Progress is a journey in an upward direction. It’s the getting from one starting place to another place you desire to be at more. Wherever you’re at right now is your starting place, and for most of us, we can conceive of a being at a better place that’s realistically attainable and beneficial for our lives. It’s really an infinite ladder of improvement. Given actual perfection is something out with the realms of human possibility there will always be some way in which you can improve your life and your satisfaction with it. Whether you’re recovering from drug addiction and trying to stabilise, or prospering in every area of life and figuring how you can prosper even more, there’ll always be something to aim at. So let’s start aiming and build something amazing for ourselves so that we may wake up every morning and be thrilled to be alive and living the life we’ve created.
What you just read was somewhat of an idealistic and unrealistic view of progress. It’s so much easier said than done to just set a goal, go out and conquer it, then set the next one. People toil and strive their entire poker careers for years on end and never become winning players. There’s always that guy in your local chess club who eats, sleeps and breathes the game and can’t get his grade out of the class E zone (1000-1200). There are and always will be a massive amount of depressed, angry and bitter people wandering the surface of this planet in some eternal rut, where things never seem to get any better. Progress is not easily made in anything of real worth, so I’m going to introduce a few concepts through the ever trusty spectacles of chess, poker and life and see what we can learn about this enticingly slippery beast.
1. Fluidity vs Stagnation
Let fluidity be defined as the potential to be ever changing and able to react to the demands of progress. Let stagnation be the denial of progress’ desires and the self induced blockade of the mind and soul that traps people in the same unwanted state of being.
Let’s start out in chess with a personal example from an aspiring 1600 chess player (me). I’ve only recently experienced a much deeper and clearer understanding of the game and this is because I finally decided to change something in my approach to learning it. In chess we talk about our ‘best win’ or ‘best draw’ meaning the highest rated player we’ve ever beaten or drawn with. I’ve had both of these conquests in the last two months and I’ve played and studied the game less in this period of time than for a long time prior to that. So what did I change?
I decided that I’d stop devoting 100% of my chess study time to opening theory, which is something experienced players maintain requires relatively little of an amateur’s time, and studied endgames in depth for the first time in my life. This was a necessary change for me to make and not because endgames are more important than openings. There’s a deeper lesson to be learned here.
I’m maybe a little more comfortable in endgames having done this new study, but in truth, I haven’t gotten into a single one during this period of playing better. Killing people in the endgame is not what’s caused me to start scoring more wins. Rather, what this new type of study achieved was an opening up of new neural connections in my brain, and with them, multiple branches of unexplored thought territory, just dangling there waiting to lead me in some great direction that was previously cut off. As a result, my middle-game play is more creative and logical, and I’m thinking about a few more of the right things and a few less of the wrong ones at every stage of the game.
You gain incite and access to new ways of functioning by mixing things up and making sure your mind is exposed to enough different stimuli. It’s through variety that we maintain fluidity. This is one of the key demands of progress and we stagnate whenever we ignore it.
This same trend occurs in poker all the time. So many of my students, when I first get my hands on them, have a completely rigid and binary approach to learning the game. They’ve adopted what I call the lazy model of poker learning which is in part the fault of most learning materials out there on the market. This model is one where the student absorbs all of their new information passively through the incredibly accessible format of videos and podcasts. When you learn via spoon-fed passivity alone, you learn only a fraction of the material you’re bombarding yourself with and learn it to a pathetic degree where it depletes the entire brain’s power just to wrap your head around it each time it’s needed. Actually applying the new material is another story entirely and most passive learners fail miserably at this when they suddenly switch from listening to clicking buttons.
Immersion and student centred learning break this mould, not just improving the learning model, but also ripping open tons of new brain paths where the student is jolted into action. RIP stagnating video munching poker zombie; the fluid mind is now in town and with it the gears of progress begin to slowly churn into motion.
There are countless examples of stagnation vs fluidity in life. I went through a rut where I wrote absolutely nothing in the way of poetry or music for about a year and a half which is very unlike me. My creative and expressive faculties were about as stagnated as you could get. Then I moved out to Italy for 6 months and began teaching English over there. The simple increase in interaction with different types of people ignited a new source of inspiration and caused me to write 12 poems and probably the best song on guitar I’ve ever come up with.
