Tuesday, March 27, 2012

More on training and hard work

The previous post reminded me of an interesting mail exchange* between journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker, author of "Tipping Point" and "Blink") and sports journalist Bill Simmons (ESPN) who discussed, among other things, motivation and effort. More specifically Mr. Gladwell posed the following question: "Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so?" He then proceeded to answer it as well. He uses golfers as examples, but I'm sure they could just as easily be replaced by chess players.

"The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why [Phil] Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger [Woods] loses, what does he tell himself?

He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem.

If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

This begs the question, how tough are you when it comes to chess training? Are you tough enough to work hard? Avoiding failure is a nice defense mechanism to have sometimes. But ultimately it's your achievements, however big or small, that count. Why not try to maximize those by putting in a little extra work.

*Link to the mail exchange mentioned above, well worth a read: