Disclaimer: Before I lose 90% of you when you realize that this post is chess related, I urge you to stick with me because I think there are some ideas here that you can actually benefit from even if you have never played a game of chess in your life!
In preparation for an iTunes app that I am developing, I have been studying some of the greatest chess games ever played. I expected these games to pivot on a moment in the game when one player had a spark of insight that led to a crushing defeat. I suppose to a certain extent that is true, but the impression I am left with isn’t how “good” the player’s moves were but exactly the opposite. These players weren’t making extremely “good” moves, they were actually making amazingly “bad” moves – that are only later realized as being correct. This has got me thinking about how our minds work and what we might be able to do to train ourselves to identify the difference between “bad” moves and moves that just look bad but prove to be correct in the end.
To me this is the fascinating thing about studying great chess players. While a computer can plow through massive amounts of data to find the answer, humans have a huge burden of experience tied to their analysis of game situations. In order to make a move that goes against everything you have ever been taught is a rare achievement that takes real courage. Brilliance occurs not by following the established formulas precisely but by knowing when it is appropriate to break the rules. The amazing only happens when canonical knowledge is abandoned in favor of a decision to do something that everyone else in the world would agree is “wrong.”
A computer doesn’t have to worry about breaking from tradition. All it has to do is crunch numbers. Humans can’t possibly process as much data as a computer so we create shortcuts. We boil things down to rules that are easy to remember. We make lists of exceptions to our rules. We look for patterns that match scenarios that are familiar. We survive based heavily on the shortcuts we make. We memorize answers in school because it is easier than solving problems repeatedly. We paraphrase. We summarize. And so we become a population of know-it-alls even though our knowledge is based on generalities and abbreviated summaries. Like walking CliffsNotes we each carry a knowledge base that is very wide, but rarely very deep. We get the “big picture” concepts and let Wikipedia fill in the blanks if we ever need to support our claims. This works really wonderfully except for the times when…
We make mistakes.
Our shortcuts fail us. The stats and research that was once so reassuring ends up being flawed. We are so used to trusting our machines that we stop questioning conventional wisdom. Oops. But that’s just the exception – most of the time we get it right. Right? I am not so sure. While we rarely run into catastrophic mistakes, we also rarely encounter amazing victories. Our days are filled with predictable, mundane, uninspiring, unexciting routine. You know that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday. Millions of games of chess are played every day and almost all of them are just like our every day life. They follow the established ideas. Risk is avoided at all cost. At the end of the day there are winners and losers but nobody really cares enough to figure out which is which. And most people are comfortable in this scenario. After all, it seems better to be moderately successful than to be a complete failure.
But maybe you don’t want to be mediocre. Maybe you aren’t satisfied with the status quo. Maybe you want to do something big and memorable. If you are serious about setting yourself apart you might want to seriously consider making more “wrong” decisions. It would be counterproductive to try to debate what exactly a “wrong” decision would look like, so let me just wrap this up by giving you three thoughts that may or may not prove to be helpful to you…
Three Rules For Breaking the Rules:
1. Deep Trumps Wide
With wikipedia only a click away it is much easier to understand a little bit about everything than it is to be the world’s authority on a single subject. That is why there are so many “jack-of-all-trades” and so few true masters in any given field. Strive to be a master. Know even the tiniest detail inside and out. Know exactly what you know as well as what you don’t know. Don’t ever “fake” knowledge on a subject that you are fuzzy about. Dig deeper, work harder, and never stop learning about your area of expertise. If you can truly attain mastership of something then making the “wrong” decision is no longer a risk. While everyone else is blinded by their incomplete knowledge you will be able to see the solution they are dismissing.
2. iPhone Defeats iClone
It would seem that patterning your project after someone else’s success would be a foolproof way of avoiding failure. Contrary to poplular belief, Apple doesn’t have the market cornered on innovation. Anyone can create the next revolutionary product. And yet the biggest competition of the iPhone isn’t from competing ideas. The only competition is from phones that function and look remarkably similar to the iPhone. This happens in almost every market. As soon as one company innovates there is a competitor waiting to copy their success. Don’t be the copycat. Embrace concepts that don’t look like something your competitor would make. Champion ideas that don’t fit nicely in the marketplace as it exists today. Look at how different the phone market is compared to pre-iPhone. This might feel like a mistake since it puts you all alone and separate from your competition. You won’t be alone for long.
3. Conviction or Death
If you are going to boldly break the rules there is one thing that you can’t do without: conviction. If you aren’t willing to defend your idea to the death then you might as well not even try. Lack of conviction leads to compromise. Compromise results in watered-down versions of your vision. Mediocrity is sure to follow and you will be left with nothing. But if you have conviction, the hard decisions will come easily because you know what needs to be done. This is the only way to achieve the impossible.
Since the difference between insanity and genius is measured by success, you should understand that fully embracing these ideas means that people will probably question your sanity. But what really do you have to lose? Go crazy.
P.S. Oh, I didn’t want to leave you hanging without a great chess game for your enjoyment. Here is a classic Bobby Fischer victory: