“When I finally …”

For decades I have lived with the feeling that somehow true life was going to start at some point in the future. As a child I grew up in a modest household and inspired by the hard work of my parents, I went on through the education system to build a future for myself. All my sights were on qualifying for the best programs and graduating and getting my PhD then getting a job, and so on. I somehow always looked at the future with a view that once I have achieved the next step, finally real life will start. 
While this mindset was invaluable for progressing in life, it took me decades to drop the burden and finally enjoy life as it is, more fully. It doesn’t mean that I have given up developing myself, but I now do this from a very different reference frame, where here and now is deeply okay. 
In the fantastic book ‘4000 Weeks’, Oliver Burkeman dedicates a chapter to this very phenomenon. He calls it the ‘when I finally’ mindset. It is natural that when your circumstances are grim, you look forward to the future and work hard to improve your outlook. But most of us are afflicted by the “when I finally” mindset from a place of comfort. In chess, we over-invest in our future selves: “When I finally do all this chess training, I will be a complete player and I will enjoy playing in tournaments”.

The rise of chess structured training plans

All have now access to fantastic training plans, books, online courses and websites. It feels very rewarding to start planning, select the ideal books and courses, and project ourselves as the player that we will become. This future self will be a lot more skilled, have more knowledge and skills, and play ‘real’ chess, while we play imperfect chess because we haven’t gone through this training plan yet. Everything is transformed into a rehearsal, once I go through the Yusupov series, my games will be worthy of analysis. We can project our anticipated strength before we even started the work!
Each training session must not be ‘something to go through’. Your tactics and calculation training aren’t a chore to get rid of. Do pause and enjoy the work and the position. Having a purely utilitarian view of tactics is a great disservice to the beauty of the positions you are working on. 
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. Dwight Eisenhower.”
Training plans are great. Spending an unhealthy amount of time researching the perfect training plan is bad. The difference between optimal and good is very tiny, and when you aim for optimal you just spend too much time. The time you spend reading about training plans is better spent actually training! (NB: the irony is not lost on me as I write mostly about the processes of performance.)Plans reinforce the idea that improvement lies in the future. Break this and focus on the improvement you can have right now!

You will NEVER get good at openings

I appreciate that this is a tad provocative. What I mean is that you will never have a complete watertight repertoire that you enjoy and love playing. 
Why? Well I’ve never met a chess player that has this but I have met plenty of chess players that have a plan to learn the perfect, coherent, final, ultimate watertight repertoire. 
When you actually get to play it, some lines are iffy. If you aim for solid or attacking, you need your opponent to cooperate to get a solid or an attacking position, especially with black. There is always ‘that sideline’ that people play that’s a little annoying.Even if you master a full repertoire, you will then think you need to learn something else as a surprise weapon. Telling yourself that you will get a perfect opening repertoire is an attempt of the ego to try and control the future and in some way to escape the finitude of human life.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop learning openings. I’m a lifetime pro chessable member: I love learning new openings to discover new pawn structures and middlegame ideas. I think that you should stop thinking that your openings will ever be ‘perfect’.

Drop the burden

“Most chess players misunderstand tournaments.
They think they’re for showing how good you are, but really, tournaments are where you go to get good.” Nate Solon
We don’t want to face our true level (remember: we think aren’t at our true chess level because we need to learn more opening lines/go through this book/follow this training program).Remember that our ‘final form’ never happens. We’re already the final product, right there right now. Don’t delay signing up for an OTB tournament. Go and have fun. 

Your last tournament and your last game

Impermanence means there will be a last time for anything you do in life. The last time you will eat a strawberry. The last time you will speak with your loved ones. And the last time you play a chess tournament. The last OTB chess game.
It’s possible to be deliberate about chess, retire and never play chess again, but that’s fairly rare. It’s very difficult to know what your last tournament will be. Without being so dramatic as thinking you might be dead, it can very well be that your personal circumstances change rapidly and chess takes the backseat. What then? Remember that every tournament could be your last. Every game could be your last. Stop fantasizing about a future you playing a future tournament and enjoy the one you are playing in right now. 

Takeaway points

  • This is life. There is no arrival place when life will finally be clear, your projects completed, your openings perfect. Thinking so is a defence of your mind against the finitude of life. 
  • Sign up for that tournament and play. No such thing as ‘I’ll be ready later’. Spoiler: you will never be fully ready. Don’t wait for retirement or to finish that course.
  • Drop the planning of plans. Focus on your improvement today. Don’t rush through your tactics as if they were chores. Enjoy the beauty of the landscape.
  • Keep working on your openings, but be comfortable with gaps. Your repertoire can’t and won’t be watertight. Drop the idea of perfection and replace it with small improvements  

Thanks to Oliver Burkeman and chapter 8 of the book for great inspiration on this particular topic. Please buy Oliver’s book, the best “productivity” book out there, four thousand weeks – and support your local bookstore if you can. 

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