Keep things fluid by constantly leaving the door open for diversity. Seek new experiences and challenges, however minor, and you keep the wheel of progress rolling along, learning more about yourself along the way.
2. Dreams vs Reality
I’m a real fan of finding necessary balances. It seems so often that you need both a dose of one thing and an equally important dose of its opposite. Dreams vs reality is just another example of the harmonic push and pull pattern we commonly witness in the world.
Let me cast my thoughts back to 2007 for a second and introduce a younger and less balanced version of myself, blindly roaming the poker world in search of glory.
We had no internet connection in the grubby little apartment I’d begun renting with two friends. My daily routine was to wake up around 1pm, go down to the internet cafe across the road for 4 or 5 hours and play 6-max cash games online until it was time to go to work and deal gambling games for other people by night. My bankroll management was absurd as I played 100NL (big blind is $1, full starting stack is $100) under-rolled and under-skilled with just $1400 to my online poker name. Even then, when the variance involved in the game was greatly underestimated, this was still considered a foolish amount of buy-ins to wield. By nowadays’ standards it’s just laughable.
I didn’t care though. One evening I wrote out my ‘plan to become a successful pro poker player.’ This plan involved a series of steep under-rolled jumps up to the next limit. Over a period of just a couple of months I’d scheduled myself to be playing 2000NL (or 10/20 as it’s commonly called) with just a $20k bankroll. I was naive and unrealistic and my first few attempts to breakthrough and make a meaningful amount of money from the game failed miserably. I would grind up a bankroll of around $1500-$2000 playing sit ands gos, a game I found boring, but was undoubtedly better at than cash games at the time. Eventually, I’d have my inevitable break down at 100NL cash and blow the entire roll. Much to my continued frustration, this became a pattern.
I spent many an eventless hour between 4am and 5am on a Wednesday morning standing at a deserted roulette wheel in an empty casino, spinning a ball for non existent players. Each time marking out the winning number to the one man audience of my inspector. During this down time, my ravenous appetite for poker grew ever stronger. All I wanted out of life was to make a living from the game I loved so as to escape this nocturnal drudgery. I had so much ambition that it deluded me and overwhelmed my brain with emotion on a daily basis. The dreams to be that guy who could go around saying “I make a living from poker” were so powerful that they decimated any grasp I had on reality. I had no idea what I was doing and no hope of finding out this was the case.
Over the next few years I went through a very humbling and satisfying transformation. In 2009 I finally decided that I wasn’t as good at poker as I used to think. I joined a community of experienced, improving and beginning players and quickly got told how horrible some of my play was. For the first time in my poker career, I accepted criticism, sought objective truth and took no offence from the stern words of more experienced players.
And so, I absorbed my first dose of reality, levelled the scales of dreamy ambition and began a successful charge through the micro and low stakes. I made a meaningful amount of money that more than funded me through university for the 4 years to come and paid for an 8 week excursion to California and Vegas. For the first time, I felt good about my results and my game and was able to look back with humorous pity at the flailing version of myself in that internet cafe. I think if that guy could see now that I make a comfortable living from playing and coaching poker full time and was about to write a book on the game, he’d be pretty satisfied.
Raw ambition is amazing. It’s the spark on the fuse that gets you started and ensures you’ll dedicate your energy to something as fully as possible. It’s like the battery powering the machine. However, if the machine is powered to lash out in all the wrong directions, that power goes to waste. This is where reality comes in. You need to make sure you’ve found the objective truth about what you’re trying to achieve and can be honest with yourself before this ambition can take you anywhere meaningful. Dreams are totally essential too though. No uninspired drone can intentionally succeed at something they love. Dream infinitely and let your ambition propel you, but make sure you don’t neglect how things are attainable in the real world. Balance is everything for progress – so be a realistic dreamer.
3. The Track vs The Forest.
Time for one last balance of opposites and a little analogy to get it across. I read a quote day that went something like:
“The purpose of school is to bring new humans up to speed on the progress of humanity so far.”
