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Poker, Chess and Life – Part 5 (Success)

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Throughout this series I’ve been using the games of poker and chess to help shed some light on some of the most key concepts we deal with in every day life. Success is the fifth, final and probably most important one to understand correctly. The basic definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Success in taking an exam is to pass that exam. Success in placing a bet is to win that bet. Success in life is much less clear. Whatever it is, it must be comprised by the accomplishment of the aims and purposes that lead to the life we want to live.

It’s very hard to quantify success objectively. If you ask any person whether they’d like their life to be successful they’ll undoubtedly answer ‘yes’. If you ask any person whether they want to earn as much money as possible or raise a beautiful family, they might answer ‘no’. It follows from this that getting rich and having a big loving family are just two possible routes to success for certain people and are not rigidly tied to the concept for humans per se. Nevertheless, these kind of conceptions are commonly taken as definitions of the word these days in many societies. My aim is to quantify success by something different; something that’s universally desirable to everyone and then figure out how to achieve that. I’ll start by looking at how success in games like chess and poker differs from success in the real world and go from there. Ultimately I want to drive at the idea that we have developed a pretty distorted inappropriate idea of success, at least in modern western society.

1. On Success in Games

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Games are great because they’re simplified realms where the objective is very simple. In chess the objective is to win and that entails that your opponent loses. Chess is somewhat detached from real world repercussions. Success and failure at the amateur level reside in a kind of bubble. Some players are obsessive and can’t separate life from the bubble; but for the most part chess is an escape into a different world where slaughtering your opponent through mental superiority is the only concern. In poker things are a little different. The monetary repercussions of success and failure render poker a less isolated environment. Success directly impacts utility in life by defining the amount of resources available to the player. For professionals and semi-professionals the conceptions of success in poker and life may even fuse somewhat.

Nevertheless, both of those games are vastly different environments to the real world, and due to this, success in them should be regarded differently. It feels great to conquer your opponent over the board after hours of heated mental strife. It feels sweet to destroy your opponent in poker while also taking all of his money, or to put it more crudely, the resources that he could have used to obtain a better life. When you put it that way, it seems rather brutish, but winning at the expense of an adversary is highly satisfying. It appeals to some deeply rooted human instinct that we’ve evolved in order to compete effectively. Evolution has trained us to enjoy conquering others. This is the very reason there have been so many wars featuring dictators intent on world domination. Power and gross accumulation of others’ assets feel great in some way we struggle to control. This is why we love poker and chess. They provided us with a chance in the cushioned safe modern world to revert back into a mindset where success really does entail nothing other than brutalising our fellow man.

2. The State of Nature – What Success is Not

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Thomas Hobbes argued that if man were to be placed back into in a natural environment void of any state intervention or protection, he would soon revert to his primal instincts to batter his neighbours to death with his club in order to attain their resources and achieve a better life. I have no doubt that we’d go this way, if that is, we had no memory of a more civilised life of cooperation under the blanket of a state.

This concept of success as triumphant domination does not fit well with the modern civilised world. In a context where our needs are comfortably met without conflict and where survival does not hinge upon winning the next spear fight, this mentality no longer leads to real success. Yet, many of us are still programmed this way: to take and take, hoarding bigger and better things and more prestigious assets than our neighbours. We have changed, and while we can still derive pleasure from the simple attainment of a prize over others in synthetic arenas like games, this instinct no longer leads to maximum utility in the real world. We need to redefine success in an era where the maximisation of material conquest no longer satisfies our yearnings.

Recently I travelled to the east coast of America to stay with a student and teach him while exploring the area. The culture in New York  and the surrounding area seemed to me a distorted version of UK culture in one aspect. Worth as a person and self satisfaction seemed to depend primarily upon two things: money and status.

Let me paint a character to serve as our example. Jim is a 30 year old business man living in New York. He has two children and a wife and works 12 hours a day 6 days a week. He drives a Ferrari and lives in a giant beautiful house. Jim is stressed, anxious and miserable. He derives comfort and satisfaction from his material acquisitions, not that he actually enjoys them, but he’s at least reassured of his self worth by their existence, as per his culture’s doctrine. He has no time or energy for his family and doesn’t manage to step back and appreciate what he’s got. Jim looks down upon those with less than him and considers them bested. He only respects the authority and the status of those richer and more successful than him. The woman behind the counter in MacDonalds is the lowest of the low and shouldn’t even be tipped like the more ‘successful’ restaurant waitress should. Jim is afraid of not being admired and respected and so he has an alpha, overly confident exterior. He’s troubled by countless emotional issues caused by deprivation of the things that would truly make him happy if he were to stop and realise what they were. So as a result, he lifts men up into the air upon meeting them in a bar (this actually happened to me) as a display of masculinity and becomes aggressive when someone inadvertently touches upon one of his inner demons.

