The Prison of “Expertise”

When I was young, I learned to play chess — in the loosest sense of the term. I learned how the pieces moved, how to capture and that checkmate meant winning. However, I knew no strategy; I just bumbled about until I won or (more likely) lost. Pawns were cannon-fodder, captures taken without thought, and positions alien to me. Despite this, I had fun and played sporadically for years.

Then one day I played against someone who (after beating me) explained strategy. I learned about traps, positions and the importance of pawns for formations. I learned not to move randomly but to move with a plan, to look ahead and anticipate my opponent’s moves.

I saw chess in a new light. I did as I was told and experimented with a variety of openings, pawn formations and so on.

This led to two things.

The first is I got better. I got so good that winning became the norm and losing the exception. In fact, I was the best player in my limited circle and became known as “the good player”.

The second is I ended up hating chess.

I didn’t realize it at first — I didn’t realize it until many years later, well after I gave up the game. See, when I was bad I played for fun. But once I got good, I played to protect my reputation as “the good player”. The game vanished and what was left was a tension filled ego fest where I had everything to lose by losing and little to gain by winning. I feared playing new people, worried that inferior players would get better & beat me, and panicked when the game was not going my way. I stopped experimenting for fear I would screw up. I stopped asking fundamental questions about formations that could have led to insight for fear that such questions were not befitting a “good player”.

Ironically, I stagnated as a player precisely because of this. How else could I have gotten better unless I played better people, asked honest questions and tried new things — and risked losing in the process?

How much of life is like this? In what other areas of life do I lose out because being “good at something” turned that something into a prop for my ego? How mu ch better would life be if I would drop all pretense and keep going back to the “beginner’s mind” and stop worrying about whether X is befitting of someone in my station?

However, is expertise a symptom of something deeper? Could it be that the deeper thing is the expectation that clouds my appreciation of what is, in favor of worry over what may be? Is this expectation a symptom of something deeper — my tendency to treat things as means to an end rather than an end in itself?

Do you recognize yourself in this?  Do you have a prison?  Perhaps your prison isn’t chess — maybe it’s sports, your job, or even being attractive.  If you have a prison, how has it affected your life and what could you gain by breaking free?


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