Play: Start, Stick, and Stay at Anything!
I was destroyed in a chess game. It was Halloween 1998 when I saw some friends playing chess over a bench by the courtyard. They asked me if I wanted to play and I said yes! I thought that I was going to beat them through my natural intelligence. Then I lost. The following summer, I was determined to learn how to play. I don’t know why, but I was motivated to keep playing (and losing) for about 200 games. That translated to about 60 hours of practice before I could finally win a game! I’ve played thousands of games since. Today I wonder: what happened that made me start, stick, and stay at it?
Consider that every new challenge you decide to embrace has a learning curve. On the y-axis you have learning (performance) and on the x-axis you have time (experience). Learning difficult skills, like chess, require effort over a long period of time. Luckily, the learning cycle happened accidentally for me, and I was able to learn chess. Understanding these circumstances will help you apply them consciously to embrace your next personal challenge. First, how did chess happen for me?
- Exciting and supportive (I was having fun with friends).
- Captivating (I felt intrigued and drawn to the game).
- Accessible (I practiced a lot online and met other learners).
So why is it so hard to embrace a new challenge? Conventionally, we tend to approach them hermetically by holding in our emotions. We try not to show our initial struggles, and hope that we won’t need to work as hard for it. We also make unreasonable expectations about how we should perform, and consequently make ourselves feel bad for making mistakes. We put ourselves under a tremendous amount of pressure before we even begin! Think about it. Why did we end up associating learning and performing with our sense of self-worth? And when did we stop playing?
In my life, the moments when I have stopped playing, I have stopped learning. And when there’s no learning, there’s no sense of progress. Why don’t we engage in learning more often? Because we often fail to approach learning with an open and positive attitude. We’re more likely to give up if we have unreasonable expectations of how we should appear smart, quick, and certain. Thus, we become risk averse and fail to move along our learning curve. On the other hand, what do you think would happen if you allowed yourself to have more fun? When it comes to learning—play—is the glue that makes it all happen. Here’s how to do it:
Play to start
To begin a new challenge, usually what you do is try to control everything. You don’t want to make mistakes, because it’s painful. You don’t want to take risks, because you might lose. You don’t want to work hard, because you might not appear smart. Instead, you need to let go of these expectations. To the degree that you let go of your initial assumptions and attachment to outcomes, you’ll be able to grasp any new challenge. Begin by shifting your focus to what feels good to you:
- Why is learning this so desirable to me?
- How good will I feel being able to apply this?
- How can I reward myself for starting?
Find a way in which you can start by being more playful. Halloween made my whole chess approach fun. Play and you will start! When you play you let go, and you allow yourself to enjoy the process. When you play it’s easier to be present, to express yourself, to make mistakes, and learn from them.
Play to stick
Playing to stick means you commit to doing it over and over again. And why would you do that? Well—why would you repeat a vacation? Or repeat your favorite song, or your favorite food? Because it makes you feel good. Repetition feels good. Repetition is the mother of difficult learning.
Culturally, being smart means you “study little and ace easily”. As you free yourself from this nonsense, you cultivate a positive attitude, and embrace repetition. If you keep playing, you keep practicing. When the practice becomes less than fun, that’s when it’s time to spice it up again. Not sure how? Ask someone who has been where you are. Life has no final grades. Whatever new adventure you wish to stick to is not a pass/fail test. You form a vision driven by you we care about, you commit to it, and keep playing.
Play to stay
What about the moments when you feel you really need to perform? When you’re confronted by high stakes situations it’s difficult. This happens because time is not understood well (we think of progress linearly) and an obsession with results (we arbitrarily decide when the learning stops). Often, this results in self-doubt. You might even forget why you started in the first place! You must remember that what you do is something you choose to do from a place of wholeness. The only reasonable expectation from a high stakes situation is to fully show up to do your very best. Your best will be a reflection of where you are with your learning, not your worthiness.
If, in spite of this, someone is being overly negative or critical then you can firmly communicate to them if they’ve ever heard of learning curves. All you need is constructive feedback to improve. There is always a learning curve for everyone. Every expert had to go through it, even if they conveniently forget about it. So keep learning. The learning process will continue far beyond this moment of high stakes. You can’t control the outcome, but you can shape your attitude if you:
- Assist more, judge less
- Mentor more, criticize less
- Engage more, spectate less
If you open up to communicate how you feel and allow yourself to be fully present, you would definitely be having a little more fun! But it takes more than that. Staying means coming back to your why: your inner drives, your dreams, what makes you feel good, and energized. What’s your juicy vision that propels you to move forward? If you don’t have one, create one that compels you to move. Playing to stay reminds you that it’s not about the results, but about your grit to pursue what matters.
Traditionally, we are taught to be ever more competitive. No wonder change is hard! But now, you can disassociate learning as something that’s painful or labeling of your self-worth. Sure, it can be uncomfortable at times, but that doesn’t mean you stop having fun. You play and you stay because you know it takes time to learn something well, and because eventually you want to contribute back to society. To play means to be human. You play when you learn, laugh, touch, and build meaningful relationships. Is chess still fun to me? You can bet it is—even when I end up with a headache! What’s next for you?
Juan F. Diaz
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