Jim is sad, angry, arrogant and cruel. Jim is internally conflicted and doesn’t understand himself. In New York, Jim is very ‘successful’ and envied by all of those ‘lesser’ people. Should Jim be considered successful? Has he achieved the aims and purposes of life? If he is this unhappy, then instinctively it would seem not.

Here in lies my point. This rat race conception of success is misleading us and is causing us to be no happier than people who lived to be 28 and made spoons out of rocks. Jim’s tragic case is proof that no life void of happiness can truly be called ‘successful’. Sure Jim is successful within his work and how much money he’s made, but he surely cannot be called ‘successful’ in life unless, that is, happiness was entirely detached from success. This seems very wrong.

Nowadays we can survive and accumulate possessions very easily compared to our distant ancestors. Do we in general, lead any more successful lives than they did? I think not. If our sky scrapers, sushi, fast cars and executive jobs don’t make our lives anymore successful than those of cavemen, then maybe we need to stop focussing so narrowly on material gain as our sole conception of success. It’s not that resource acquisition is independent to success. Among poorer people the two are intrinsically linked as fulfilment of the survival instinct is the first port of call for a successful life. It’s just that when our standard of living reaches a certain level of safety from death, the maximisation of happiness is no longer best achieved through a blinkered resource grabbing approach.

As shown by Jim, money is only relevant to success where it translates efficiently into happiness and there will come a point where this levels off. Happiness then is the true currency of success and we have developed our materialistic conception through evolving as creatures that once needed to fit Hobbes’ model of the successful human. It’s now time to explore what other than material gain is essential for happiness and therefore success in modern civilised societies.

3. Human Yearnings – What Success Is

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Unlike in games, and sadly for Jim, the defeating of competitors to achieve one single goal is not what constitutes success in life, it’s merely one ingredient and only up to a point. If success in life is simply happiness, then what are the other ingredients to happiness? What follows is a non-exhaustive list of what I take to be the most important constituents of a happy life. We’ve already covered the attainment of basic human necessity in terms of resources so I won’t deal with it again in this list.


A) Self Worth 

Self worth may be caused, like in Jim’s case, by material achievement or attainment of admiration in others. This is just one possible route to self worth however. The humble Buddhist gathers none of the wealth or luxury achieved by Jim, instead deriving his self worth from the pure unfaltering devotion to a cause he deems far more important – his religious code. A grafting housewife of a large family gets hers from ensuring her husband and six children are fed, watered and equipped to lead a good life. The scientist bent on ground breaking discovery gains hers through the acquisition of knowledge and the opportunity to personally contribute to the changing of our world for the better.

Self worth is whatever makes us feel like we have done as we should in life. it could have ethical, material or emotional roots, but it is impossible to imagine happiness without it. The murdering Buddhist monk and the ruined New York business workaholic will feel equally dejected. They have failed at whatever they’ve deemed important to succeed at. They can forget about happiness and success as long as self worth rests in a state of ruin.

In order to maximise this part of happiness it’s crucial to first be honest with oneself as to what exactly constitutes self worth. Jim might be miserable because his sense of self worth rests on his culture’s depiction of the notion and not what he really desires from life at the deepest level.

B) Companionship

Humans are pack creatures. No matter how much other humans may irritate us on occasion, when left to our own devices for any significant amount of time, we quickly realise how much we’d rather have them around. Being part of a group that treats its members well and shares a certain bond or closeness is essential for happiness. Simply interacting with others satisfies a huge part of our vat of human needs.

One of my favourite films is ‘Into The Wild’, which features a young 20-something man desperate to escape modern civilisation and culture which he cares for not at all. He thus embarks on an expedition into the wilderness ending up in the most remote icy plains of Alaska. In his travels he thrives during human interaction and through the mix of weird and wonderful characters he meets, but ultimately comes to the sad realisation during his final lonely starving minutes that: while he got exactly what he wanted by living alone in the wilderness and self sustaining in the most remote undeveloped lands, none of the would-be happiness was truly obtained as there was no one there for him to experience it with. The final words he scrawls down before his death have stayed with me ever since i saw that film: “happiness only real when shared.”

