’t exactly the same. One is an art form propelled by the strongest choices, and doesn’t really deal in the realm of correctness. The other is a game with discrete rules and a defined objective, where correct moves bring one closer to that objective and incorrect moves take one farther away. It’s at this point where we might ask what does real life more closely resemble: improv or chess?

But upon further examination, I think this question implies a false mutual exclusivity. Great improvisers constantly dissect their performances and look for opportunities for stronger choices. Chess players must often rely on their inspiration as they move farther away from established opening lines and into unfamiliar positions where the “correct” move isn’t obvious. So if there isn’t mutual exclusivity between these philosophies, how can relentless evaluation AND spur-of-the-moment inspiration co-exist and lead to success?

I can’t give a simple answer, but we can start by imagining situations where each philosophy shines. Relentless evaluation works best in situations where time is not a factor, like playing mid-game in a chess tournament, receiving notes after an improv show, or testing the structural integrity of a skyscraper. And the evaluation must consist of objective judgments on a performance, and not indictments of personal character. Ms. Spiegel reinforces the power of objectivity:

“You know—you’ve lost, and you’re crying—and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier.  And I think that’s an important thing for [the students] to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.”  – Elizabeth Spiegel, The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

This objective study provides the foundation so our creativity and inspiration can shine.  We rely upon inspiration when time is of the essence and we can’t afford to hesitate, like when we’re playing chess with a minute left on the clock, or we’re improvising a scene, or we have an epiphany on how the world works. We need these bursts of creativity to expand the limits of what we already know. Once the urgency that birthed the inspiration has passed, evaluation takes over again, thus restarting cycle of constant study and performance. And while material award and fear of failure can provide motivation, I’m inclined to believe that the cycle itself is its own reward, since the infinity of the cycle is one of the few things that can fulfill the human heart.

I.S. 318 continued to dominate long after Brooklyn Castle finished filming. In April of this year, even after facing program-threatening budget cuts, I.S. 318 became the first middle school to win the US Chess Federation High School National Championship. Knowing what these kids have overcome, do we have any excuses?

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This post, like this upcoming week, will be short. I just wanted to extend my gratitude to all of you have kept up with me on this journey on finding the essence of building masterpieces. There were times in the past few weeks when I would approach my Monday deadline and ask myself if I had anything worthwhile to say. And while I won’t judge whether the thoughts of the last eight posts were, in fact, worth the electrons spent on immortalizing them on the internet cloud, I will say that the reflections on the past two months upon the role of independence, confidence, fear, doubt, boldness, sacrifice, consistency, and hope on our lives has made a tremendous impact on mine own, encouraging me to extract joy from even the most basic and mundane of life’s activities (like saying “hello” to a stranger and meaning it) and to let go of the troubles from unexpected obstacles that once would have left me frustrated and seething. It’s these luxurious moments of reflection that I realize I truly live a charmed life.

We will be back next Monday talking about a game that’s given me a steady income over the last six years. In the meantime, thank you. I truly have much for which to be thankful.

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“But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.”

I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Your depressed facebook friend goes there every few days. You feel inept, lethargic, and powerless, this day when you’ve accomplished nothing.  All the while, everyone else is happier, stronger, and better than you. They’re getting things done, making things happen. No matter how hard you try you’re going nowhere, and you feel like an idiot for believing you could accomplish anything special. So you take the above quote drenched with extra self-loathing as your motto of the day.

If so, make sure to give credit to the author: Charles Darwin.

Yes, Charles “The Father of Evolution” Darwin. And no, this was quote was not pulled from some angsty, emo, prepubescent childhood diary. It was discovered in a letter written in 1861, two years AFTER Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

I naively used to believe that accomplishing great things meant every day needed to be some amazing, life-altering, transcendental experience, and any moment of self-doubt, reluctance, or fear was a sign of inadequacy. But Darwin’s FML moment shatters all such assumptions. Great achievers still have their moments of madness. They just don’t surrender. They just get back to work.

So if you ever again find yourself going nowhere, drink this cup of schadenfreude, and know that constructing the most influential theory in modern biology is the most that you could ever accomplish.

