When Playing By the Rules Doesn't Work Anymore

Aug 01, 2021

In the depths of 2020, I joined many in a Netflix binge of  “The Queen’s Gambit.” I'm not a chess player, but the mounting tension of the competitions and mind maneuvers was irresistible.

Along with being a welcome distraction from the rising toll of Covid-19, the show got me thinking about the metaphors we use when facing problems in our lives. When you face a problem or crisis, are you charging the hill? Taking the bull by the horns? Beating down the door? Running a marathon?

Playing a game of chess?

As humans, we tend to frame crises by searching for certainty, concentration, and closure.

For example, in chess, the rules are specific and consistent. Because of this certainty, players can practice, refine their skills, and even develop mastery within those unchanging parameters. 

Then, there’s concentration: keeping the player grounded and free from distraction. A win depends on the sustained concentration of the player as much as the worthiness of the opponent. In one of the more dramatic moments of “The Queen’s Gambit”, we fear that the heroine Beth may lose a crucial match not because of her lack of ability, but because her concentration was shot from too much revelry the night before.

And lastly, we seek closure. No game is satisfied without a winner. Sure, a draw or forfeit can happen, but even those are distinct endings. Win, lose, or draw, there is closure. On to the next challenge.

However, when crisis hits, these three things we naturally search for are seldom the best course of action or allocation of energy. They’re most often a futile scramble for the way things were -- because we don’t want to believe that there are now “before the crisis” and “after the crisis” markers in our lives.

But Crisis Doesn’t Play by the Rules

In crisis, certainty is a nonstarter. The preexisting foundation—the rules—have been altered. We may seek stability but don’t know what rules still apply. Seeking certainty rather than clarity is the first mistake we make during a crisis.

Second, going inward to concentrate is not as vital as being connected to others and the bigger picture of our rapidly changing environment.

Finally, there is no magic solution or “win” in a crisis. Stubbornly insisting there is, whether consciously or unconsciously, leads to further frustration and even despair. 

When we prematurely declare “mission accomplished” early in the crisis experience, we offer false comfort while ignoring the further investigation and vigilance that is needed. We may feel momentarily relieved, but this sets us up to be stuck in the same systems and patterns that led to this crisis to begin with.

In a real life crisis, we don’t need the certainty, concentration, and closure found on a chess board, we need the stability, connection, and agility of a surfboard. Crisis is not an entity to dominate, it is a dynamic to navigate.

No human can conquer the ocean-- we can not solve, tame, control it, or win victory over it like we can a chess board. However:

  • We can focus on our core strength to stay upright as we ride the wave.
  • We can connect with our thoughts, our emotions, and the needs of others, just as a surfer would connect their body to their board, and board to wave.
  • We can prioritize our balance and adaptability to meet the changing waters not with brute strength, but with agility.

The first step in productively learning from crisis is to recognize the mental tools we use to play life’s everyday games, the metaphors we cling to in order to soothe ourselves with false or shallow assumptions. These unconscious mental models rely on certainty, concentration, and closure, but crisis offers none of those.

Riding the waves of crisis, on the other hand, means consciously exploring alternative possibilities when old ways of being are no longer viable.

 Slowing down to build stability, connection, and agility will ultimately speed up our return to solid ground. This is life, after all, not a game we can step away from when our gambit fails.

This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from Chapter 4 of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of that chapter describe how tackling problems using old mental models limit our choices and prevents real learning.

Stay connected and continue learning about how to ride the waves of crisis and rework the metaphors we use to understand life’s challenges by joining the Surviving & Thriving Together Newsletter below!

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