Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The delicate balance of process vs. goal...

From Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning:
Chess was a constant challenge. My whole career, my father and I searched out opponents who were a little stronger than me, so even as I dominated the scholastic circuit, losing was part of my regular experience. I believe this was important for maintaining a healthy perspective on the game. While there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, fear of failure didn’t move me so much as an intense passion for the game. I think the arc of losing a heartbreaker before winning my first big title gave me license to compete on the edge.  
This is not to say that losing didn’t hurt. It did. There is something particularly painful about being beaten in a chess game. In the course of a battle, each player puts every ounce of his or her tactical, strategical, emotional, physical, and spiritual being into the struggle. The brain is pushed through terrible trials; we stretch every fiber of our mental capacity; the whole body aches from exhaustion after hours of rapt concentration. In the course of a dynamic chess fight, there will be shifts in momentum, near misses, narrow escapes, innovative creations, and precise refutations. When your position teeters on the brink of disaster, it feels like your life is on the line. When you win, you survive another day. When you lose, it is as if someone has torn out your heart and stepped on it. No exaggeration. Losing is brutal.  
This brings up an incipient danger in what may appear to be an incremental approach. I have seen many people in diverse fields take some version of the process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves. This issue of process vs. goal is very delicate, and I want to carefully define how I feel the question should be navigated.  
It would be easy to read about the studies on entity vs. incremental theories of intelligence and come to the conclusion that a child should never win or lose. I don’t believe this is the case. If that child discovers any ambition to pursue excellence in a given field later in life, he or she may lack the toughness to handle inevitable obstacles. While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do—we need to be psychologically prepared to face the unavoidable challenges along our way, and when it comes down to it, the only way to learn how to swim is by getting in the water.