Plateaus and walls: Asking the right questions


A couple posts back I touched on the topic of George Leonard’s work on Mastery. The Dabbler, Obsessive and Hacker were mentioned.  Just revisiting this made me more aware lately on how I approach things when I hit the wall or am stuck on a plateau. Lately, my chess playing has taken a back burner to some outside pursuits related to building skills to improve my career ( where the money is for me).  Does that mean, I’m a hacker or just a dabbler because I went to the next shiny thing?

 On the contrary, I think priorities need to be weighed in. My desire to improve in chess is a lower priority to advancing my career. When I do things outside of chess, I also tend to see similarities in pursuits of better skills, learning techniques and hitting walls or plateaus.

Being comfortable on the plateau

My chess playing may still “feel” abysmal to me. I’m not putting as much effort as I once did back when I was really obsessed.  But the fact that I was studying and practicing with such frenzy was a recipe for burnout and I damn near through my chess set in the river after a really bad tournament. After taking a break, I am learning to not get hung up on the outcome because that’s what drives me into the obsessive category. So I ask myself “ Why am I doing this?”  There is more to life than driving to the next 100 ( or 25)  rating points.  I am recognizing my propensity to look at each chess related activity as a measure of my “effort” to learn. I’m realizing it’s like losing weight, you stare at the scale every day and it’ll drive you nuts. I am developing a better sense of self awareness to stop this obsessive tendency.  I am retraining myself to look at each game as a lesson, because the bottom line is that I love learning things. That is my drive.  I am getting more and more at ease with letting go of the outcome and clearing my head for seeing the true process for what it is, a learning experience.


At work, its different. Every year we are rated and ranked against peers for the carrot that may come. Then we have to establish goals and objectives to reach for the next year and then the cycle continues.  I work for a place that seems to have a lot of long time employees.  I also see what happens when long time employees get “complacent”. It’s not pretty and those who are comfortable on the plateau tend to get ranked low, and when belt tightening comes around, are offered “packages” to move on. I’m a corporate survivor in high tech and managed to weather layoffs, reduction in force and being sold.  I take the challenge on being agile with my skills and constantly revive my learning.  A rolling stone gathers no moss so to say.  But that’s work, it pays the bills.


Hobby’s are meant to be outlets from the pressure of day to day working world. Chess is one of my  outlets, and even though I may be on a plateau, no one is about to fire me.  I play bass guitar in  band as well. I joined the band because none of us were looking at giving up our day jobs. It’s about having fun. I may not be Victor Wooten nor am I Rolf Wetzell ( my chess improvement role model), but I sure have some fun doing these hobbies.

Hitting a wall: 

So, one of the things I signed up for is a class at MIT through a MOOC ( Massive Online Open Courseware) on an advanced  topic of DSP.  I did it partly because I am a sick and twisted individual who is a masochist for difficult math. Not really, but damn, I hadn’t seen math like this in over twenty years. There is a strong work related drive here and building ( refreshing) a skill set to make me more successful in career and the team I recently joined.


 Two weeks into the course I was hitting a wall.  I was ready to “drop out”  drowning in playing catch up relearning math I didn’t retain as well back in a day.  I slept on it and then I realized that no matter what, even if I get a 50% for this class, I am learning and taking a boat load of rust off my ancient math skills. I also see that 50% I can immediately apply on my job. I LET GO OF THE OUTCOME. I stuck with it and I am finding I am more able to catch up and not fall behind. I am passing most assignments and learning new skills. Whether I get a “verified” certificate or not, it’s all a win. 


Once I let go of the emotions holding me down ( Inadequate, defeated, depressed), I started to ask a simple question: WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?  This helped clear my thought process to look for solutions. Once I approached the difficult stuff with this mindset, it was like going on an scavenger hunt. It was fun and I have had more success with this approach.


So here’s the “aha” moment for my chess training, when I was stuck on a DSP problem and chasing it down looking feverishly for a “book solution”, it was like how I was trying to solve my lack of clarity and understanding of chess in particular openings and strategy. Once I took a more organic approach to solve the problems, the results were clear and better understood. 


Bottom line is once I let go of the emotional turmoil of results-mindedness in my chess pursuits by redirecting this back to WHY I want to do this ( joy of learning and self discovery), then I can be more clear headed in asking the question: What do I need to understand this problem more clearly?