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High Anxiety

UPDATE: Eyes of Wood, Hands of Stone, Heart of Paper.

The other night, a good friend was visiting and she suggested we pass the time playing Go. I own a board, but I don't recall ever playing with it. We got the board out and she started to explain how to play. I love games, so you would expect that we had a good time. But no, I fell into a blue funk and things went rapidly downhill. I do not kid when I say that by the time she ended the game in exasperation, I had sucked all the joy out of the room.

Go Board (c) 2008 Ralph Unden, some rights reserved

My involvement with Go has been sporadic and inauspicious. I had heard it was a beautiful game, full of subtleties and marvels. Friends told me how much I would love it. Decades ago, I visited a club and explained I would like to learn to play. One of the members pulled out a small board, gave me a brief run-down of the rules, and invited me to play. He probably gave me a large handicap, I don't remember the details. I had no idea what I was doing, and he destroyed me. (If you understand the mind that would take losing the first game ever played against an aficionado so personally, you can probably stop reading right here.)

I'm sure he was a very nice man who wanted to share his love of the game with me. I do not think he wanted to "destroy" me, he was probably just showing me the natural consequences of actions and reactions in Go, consequences that happened to lead to his armies surrounding nearly all the free territory on the board.

He suggested I watch some of the other members play and learn from them. I watched, bewildered. I was unable to learn a thing. I have a good memory for certain kinds of games, a good memory for tactics and strategies, for how things play out. But I remember nothing of my game or the games I watched. In Go, it seems that things are very subtle. A player plays here, and her opponent, realizing how things will play out if he responds directly, elects to play a stone in another sector of the board entirely.

Without any commentary to guide me, I had no idea what I was seeing. I did not see wonders and marvels, instead I felt like a blind man in an art gallery. I could hear sharp intakes of breath, gasps of astonishment, and excited whispers, but I could not directly perceive the art.

Again, I don't think anyone at the club was trying to exclude me. It's just that they spoke a foreign language and for that matter, they were talking about something with no direct parallel to anything else I had ever seen. I have been told that everyone is deaf, dumb, and blind in Go when they start. I have been told that it is always unfathomable when first encountered. I didn't know that and I assumed that I was defective in some way, that I was blind rather than assuming that a game played by two experienced players would be too subtle for a newcomer to grasp.

I went out and bought a book on Go, a book for beginners. I read it cover to cover, but I still felt blind. The game seemed out of reach. I have learned many games before and since, and usually there is something I can grasp right away. Backgammon appears to be a race at first glance. Later, you learn more about blocking and timing and back games and blitzes and you appreciate that it is rarely just a race. Most other games are similar, there is some obvious thing you are trying to do, and the subtleties come later. Go didn't give me anything so obvious to understand.

I didn't try playing Go again for years. When friends brought up the game, I changed the subject. I got into Japanese Maples and Koi keeping, yet avoided Go. Then I moved house, and in sorting through my games I pulled out a Go board. I can't even remember buying it. My friend suggested we play, and last night I made another attempt to learn the game.

Starting Over

I felt a great deal of anxiety. My friend tried to show me the rules. She would put some stones on the board to explain something, and I would ask a lot of questions, disrupting the flow of her instruction. I was impatient, edgy. Every time she showed me something, I would focus on what she wasn't telling me, afraid that I would miss some critical detail. I'm sure it was frustrating for me to continually ask questions about things she would have demonstrated in a moment had I been patient.

As someone who knows me well and is a keen observer of human nature, she was troubled by how much angst I was obviously experiencing, how much trouble I was having with being incompetent. My word, "incompetent." She doesn't use words like that to describe trying to play maybe the second game in my life.

She encouraged me to learn Go through playing. I fought against this sullenly. I wanted to believe that when I went to place my first stone I could some idea of what I was doing, some plan. So I peppered her with questions. I stared at each example she laid out for me, hoping that if I turned things over in my mind long enough, that I would get some insight, some Aha! moment, and I would gain some strategy that I could use later.

Go just didn't seem to work that way for me. The insights haven't come from non-playing, and last night was no exception. The more I stared, silent and morose at the stones and the board, the less I felt I could see. My friend sat, practically ignored while I tried to work things out. My body language screamed that I was intensely uncomfortable and worse, that interacting with her in a social way was unimportant.

There are many ways to explain my discomfort. Much has been made of Learned Helplessness. I felt helpless, unable to affect the outcome of the game in any meaningful way. How could I influence what I could not perceive? Much has also been made of self-expectations and self-criticism. I was rightfully incompetent at a game I had never learned to play, but I was uncomfortable with the thought of being less than competent.

