Returns on Investment

Ben Folds, the famous and popular songwriter and piano player, tells a story about how he first got a piano. He was a child, and his parents let him know they were getting a piano the next day. He was so excited he barely slept that night, going over in his mind all the music he would create once his fingers were touching that piano.

The next day was a shock. He could not in fact make the music he imagined right away. It took a lot of mistakes to get to where he wanted to go.

In one of my favorite books The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, the author who was a child chessmaster and become a martial arts champion as an adult has a chapter on investing in loss. I love this book because of the two seemingly polar opposites of expertise. The game of chess is exclusively the world of the mind. Martial arts is realm of the body.

And yet Waitzkin sees how excellence and competition in both these disciplines have overlap. Both skills require being bad at it when you start. Both skills require repetition and intelligent practice to improve.

I get how Ben Folds felt when the reality of his inexperience crashed against his artistic vision. I can see what I want to do so clearly I can almost touch it. In fact I cannot touch it. It doesn’t exist until I gain the skills to create it.

I have to try and fail. And try and fail again. Maybe my failure will be slightly closer to the goal after a few times.

I will surely lose when I compete against someone better than me. If I were only engaging with people who were less skilled than I would not gain skill. I might in fact protect myself from engaging with anyone to keep the status of winner. If winning were the point, I could make sure to compete with lower and lower skilled people and shrink to stay in those divisions.

Losing makes me better. It is unpleasant to be knocked down, outplayed and outfoxed by strategy. But it’s that pain and that gut punch that motivates me to get better.

I have to keep losing to make progress. Winning was never really the goal.