Hopeless Situations

March 3rd, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

I was up late last night playing chess on Yahoo Games with an old friend. The last time he and I connected was back when I was still a game developer, so as we were playing we were catching up about a lot of things. I looked him up after getting an intuitive hit to contact him (a psychic ping). Sure enough when I emailed him out of the blue, he told me he’d just been thinking about me the other day.

As far as chess was concerned, I received an educational experience (i.e. a sound thrashing). He’s been playing since age 5, and I basically felt like a 5-year-old playing against him. He even permitted me multiple undos so I could explore different lines and then revert to an earlier position if they didn’t work out, and I still couldn’t dent him. After I opened with e4, I could practically hear him thinking, “OK, that’s gonna be mate in 33, dude.” At least it wasn’t mate in 4.

As I faced an utterly hopeless situation near the end of our first game, I asked if there was a cheat code that could give my pawns a distance attack… maybe some shields for good measure. Even just one Rambo pawn would have helped, as long as he had a quiver of exploding arrows that is.

I played the absolute best game I could muster, but it was still Wolf 359 for me. No matter what I did or didn’t do, the ending was always the same — checkmate.

The Value of Hopeless Situations

Many are stuck in hopeless financial situations and enduring foreclosures on their homes right now, especially here in Las Vegas. Sure there’s a remote chance they could avoid losing their homes if they make all the right moves, but many aren’t in a position to do everything right under that kind of pressure. People may even see it coming but still can’t prevent it. No matter what they attempt, it all leads to the same outcome — PxH (pawn takes house).

Seeing your house get pawned obviously sucks, but hey, it happens. If you play the game of life, you have to accept that as a possible move.

There’s a hidden benefit to the hopeless situation though. When you know you’re going to lose no matter what, you can stop playing to win, and start playing to learn instead. You surrender to the inevitability of the loss and focus on the long-term gain. Even though you must endure a short-term sting, you’ll learn some valuable lessons that will make you a better player in the long game of life.

I’m not suggesting that you sabotage yourself and hold back, thereby causing failure through inaction or lack of effort. Just realize that it’s perfectly okay to do your best and still end up with a losing outcome.

What makes a hopeless situation very stressful and worrisome is when you resist it. When you accept it and surrender to it, however, you get peace instead of stress. This is true even when the final result is death.

Playing to Learn

Despite the hopeless situation of my chess playing last night, it didn’t cause me distress because I knew I was playing to learn. So in that sense I was guaranteed victory simply by doing my best, regardless of how badly outmatched I was.

The only way to win consistently at life is to regard every situation as a learning experience. That’s the only outcome you can really guarantee. If you make that your primary aim, losing becomes impossible.

Even though a game of chess might seem an unfair comparison to a foreclosure, it’s the same principle at work. A bigger sting just delivers a more valuable lesson. Not every piece you lose will be a mere pawn.

Where Did I Go Wrong?

In chess I learned that a bad move made early in the game can spell doom for me later. Once a certain threshold of error is crossed, my fate is sealed. To prevent a loss, I must avoid making such mistakes, but due to my limited experience, I don’t often realize a mistake was made until it’s much too late to do anything about it. At the time mistakes are made, they often look like halfway decent (maybe even good) ideas.

People going through foreclosures are in the same boat. Their bad move may have been made years earlier, such as when they first bought their home. Back then they might have been unable to foresee their current no-win situation. Doing their best today may not be enough to compensate for the fatal error made long ago. Pawn x house becomes inevitable. Perhaps a highly skilled player could manage to turn things around, but often you just can’t prevent such captures from occurring. Even expert players eventually succumb.

Recovering From the Hopeless Situation

How do you recover from the hopeless situation? Do your best to avoid it of course, but when you reach the point where life is declaring “mate in 3″ no matter what you do, it’s time to bow to the inevitable. Accept the loss gracefully.

Then go back and analyze your play to figure out where you went wrong. Think about how to avoid those mistakes in the future. Unfortunately this isn’t always easy. You may have to lose multiple times in a similar fashion until you figure out where you’ve been going wrong. I’ve often had to repeat major business mistakes until I could finally figure out the pattern and avoid such errors in the future. Financially those mistakes were major setbacks, but they were also incredible learning experiences. Important lessons often have high price tags.

Sometimes you have to backtrack pretty far to discover the point of error. In my chess games last night, my error was made before I even moved any of my pieces. My mistake was challenging my friend to a game in the first place. Barring some miracle my loss was already sealed when I sent off that email. This assumes of course that my goal was to win the game, which I tried my best to achieve but to no avail.

In more significant life situations, you may need to backtrack pretty far. For example, if you lose your home to foreclosure, maybe the real mistake wasn’t entering into a bad mortgage. Maybe it happened much earlier. Maybe you allowed yourself to get stuck in a job you didn’t love, and it held you back financially. Maybe you chose the wrong career path entirely. Maybe you didn’t take your early math education seriously, and your lack of basic skills still haunts you today.

Moving Beyond Defeat

Real life doesn’t include an undo button, so you may end up losing some pieces now and then and be unable to save or restore them. Maybe you’ll go broke a few times, screw up some otherwise good relationships (NxQ really sucks!), or get trapped in an unfulfilling line of work. You can’t just immediately erase those effects with a flick of your magic wand. But you can look at your life’s chessboard with a fresh perspective. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. Just look at the board, assess the current configuration, determine where the best opportunities are, and make the best next move you can.

If your best isn’t enough and you keep losing good pieces, it just means you have more to learn. There’s no need to whine and complain when that happens. Whining just makes you look silly, especially since there will be other people who are much worse off than you and who’d gladly trade their board for yours. Nobody likes a sore loser.

When you lose just pick yourself up, analyze your play, and try again.

The cool thing about real life as compared to chess is that the only checkmate in real life is death (and some would argue that isn’t checkmate either). So until you die, the worst case is that you’ve been put in check, in which case you always have another move to make, and the game continues. While your house or your relationship or your job may get captured, that isn’t enough to end the game.

Hopeless situations are awesome because they teach you to become a better player. If you didn’t encounter hopeless situations and lose a few pieces, it would mean you’re playing way too tight and missing some great opportunities. You’ll learn a lot more from analyzing your losses as opposed to your victories, since your losses reveal your blind spots and allow you to improve your play.

If you’re stuck in a hopeless situation right now, surrender yourself to it. Let the captured pieces go, and take them off the board. Don’t just sit there bemoaning your lost bishop. I know he was precious to you, but you’ll manage without him. Then assess what you have left to work with, and make another move.

Incidentally, if your relationship ever succumbs to NxQ (knight takes queen), the proper response is RPxN (Rambo pawn takes knight). ;)


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