There are two types of progress we can make in the world. One is absorbing pre-discovered material as taught to us by those more experienced in whatever we’re trying to get better at. Making progress in this way is to advance down the track already laid out for you. The other is to think about things independently, come up with your own ideas and direction, or in metaphorical terms, to go roaming through the woods, forging your own path as you go. Here’s why I think real progress demands a mixture of the two.
In chess we talk about blunders, in poker we talk about huge mistakes, and in life we tend to use the word ‘regrets’. Whether you lost your king’s bishop to a simple tactic, made a horrific call on the river or married the wrong person; it would have been good to have prevented that from happening. The blunder I’ve always feared the most in life is going down a professional road that doesn’t make me happy. From the tender age of 17, we’re pressured to make a life determining choice right off the bat. Choose which university course you’ll do! What do you want to be when you leave school? Where can you earn the most money and secure that nice house and car every person of worth must own?
Pressures come not just from our education system, but from the media, where we idolise the celebrities who have ‘succeeded’ even if they’re ‘success’ has made them miserable, propped up only by the cocktails of drugs that will ultimate end their lives prematurely. I’m going to refer to this whole system of pressure and rushed decision making as the human processing plant. As far as the plant is concerned, people are merely firewood for the world, each one finding a tolerable slot in the cogs of the machine to serve out their days and get all the stuff they think they’re supposed to get. To quote a song my girlfriend wrote: “Whose ambition are you making your mission?”
So the upshot of the human processing plant is that people end up lost and confused or confined to some job, and therefore, some life that ultimately just isn’t the one for them. It’s not that everyone should find thee number one absolute destiny for themselves, this is pretty impossible, but let’s at least try to get somewhere near.
This is where the woods come in. That initial direction we’re pushed down might luckily be the right one, but in most cases it turns out to be largely incompatible with who we are. If we never explore away from that and discover the truth about what we want in life, we’ll never know which track to try to make progress on.
My suggestion therefore, is that we need to first confront the woods and discover who we are before blindly following any one path as the processing plant would have us do. After we’ve figured this out, we can jump onto that track and start to seek advice from those further along it. Poker, for example, is a very community based learning zone. We learn by working with a coach, fellow aspiring players or by watching videos by players who have already achieved what we’re aiming at. You need this hierarchy of knowledge. The school model of progress makes a hell of a lot of sense, but only if we’re on the right track to begin with. Progress is utterly meaningless if made in the wrong area. We need the woods to know what’s right for us. We need to be lost before we can find anything great.
Finally, the role of the woods is not confined to some initial search for direction. Paths weave in and out of them forever and it’s our job to try to find the best ones. However, being on a good path shouldn’t deny us the chance to roam off and dig a new one in the earth to a place no one’s ever been before. Many of the best discoveries I’ve made as a poker instructor have been from independently coining new concepts and ideas then putting them together into a form I can successfully teach. If we’re all just regurgitating the same information, no path truly goes anywhere new. We end up just trudging in unison learning the very same things the person in front of us learned however long ago. Many of these things my be great or even essential to know, but surely they aren’t exhaustive. You make progress both by following the progress of others and by creating your very own progress.
To summarise this section, we first need to discover the correct direction, so that we don’t make that fatal blunder of following the wrong path for our whole lives. Only then can we make progress that is truly worthwhile and happily join a some beaten tracks. Even then, when we’re contently traversing those tracks, there’s nothing to stop us veering away into the world of creativity and exploring unchartered territory. We can always make additional progress independently, and by feeding it back into our chosen path, we enhance the progress of those around us, who have made the same initial choice in what the hell to do with life. This is the model of progress. It’s a trade of between listening to others and going solo.
It seems progress is all about balance. We need equal doses of inspiration and practical know how. We must find some compromise between listening to the advice of others and finding our own way in the world. To avoid stagnation we need to take plunges into unfamiliar territory and always be experiencing different parts of our chosen field. Finding what that field should be is only half the battle. Progress is elusive and slippery, but the very thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.