“For a period of time, almost all my chess errors came in a moment immediately following or preceding a big change. For example, if I was playing a positional chess game, with complex maneuvering, long-term strategic planning, and building tension, and suddenly the struggle exploded into concrete tactics, I would sometimes be slow to accommodate to the new scenario. Or, if I was playing a very tactical position that suddenly transformed into an abstract endgame, I would keep on calculating instead of taking a deep break and making long-term plans.
I was having trouble with the first major decision following the departure from prepared opening analysis and I was not keeping pace with sudden shifts in momentum. My whole chess psychology was about holding on to what was, because I was fundamentally homesick. When I finally noticed this connection, I tackled transitions both in chess and life. In chess games, I would take some deep breaths and clear my mind when the character of the struggle shifted. In life, I worked on embracing change instead of fighting it. With awareness and action, in both life and chess my weakness was transformed into a strength.” – Josh Waitzkin, p. 75-76, The Art of Learning
I really like this quote and have been noticing this in the last couple of weeks. At one point we were just wrapping up a project – I had gone through information-gathering to assembling and distilling, made some slides, editing them, and was on some pretty minor copy edits, when a new avenue opened up that we hadn’t really seen before. My colleague asked me to explore that avenue; I did, of course, but it was sort of uncomfortable, being suddenly shunted from tying up loose ends to blazing a new trail.
How is it different?
I’m still figuring that out, but I often listen to music when I know what to do – when I’m looking at red-inked slides and deleting a comma or changing a couple of words; when I know what the data is supposed to look like and am formatting it; when I know the slide that I want to make and am implementing it.
On the other hand, if I need to think and introspect, to plot my next steps, I can sit back in my chair, sit there and stare at the computer, go walk up and down some flights of stairs, or whatever, but I need to be alone with a problem, and I can’t have threads flying around where my attention might grab onto and run away. Ie, I can’t listen to music.
The interesting thing is, I didn’t really realize this consciously until now. I’d just have music on, and suddenly I would think ‘Aah, I can’t concentrate’ and turn it off. Of course, I couldn’t concentrate before, but I didn’t need to.
There are lots of applications, of course, to my current life in which I've been living in a new city (I've been in SF for the last 2 months at my new job) and all the people I know well are in different places.
Another interesting thought: in chess, you are basically thinking all the time. There are a few occasions where you know exactly what you’re going to do, like in the opening few moves or a couple of brief sequences. But in these cases the opponent generally knows exactly what he’s going to do too. So you move fast, he moves fast, you move fast, and suddenly you both don’t know what to do anymore and have to think about it again.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of times I have to think in my work – but there’s lots of times I don’t really have to think very hard. ‘Okay, I need to make a list of all the different steps in manufacturing solar cells and all of the different companies involved.’ ‘Okay, so I’ll read all the Wikipedia articles, do lots of obvious Google searches and type the relevant part names and company names into Excel and merging cells accordingly.’ And that takes me like the next hour. During which I don’t actually need to think very hard – once I realize what I need to do, doing it is trivial – but unlike in chess, takes time.