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Ask the average American about the world’s greatest athletes, some common names emerge. Michael Jordan. Usain Bolt. Michael Phelps. People shouldering the biggest of expectations while the cameras are on and millions watching around the world. If they fail, the public will revel in their ridicule. And yet those are the moments when they’re known to thrive, when they’re at their absolute best.

A few months ago, another athlete caught my attention, one whose accomplishments might be even greater than those mentioned. He’s not wealthy. He’s not necessarily a household name either. But he’s a superstar in his sport. A sport where one mistake doesn’t just mean embarrassment. It means certain death.

Alex Honnold is widely considered to be the greatest free solo climber in the world. To free solo is to climb a wall without a rope, and only the most elite of climbers are successful at it (or die trying). In 2008, Alex became famous for his 2,224-foot free solo up the Northwest face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, which was later featured  in the North Face-sponsored documentary, Alone on the Wall. In June of 2012, Alex accomplished something even more daring, completing the Yosemite Triple (Mt. Watkins, El Capitan AND Half Dome, almost 7,000 feet of vertical rock) in 19 hours, about 95% of the route free soloed.

While the most impressive free solos are incredibly difficult, free soloists tend to choose routes with which they’re familiar, and thus are well within their abilities. Therefore, the biggest challenges for the free soloist aren’t technical but mental. Alex describes one moment during his 2008 free solo up Half Dome when his mentally broke down:

Basically when I’m soloing, normally I have almost like a mental armor. You can say I’m ‘in the zone.’ I have something that’s, let’s say, protecting  my head from thinking too much, and for whatever reason, on Half Dome, I ran out of whatever armor I had. I found myself, like, 1800 feet above the ground. I was like, ‘What am I doing up here? Why am I doing it?’ You know, just all the questions suddenly entered my mind. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

“Thinking too much” is a bad thing? But I learned to value thinking. Thinking was a GOOD thing. Think before you act. It’s one of the first major lessons we instill to our children. It’s our hope that this snippet of wisdom will keep them safe in a dangerous world. When our basic desires intend to lead us astray, whether it’s to retaliate, to stuff ourselves with cookies, or to jump into bed with that hottie we met at the bar, thinking keeps us from doing something we might regret. And if thinking is good, wouldn’t lots of thinking be great?

The sitting around and reflecting, like “Do I want to do this? Do I not want to do this? You know, is this something I can do?” Like that’s the really scary stuff. It’s all just like games you play within your head. That’s why I’m committing to the route. On the ground still, in the van, I’ve committed.

I think doubt is probably the biggest danger in soloing. Because basically as soon as you start to hesitate, then you’re screwed. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

So excess thinking turns into doubt and hesitation, which would be helpful for escaping unfamiliar situations, but for elite athletes, who minimize unfamiliar situations by investing thousands of hours into practice and preparation, doubt and hesitation become enemies of performance. And Alex certainly prepares:

To prepare himself [for the Yosemite Triple], Honnold arrived in Yosemite in May and embarked on a climbing frenzy. He became the first to free solo the west face of El Capitan and the first, along with fellow professional climber Tommy Caldwell, to free climb the triple. They did it in about 21 hours… On June 1, he climbed the iconic 2,000-foot-high northwest face of Half Dome, alone, with a mix of aid- and free-soloing techniques in a staggering 1:21 — 48 minutes faster than his previous record. On Sunday, Honnold and Hans Florine, a Yosemite speed climber, hope to break another speed record climbing The Nose route up El Capitan. Potter and Sean Leary currently hold that record at 2:35:45. Solo Climber Reaches New Heights, New York Times

Alex devotes his entire life to preparation:

I think my lifestyle can just be summed up as I do whatever I have to do to climb as much as I can… The only way I can go climb all the time is to live in the van. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

And how can he make such a full-fledged commitment?

Climbing gives me everything. Alex Honnold in “Respira”

It’s remarkable. And it’s crazy. But for those who reach such heights, it’s not. It’s simply what must be done. It’s his heart’s infinity. And there’s no question that for Alex, the sacrifice is worth it. Which leads me to one more question.

How much is your heart’s infinity worth?

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