The feelings of being helpless and incompetent cut me somewhere very deep. It feels a little like being a victim, like I am exposed to being manipulated and hurt by others, like my opponents in a game are going to really hurt me and I will have no defense, I won't even know I am being led to slaughter until they announce "Checkmate" malevolently. And no matter how much I reassure myself that I am playing a game with a friend, with someone who cares deeply about my feelings and would never want to hurt me, inside me there is a child who fears being hurt by someone who claims to love them, and it is hard to overcome that child's terror, it is hard to feel safe.

Playing Again

We started to play. She gave me three stones on a small board and made the first move. I stared at her stone. What was she doing? Why? What was the threat? How should I respond?? In bridge we used to say that a player would go "into the tank," thinking silently for a long time when faced with a difficult choice. I went into the tank on the very first play. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to respond? What was my plan? I had no idea. I still have no idea.

My friend patiently tried to coax me out of the tank and just play. I stated at the board, unable to place the first stone beyond the handicap. My three handicap stones seemed defenseless and isolated, almost a liability. I couldn't understand why she felt that three stones would give me a chance of winning and four would be too much for her to overcome even against someone new to Go.

Try something, she encouraged. Succeed, fail, it doesn't matter. Try something and see how it works out. But I sat, paralyzed by fear, paralyzed by indecision. It wasn't that I didn't know which move to play. That phrase suggests that I could see a few plays, had a few ideas of things I wanted to do. But I had no idea what I could be trying to do. I couldn't select a move because I didn't see any moves. Sure, I could place a stone on any vacant intersection, so in a sense I had a list of possible moves. But at any non-trivial level, a move suggests some sort of intention. I had no intentions, I had no idea what I could be trying to do or why.

My friend was gentle, soothing. Although very inexperienced herself, she tried to share her view of the game with me. She compared it to a child learning a language. Toddlers do not learn grammar and spelling and memorize words, they imitate and vocalize and learn through immersion and exposure and trial and error. They don't appear to have goals or embarrassment about how well they speak. They simply talk as best they can.

Toddlers really have no idea how talking works. They don't know that there are different languages, or that there are parts of speech, or even that there are words. They don't have any idea but yet they learn!

She explained this and I suppose my intellectual conscious mind can understand this but all the same I was extremely uncomfortable with having no idea. My adult brain would not let go and let my child brain take over. I feared a non-existent humiliation of playing randomly.

My friend was not playing me for the pleasure of pointing her finger at me and crying "Shame!" Nevertheless, my world was filled with fear of being shamed for incompetence. Eventually, I placed a stone on the board. I think at that point the fear of her disapproval over my diffidence exceeded the fear of making a mistake.

We continued to play. With each stone, I re-enacted that awful feeling of staring at the board and having no idea what to do, no idea why to do it. I tried playing aggressively, and she quickly captured one of my stones. This depressed me. She meant me no ill will, but in my dark mood I felt I had been punished by fate for making a mistake. My friend had captured my stone with an eye to explaining a little about the relationship between the stone you are playing and your stones already on the board, but my mood was too bleak to absorb the lesson.

With the loss of my stone, her position suddenly seemed to fill the board with weight and menace. My own seemed inconsequential, consisting of a few stones haphazardly strewn about. I fell deeper into despair. Instead of being motivated by the joy of learning something new, I was motivated by the fear of further punishment and humiliation.

Watching my agonies was painful for my friend. She was empathizing with my pain as I stared at the board hurting and wishing the ordeal was over. And to boot, I was unable to interact with her. Scotch sat at my elbow, ignored. She sat across from me, ignored. Was there music playing? I can't remember. My world shrunk to this nine by nine board full of the pain of my helplessness.

At some point I realized that I was eviscerating the evening. I struggled to remember that I valued friendship more than stones and wood. I tried to play quickly and carelessly. Logically, it should make no difference, thinking hard about my moves didn't make me feel any better. I doubted that thinking hard would make any difference, I couldn't measure any progress, there is no score as you play and I had no idea how to judge whether I was winning, losing, improving, or whatever, I had no idea what was going on. I might as well be playing in pitch darkness, so what difference did concentrating make other than to undermine my friendship? I placed stones with abandon.

My realization was too late, the game had soured for both of us. We called an end to it and I crawled inside my skin to suffer.

The Aftermath and New Beginnings

I am still struggling with guilt over being so self-centered that my own neuroses would make my friend so uncomfortable. I feel guilty that I ignored her so much. I feel like my behaviour was screaming that I cared very much about playing Go but cared nothing for the experience of playing Go with her. Even writing this out, I see myself falling into the pit of my feelings about the game and falling away from my feelings about playing the game with a friend, about the human warmth and camaraderie that games ought to facilitate. How many words am I writing about the interplay of emotions between us, and how many words am I writing about my inner struggle to play Go?

