Clearing Away Distractions

Back in October I wrote about the changes in my life that had taken precedence over baduk studies. And while I’m still struggling to find my stride, I am happy to report that I’ve made progress in that direction even if it’s proven difficult to gain yardage. As the Stranger in The Big Lebowski would say: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.”

All of the changes that I’ve experienced have been positive – in family, work, and housing. That’s not a situation to complain about! Instead I must adjust to these changed circumstances and find a way to instantiate a habit of deliberate practice. I’m not going to “should” on myself.

So what am I doing?

I commute into the city each day, and it takes about an hour each direction. That means I have two uninterrupted hours that I can put to use. Of course there are limitations. Being on a train means I can’t play games, at least not on OGS or any other server. Between the tunnels and poor reception this just isn’t a realistic option. So I bring along my tsumego books and other study materials, such as The Fundamental Principles of Go by Yilun Yang (7D).

Practicing tsumego without a baduk kit forces me to concentrate on the problems and read out the different possibilities. This is mentally taxing, and I struggle with flagging attention. Nevertheless I have experienced breakthroughs many times when faced with a particularly vexing problem. I close the book for a few minutes, clear my head, and then return the problem. It amazes me how often this helps me see the solution. It can also be a struggle moving slowly through the problems because I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with solving dozens per day, but I have begun to accept that on some days I won’t make significant headway. Besides it’s the techniques that matter, the ability to read shapes and the like which will ultimately benefit my game.

As life assumes more routine in coming weeks I aim to make daily games a habit. I currently have significant gaps in my playing schedule, and life has not held any punches when it comes to the amount of leisure time I have on evenings and weekends. That is to say, I have had almost no time for playing baduk. This is, again, all part of the adjustment to new life responsibilities and routines, and I will play when and where I can.

Clearing away distractions is okay if these are unproductive habits or other consumptive activities that hinder learning baduk. When, however, life injects real change into your situation, it is immature to think that these can (or should) be wished away. There are advantages and disadvantages in all circumstances, which we must confront in order to achieve our ends. The greatest lessons that I’ve learned so far are to use the time and materials available to me to their maximum extent, not to long for a non-existent ‘ideal,’ and to always keep moving.

Learning baduk is a challenge, and so is life. We should relish both! Embrace the suck and push forward.

Turning Pro

I am a terrible skater.

I learned this about myself while in Victoria, British Columbia where, along with some friends, I visited an ice rink. After lacing up we stepped through the gate into the counter-clockwise fray, and – bam! – I fell. The others, my friends and fellow patrons, glided about like NHL pros. I was, by far, the worst skater present.

That experience has stuck with me, I think, because it mirrors so much of my life. Reality often checks early enthusiasm by revealing inability: I fall, for example. Yet learning the ropes demands that I stand up and keep moving. Skill comes through activity, through practice. Only when I get my legs can I determine the pace and afford, perhaps, to stand still.

As on the ice my beginnings with baduk were wobbly. I looked at the empty grid with trepidation; I still do. Fearful that I would play a fatal variation, I made slow, redundant, and artless moves. Naturally I lost many games. I still lose more than I win, yet my outlook has matured.

One reason for this is my reading of Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro.

Pressfield is not a prodigy. Until his late twenties and early thirties he fled from writing, losing himself in a “shadow career.” Driven to write he fled further still into a decrepit North Carolina cabin, and then bounced around still more until he landed again on the East Coast. In the Big Apple he continued doing “shadow” work as a cabbie until one night he couldn’t take it any longer. Pressfield then confronted his enemy, Resistance, by writing for a full two uninterrupted hours. It was rubbish, he knew that much, but he was okay. He had turned pro.

Author Steven Pressfield.
Author Steven Pressfield.

There is much to commend Turning Pro.

Like all of Pressfield’s writing it is lean and muscular. It hits hard and keeps moving, driving readers with inexorable force. It is powerful stuff.

Turning Pro is about self-transformation, and it has far reaching relevance. It speaks to the artist and the warrior as well as the baduk player.

One way to understand the professional is through his opposite: the amateur. In The War of Art Pressfield asserts:

The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while hte pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real vocation.

In Pressfield’s mind, many of the world’s ills, addictions, and anxieties have their origin in amateurism. This is because the amateur has succumbed to Resistance, which is understood as an all-encompassing force hostile to all higher human endeavors. The amateur knows that they’ve knuckled under, hence the self-loathing, self-hate and other destructive/distracting behaviors.

Turning Pro, by contrast, means confronting Resistance and, above all, doing your work. In The War of Art, Pressfield identifies four qualities and habits of the pro which the amateur lacks:

  1. The pro shows up every day.
  2. The pro stays on the job every day.
  3. The pro is committed over the long haul.
  4. For the pro, the stakes are high and real.

Within these habits and qualities rest others, such as the need for practice. This is the practical aspect of Turning Pro where Pressfield begins to sound like other writers, such as Anders Ericsson with his theory of deliberate practice and Malcolm Gladwell and his rule of 10,000 hours. I do not, however, find Pressfield unoriginal here; instead, I think he is approaching the same issue of professionalism (i.e., mastery) as these others and coming up with similar solutions. The key difference is that Turning Pro tackles this question from the perspective of mentality while these others try to understand it through pedagogy and activity. All of this together is quite compelling.

Still I have my reservations about giving Turning Pro an unequivocal endorsement. My main objection is the author’s elevation of the professional life above all else, including bonds of marriage and family. To me these relationships are fundamental to any endeavor. Far from being an encumbrance, a spouse and good home life afford the best foundation for personal and professional fulfillment. A steady 9-to-5 job, which also comes in for criticism, furnishes the means to support many pursuits. I do not see the incompatibility of a steady life and the life of the professional like Pressfield does, and therein lies my principle objection to his thesis. When Steven Pressfield makes these claims his thinking is at its most banal.

As an aside, The Master of Go offers a convincing counter narrative. The book shows how the players’ wives and secure finances actually support their professional lives.

There are several aspects of Turning Pro that will benefit baduk gamers. The first is Pressfield’s description of the professional mentality. The professional works at a remove from their art, treating it like a job, even a daily struggle. Their focus is on honing technique, not with the public reception of their work. The professional’s concern is always quality – the fact that they did their work and they did it well. In baduk this means not being obsessed with rank or win/loss records, and focusing solely on playing well.

Second, the need to do your work. The pro works every day. This aspect of the book speaks to the importance of deliberate practice as a means of achieving mastery of one’s art. Being a professional is effortful.

Finally, Resistance always gets a say. Pressfield quotes the Dalai Lama saying, “The enemy is a good teacher.” Some days the pro makes no progress in his art, nevertheless his effort is not in vain. Sometimes the professional has to take what the defense gives. Patience means that the defense can always crack in the late game. The professional is in it for the long haul. As he writes, “In the scheme of our lifelong practice, twenty-four hours when we can’t gain yardage is only a speed bump.”

In spite of its weaknesses, Turning Pro is both inspirational and instructional. It forces readers to confront their own Resistance, however manifested, and so, I think, renders a great service. I know Turning Pro has influenced my own training in baduk, and I hope it benefits others as well. It is also good to see that Steven Pressfield, who started writing in his thirties, can still succeed in his art. For baduk players it is often the case that professionals start their careers in adolescence. Knowing, however, that professionalism is, in part, a mentality, people who are not ranked pros (or who will never have that opportunity) can still play baduk as if they were professionals. This is the main value of Turning Pro.

I am still a reluctant ice skater.