Know Your Why (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 6)

We all need different things out of Chess, and "improvement" is not the answer for everyone.

Three friends, Andrea, Bill, and Chuck set off on three roadtrips in three different cars.

Andrea hasn’t picked a destination. She will see where the road takes her. She’ll turn down random streets, take random exits.

She drives for hours, regularly changing direction, going backwards, ending up in strange places. Turning down every new shiny road she encounters.

Eventually she finds herself back where she started. She’s spent hours driving but hasn’t gotten anywhere.

Bill has a clear destination, but is struggling to get started. He drives a little, but gets distracted, making very little progress. He realizes he’s lost a lot of time, so goes home and decides to try again tomorrow.

He feels awful though. “Today should have been a day of driving”, he berates himself.

The next day, he has too much other stuff going on and makes no progress either. And he beats himself up again. The same the next day. And the next.

Chuck sets off in the third car. He’s excited about his destination. He has the time and the headspace to do the driving, and he makes steady progress.

He’s thrilled to be on the journey, and enjoys each moment.

Which friend do you think is the happiest?

In my experience of adult improvers, we’re each either Andrea, Bill, or Chuck.

Like Andrea, we experiment, explore, wander about, and never really get anywhere.

Like Bill, we set ambitious goals, but regularly find ourselves without the time or the motivation to do what’s required to reach those goals. Then we get upset with ourselves.

Or like Chuck, we set clear goals that feel right for us. Approach them in ways that are achievable in our day-to-day lives. And make progress toward those goals.

So who do you think is the happiest? Andrea, Bill, or Chuck?

My guess is that you picked Chuck, the one who was excited about his goal and about the journey. He certainly seems happy.

But it was a trick question. Because Andrea is likely just as happy.

Andrea just enjoys the drive. She likes to explore. Doesn’t care if she actually gets anywhere, she just wants to drive around.

It enriches her life to go for a drive every now and then.

That’s no more or less valid than what Chuck’s doing.

The only one who is definitely unhappy is Bill. He picked a goal he doesn’t believe in, that doesn’t make sense for him right now.

He doesn’t have the time, the energy, or the care to do the things that his ambitious goal requires.

Many adult improvers are like Bill. We set ambitious goals for Chess improvement, then find ourselves with limited time or motivation to actually reach them.

We play blitz instead of studying our tactics books. We buy the courses, but never complete them. Our training time gets crowded out day after day by other obligations. And we beat ourselves up.

We decide we want to improve, then when we do actually have the time, we just play mindless games instead.

This happens because, really, deep down, if we’re honest, improvement may not be what we need from Chess right now.

That’s not the role Chess plays in our life right now.

And that’s ok. We just need to know.

The Fifth Law of Adult Improvement: Know Your Why

As adult improvers, we need to be crystal clear on our why.

Why do you play Chess? Why are you reading this newsletter right now? What are you actually trying to achieve and why does it matter to you?

If you aren’t crystal clear on that, you will struggle. If you pick goals that don’t match your why, you will struggle.

There are plenty of reasons to have Chess in your life that have nothing to do with improvement.

Here are a few:

  • you find beauty in the game, love watching the top tournaments, and savor the glimpses of brilliance that you see every now and then in your own games
  • your life is chaotic, and Chess offers a structured, contained world that you can escape into
  • you enjoy spending time with people at the local Chess club
  • you want to guide your child through their own engagement with the game
  • it helps you mentally reset after a long work day so that you can be more present with your family

There are infinitely more. And every one of them is noble, valuable, and valid in their own way.

In the four years since I picked up Chess, I have had several whys.

When I started with Chess, I needed to improve.

Every other area of my life at the time felt stagnant (it was lockdown after all).

I needed my rating to go up because it gave me a sense of progress.

When I saw my rating rise, I was able to tell myself that I was still growing. That was so impactful for me at the time. It gave me confidence that carried into other areas.

That was my first why.

Then I started to build Don’t Move, and Chess became a place where I could go toe-to-toe with my psychology, learn about myself, and better understand others.

That was my second why.

Now Chess is an obsession for me, but not in the normal way. I’m obsessed with how I can help other adults make their brains better at the game.

That’s my current why.

And because I know my why, I can be comfortable that I don’t spend much energy on my own improvement anymore. I can be comfortable with my rating where it is.

One day, my why will shift again. There’ll definitely be another time when I dive headlong into my training. But that time isn’t now.

And that’s ok. It’s ok for me. And, it’s ok for you too.

First, work out what role Chess fills in your life. Then, and only then, pick goals to match it.

If your goal does not match your why, you’ll never reach it. That’s why you must start from the why.

Here are some ways to do that.

Do the “5 Whys” exercise.

It’s a classic exercise that works in so many situations. It’s especially good for stuff like this.

Start with a statement like:

  • I want Chess in my life; or
  • I am not motivated to study; or
  • I want to get better; or
  • anything else that feels meaningful to you.​

Then, ask “why?”. Write down your answer in a sentence or two.

Then, look at the answer you wrote and ask “why?” again. Write down that answer.

Do this a total of 5 times. Each time you ask “why?”, you get closer to the root of the issue. Reflect on whatever you find.

Ask someone close to you.

Speak with someone who knows you well and has seen how you engage with the game of Chess. Ask them what they think.

The people near us can sometimes understand us far better than we can ourselves. Use that.

Ask yourself, “what would be missing from my life if I could never engage with Chess again?”

Grab a piece of paper and journal for a little while on this question. If you end up with a list of several things, then pick just the most important 1 or 2.

The parts of Chess that would be most painful for you to lose are the parts that mean the most to you. They will point you to your why.

This final law is the most important of the lot.

Understand why you want Chess in your life, then pick goals that match that why.

If improving is a big part of your why, awesome. If it’s not, that’s also great.

Whatever your why is, embrace it fully. And let go of the expectations that don’t fit into your life right now.

I guarantee you’ll get far more joy from your Chess when you do.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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