My parents taught my sisters and me to play chess. We had two chess sets. The really nice set had pieces made from hand-carved white onyx. (We had to be very careful when playing with that set.) We’d play our parents, each other, and even got a few friends in on the action. Eventually, we got to the point where we could solve some of the simpler chess puzzles the newspaper printed on the page before the comics.
Winning at chess comes down to keeping your options open. You capture your opponent’s pieces and restrict their movement to limit their options. When you sacrifice a piece, you make sure you’re getting a higher-value piece in return, or at least a positional advantage. Then there’s the meta-game—bluffing, misdirection, and distraction.
The game is won when you have eliminated your opponent’s options, and there is no action they can take to protect their king.
If you want to be successful in life, learn to keep your options open. Make choices that give you more choices instead of taking them away.
Do work before deadlines sneak up on you. When you do work at the last minute, your options are limited to what’s quick. You don’t have time to explore and develop alternative ideas. You can only hope that the first thing that you come up with is good enough, because that’s all you have time for.
Quadrant 1 has first claim on our attention, but that’s not where we want to focus our energy. The more time we can spend working in Quadrant 2, the less we’ll need to visit Quadrant 1. Regular planning, especially at the weekly and monthly levels, helps us see problems before they develop. We can deal with mountains while they’re still mole hills.
Always be learning. Study after study has shown that the more education you receive, the higher your lifetime income will be. The more you know, the greater the value you can contribute. The more skilled you are, the easier it will be for you to connect with someone you can serve.
Going to college isn’t the only way to learn. It can give you a great head-start, but no matter how many degrees you earn, college can’t be the only way you learn. After you graduate, you need to keep learning. You may be in a field that has formalized CE requirements, or you’re doing it completely self-directed. Either way, the more you learn, the more you’ll increase your options.
Stay out of debt. Did you know that when you owe someone money, they have legal and moral claim on your time? They can set your agenda. Want to move to be closer to family? You can’t—you’re underwater on the mortgage. How about that awesome job where you’d be making a meaningful contribution? It doesn’t pay enough for you to cover your bills. (Ryan Rhoten has written about his experience with this.)
Make sure your needs are being met. When one of our basic needs isn’t satisfied, all our attention and energy goes to fulfilling that need. It’s like we’re driving around on a flat tire. If you take care of it right away, you can usually patch the tire without too much difficulty. Keep driving on a flat tire, and you’ll destroy the tire. Keep going, and you’ll need to repair or replace the rim.
The longer we go without addressing an unmet need, the more serious an impact it has. It becomes harder to ignore. Eventually, we start compulsively doing anything we can to meet the need, no matter how destructive the behavior is.
The sooner we choose to address an unmet need, the more we protect our ability to make other choices.
Fortunately, most of life is nowhere as adversarial as a game of chess. There are plenty of people who will gladly help you win because they know it doesn’t mean they have to lose. In fact, they only consider themselves to be winning when you’re winning, too. These are the people you want to surround yourself with.
Every choice we make either creates choices for us or takes choices away from us. Early on, it may seem like we’re just shuffling things around. Later in the game, it’s the difference between opportunities around every corner and facing a new crisis with every move.