Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success
by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
Find it at Amazon
Earlier this summer I read this enlightening book. It was as I was ramping up my chess study and I was looking for something to read that was not directly chess-related when I was on vacation. But, as I was reading it, and since I was so wrapped up in chess, I kept thinking about how it applied to chess and my study.
It started when I heard GothemChess on a podcast talking about a sports psychologist. I honestly don’t remember if he said he was going to talk to a sports psychologist or if he was saying some of the top grandmasters used sports psychologists. Either way, I thought it was a great insight and went to find a book. I ended up on this list of 20 books and then picked Peak Performance since it was first on the list and sounded like I would like it.
Stress + Rest = Growth
The main idea of the book is that to get better, you need to combine stress with rest. This applies to physical activities, but also cognitive (like chess) or emotional activities. The key is figuring out the right balance.
According to the book, “Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves to the outer reaches of our abilities.” You need to push yourself, even struggle, in order to grow. That is how you are going to get stronger in any activity.
However, you cannot just keep pushing because then you will break down. Instead, you need to balance that struggle with periods of rest.
One area of the book that I found especially interesting when thinking about chess is the area of how to work out/study. There were a lot of good tips, but a common theme was working on skills that are just outside of your ability and/or comfort zone. If it is too complicated/hard, that is not good. But if it is too easy then you are not growing. The book says, “being uncomfortable is the path to personal development and growth.” I’ve heard bits and pieces of this theory relating to chess before, but this book explained it in a very clear way.
Another chess-related (to me) topic was discussing when to ask for help. The book says you should “only seek out support after you’ve allowed yourself to struggle.” I think this applies to chess in a few ways. Mainly, I thought of using chess engines for analysis. It is easy and the answer is right there. But when you are analyzing a game, it is best to work through the problem on your own before turning on the engine. For me, I got in the bad habit of just running the analysis after a game and letting it tell me where I went wrong. It was interesting, but what was I learning? How was I growing and getting better? There was a study that was referenced in the book where students who struggled on complex problems before receiving help from teachers outperformed students who received immediate assistance. This applies to engines as the teachers, but also chess coaches.
The book also talked about losing/failure and the benefits. It says, “the most profound learning occurs when we experience failure.” To me, it seemed like I needed to lose at chess to gain skills. I think that is part of it, but I think it is also learning from your mistakes. It might not be losing a bunch of games, but it could be finding mistakes and working to fix them.
“It isn’t experience but the amount of deliberate practice.” It isn’t enough to just work hard. It is what you are working on that matters. The book refers to this as “deliberate practice.” Basically, you should set goals for every study session (or game?) so you know what you are trying to improve.
Here are some of the tips from the book that I am going to work on:
- Define a purpose and concrete objectives for each session
- Ask what I want to learn or get done
- Focus and concentrate deeply1. Work on a single task (don’t multitask)
- Quality beats quantity
In addition to working hard, you must also take breaks and rest. I was reading this book on vacation, mostly sitting in a hammock under a lake, so this section really hit home for me.
There are longer breaks, possibly many days off, that you should incorporate into your routine. The book talks about scheduling these when you know you will have had periods of accumulated stress. So if you know you will be training hard for a tournament, plan to take a couple of days off from chess afterward to let yourself rest. This could also apply to intense periods of study. I have heard many stories on various podcasts of very strong players talking about working hard, not seeing the results right away, taking a break, and then all of a sudden things start to click.
There are also short breaks that you should take throughout the day, especially when you are feeling stuck. The main point was to take a short break throughout the work so you do not get overloaded. I started using the Pomodoro Technique for this, where you plan to work uninterrupted for a chunk of time, maybe 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. The book highlights some great performers who work this way.
One other thing to highlight here is that being in nature improves rest and promotes creative thinking. I have always thought this was very important, so if you learn anything, do this. The book talks about how studies have shown taking outdoor walks increases creativity. So get outside! Enjoy nature!
Finally, the book talks about finding your motivation. If you want to endure more effort, then you need to increase your motivation. To increase your motivation, you need to know why you are studying chess (or any other activity). If that motivation is linked to a higher purpose, for example, that you want to improve at chess so you can help young students, then you will be even more motivated. There is an exercise at the end of the book to define your purpose which was easy to do and well worth it.