Go is a game. There are people who play passionately, people who dedicate their lives to exploring its mysteries, people who think about it nearly every waking hour. If its culture is anything like Chess or Bridge, there are people who have divorced over their feelings about Go, lost jobs over the choices they made with respect to Go, or even ended their lives over their feelings about Go.

But despite all of that, Go is still only a game. Go didn't make me feel unhappy, I felt unhappy. And Go didn't make me self-centered on the whole, it was just while I was trying and failing to play the game as I understand "playing the game." Go will not always make me unhappy either. This feeling will pass.

However, I will play Go again.

In time, I may learn enough to actually have an idea of what I want to attempt. I may learn enough to have a rough idea of whether I am doing well or poorly in a game so I can gauge whether my moves are working out or not as I play. But I will not make these things my goal. Instead, I will set myself a goal of enjoying my next game of Go.

I absolutely will not research the game. I will not practice in secret against a computer. I will not read everything I can find on the Internet about Go. I have tried to overcome these demons in the past using these tactics. The irony is, competence is not a cure for the fear of incompetence. The courage to play incompetently is a cure for fear of incompetence. If you are afraid of dogs, avoiding dog walking parks does not cure you of your fear, and for me learning to play Go well would help me avoid my fear but not cure it.

So I will play again, and I will enjoy the social experience. I will drink the Scotch. I will listen to the music. I probably will ignore much of the game. Perhaps if there are patterns they will manifest themselves when I am not looking for them, something like those 3D pictures that require you to defocus your vision to see what is going on. But then again, perhaps not. perhaps I will never understand the game, perhaps it will always be a closed book, perhaps I will always play in the dark while others whisper and giggle.

It could be that I will never present a challenge to anyone, perhaps I will always lose no matter how many stones I am given. I don't know, but I do know that when I next sit in front of a Go board, I will enjoy myself. I do know I will be ok with playing in the dark. I will be ok with losing. I will not fear the moment when my opponent capitalizes on my blindness and announces that my position is untenable. I will not feel shame or fear or anger or resentment.

I may never learn how to judge whether a player's position is improving in Go. But I know a little about judging whether my position is improving in Life. And I know that enjoying a game of Go with a friend would be an improvement, especially if I do so by overcoming my fear of incompetence rather than avoiding it.

So that's what I'm going to do.


Selected Tweets and Comments

I've taught Go to over fifty people over the years - and i've seen this over and over again: some people have shaking hands putting down the first stone in their first game ever.

For some reason they assume they ought to be good from the beginning. Even in their first game they try to be original. They're afraid to imitate moves they saw someone else play. It feels like watching someone trying to learn a language by not imitating the sounds they hear when others speak it.

But those that i saw who became really good, were always on the other end of the spectrum. Those who jump right in and played /really/ bad without any anxiety or pressure (no thinking at all and mostly just stubborn imitation of moves they saw someone else play before) and fast (many many many games, often not even to the end), almost always sticked to the game long enough to learn to appreciate and enjoy it, and sometimes even managed to excel at it.

There's something magical about the fearlessness of just playing. Pure curiosity, maybe even quite a bit of ambition, but especially the absolute surrender to repeated and premeditated failure. --enki

Go resembles life in that sense. An infant does not learn to walk by thinking about it. --tarvaina

When learning something, there is no substitute for doing it twenty times a day; and that no matter how much you think you have Go figured out, you probably don't. --randrews

Most who learn the game goes through this set of feelings --seacreature

When I approach a new game, I assume it will take many hundreds (or thousands!) of plays to become truly good at it. I assume that I will play poorly for my first N games -- so, it's best to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. I try to think in terms of, "did I learn something from that loss?" -- if the answer is yes, it was still a worthwhile experience.

Nothing has ever made me feel more incompetent than trying to play Go --xshay

I think this is a good lesson for learning anything new. --Locke

I have this kind of anxiety problem all the time, especially when writing new code, because the code I write might be wrong, so I end up just sitting there, not solving the problem, not thinking about the problem, but just staring. --shrughes

Let your conscious mind / ego go and lose first 100 games as fast as possible --jayturley


I originally wanted to write about learning new things and use this as an example. I had an idea that I would talk about the importance of getting out of a negative space where you fear ridicule and shame for being new. I would talk about having the courage to be new and incompetent leading to learning and growing. But as I wrote, I thought that simply sharing my feelings worked in a certain true, raw, honest way. For now, this story will stand on its own.

p.s. If you liked this, you may also like another very personal post from this unblog, Optimism.


My recent work:

JavaScript AllongéCoffeeScript RistrettoKestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity


(Spot a bug or a spelling mistake? This is a Github repo, fork it and send me a pull request!)

Reg Braithwaite | @raganwald

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