Loneliness causes insanity. We evolved to depend on each other as those who enjoyed loneliness perished. As a result, we need companions to realise the happiness we gleam from the other sources on this list.

C) Connection 

Connection is linked with, but a little different to companionship. While the former involves sharing your interactions and experience with others, connection is about actually being understood and understanding other humans. The crudest and strongest example of connection, I suppose, is falling in love. There is love in every hollywood movie ever, even ones that could have been good, had they not been poisoned by the cringy, default, inappropriate, sexist love story in which the helpless woman falls for the strapping man who just obliterated a 90 foot tall 50 tonne alien with his fists.

The reason for this is that many people are deprived of real connection and so lap it up like nectar from the wide screen, in the dark, in a room surrounded by lots of other love deprived people all sitting a socially acceptable distance from one another who will never speak to each other in their lives; possibly holding the hand of someone they used to be truly connected to.

Love in this crude form that hollywood likes to butcher and devalue originates from a special kind of understanding. It’s a result of the person you’re in love with actually understanding you for exactly the person you are and wanting to be with that person. It’s like a special bubble that rises out of the ground and encapsulates two people rendering the rest of the world less important. If we don’t fall in love, we don’t feel the churning buzz in the pit of our stomachs that makes us feel a truly connected piece of the world. If no one understands the real you, then you can never completely connect with anything, only parts of yourself can achieve this at different times and you’ll be less happy and therefore successful than you could have been had you found real connection.

True connection isn’t always possible, or if it is then it often fades away after some period of time. Nevertheless, getting as much as you can of this is achievable and essential. I believe that one reason we’re so unhappy as a society is that we hide parts of ourselves from our partners, marry people that we don’t fully connect with out of comfort and social pressure, and maintain a fearful distance from others as some kind of defensive mechanism. This lifeless forced monogamy kills the quest for real connection and we feed instead from pitiful drips of distorted simulations of connection through our entertainment.

Connection is not limited to romantic connection. You can connect with strangers, friends, dogs, books, songs and audiences. Keeping an open mind and being fully yourself around everybody you meet is the surest way to forming true connections so that you don’t need the methadone handed to you by TV shows in which people make connections you only wish you could.

D) Pleasure and Immersion

This one is my personal favourite. If you don’t enjoy life, it’s hard to see how life could ever be successful for you. Entailed by the realisation of pleasure is the avoidance of pain; at least of the fruitless kind. It’s essential to seek out the things in life which make you happy. Sex, good food, drugs, philosophy, terrible hollywood love stories, music etc. whatever thrills and excites you, this is what you have to pursue.

There are three categories of moments in time: past, present and future. Nothing in the past can generate very much pleasure, maybe just a fraction of it’s former pleasure in the condensed dulled form of memory. Things in the future can cause you pleasure, but only because and when the future becomes the present. While it’s possible to look forward to your wedding and derive pleasure in the present from knowing that this great future event is going to happen, that pleasure is microscopic compared with what you’ll experience on the day, when it becomes the present.

Therefore, the present is thee part of time where pleasure should be maximised. Toiling in the present to set up future pleasures is wise only if you’re going to be able to relish them when they become the present. Dwelling on the past instead of living in the moment is probably never ever wise. I suppose what I’m getting at is that forgetting all about the past and the future and fully immersing yourself in the moment is of huge value, to happiness and to success. There are of course limits concerning consideration to other persons and all out egoistic hedonism is a truly condemnable moral practice, but knowing when to just fully savour the present moment and get yourself into the kind of situations you can savour is key.

We all live relatively tiny blips of lives in which it really didn’t matter how much money we made. If you grab the pleasure that comes your way and engineer as much of it as possible for the future then you’ve nailed a key ingredient to success in life.


Conclusion

Like I said previously, games are really fun because they provide alternative realties in which the principles of success become streamlined and instinctively fun to achieve. However, we must avoid being Jim, the guy from ‘Into The Wild’ or anyone else who fails to realise what gives humans real happiness. I’m sure you can add to my rather limited list of human success principles. Feel free to comment and suggest additional ideas. I’d be interested to hear what other things you the reader thinks are essential to success in life. After all, it’s what we’re all striving for.

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Poker, Chess and Life – Part 4 (Progress)

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Introduction

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

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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

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.