If you don’t know the difference between your Pawns and your Kings, and you think a Queen is someone who brings the life and soul to a party then you probably aren’t too familiar with chess. It’s ok because most of us haven’t a clue how to play it either – it’s like checkers, but for clever people.
Laszlo Polgar, an educational psychologist from Hungary must have thought along similar lines. As a self-confessed mediocre player and with too much time on his hands, he devised an experiment to discover if it was possible turn any healthy child into a future chess prodigy. A grand claim indeed, but an experiment is useless without guinea pigs to help test his theories.
Luckily for Laszlo, his wife Kiara was more than happy to allow their 4 year old daughter Zsuzsa to become the test subject he desperately needed.
Chess, the Polgars decided, was the perfect activity for their protogenius: It was an art, a science, and like competitive athletics, yielded objective results that could be measured over time. Never mind that less than 1 percent of top chess players were women. If innate talent was irrelevant to Laszlo’s theory, so, then, was a child’s gender. “My father is a visionary,” Zsuzsa says. “He always thinks big, and he thinks people can do a lot more than they actually do.”
Of course, one child wasn’t enough so when Kiara gave birth to Zsofia and Judit – Laszlo suddenly gained two additional subjects. Having daughters actually helped Laszlo because he was intrigued to see if they could compete in a male dominated profession. To aid their experiment, and to gain greater control over their daughters development, Laszlo and Kiara chose to home-school the girls by supplementing their daily 8 hour chess routines with Esperanto, German, English and high level math studies.
This, perhaps unsurprisingly, alerted the local police who turned up at the family home wondering what kind of lunatic chooses a glorified board game over traditional schooling. It was only after Zsuzsa won her first youth title aged 4 and a half, Laszlo found the confidence to carry on with his brain fiddling scheme.
While Zsuzsa and Zsofia were chess prodigies and won various championships, it was the Judit, the youngest that would go on to write her name in the record books. She holds the title of the best female player of all time, the youngest grandmaster in history and achieved a career high ranking of 10 for both men and women combined.
His experiment was a success. Laszlo was unable to reach the upper echelons of the game as a player so he simply came up with the idea of turning his children (whom didn’t exist at the time) into champions.
You’ll see why Laszlo’s story is useful in a minute, but first…
What is a Deus ex machina?
Do you ever get the feeling as you’re watching a great movie or television show that something just seems a little too… convenient? For example; you’re watching Jurassic Park and you’re on the edge of your seat as Dr Alan Grant and the kids are being chased around the visitors centre by a pair of ravenous velociraptors. Will they get out alive? Probably – it’s the main character and a couple of children. But you don’t think too far ahead. The action is relentless and as far as family blockbusters go, it’s thrilling stuff. Then, from out of nowhere, a Tyrannosaurus Rex crashes into view and saves the day by attacking the raptors at the last second.
Ok, fair enough. There was a T-Rex loose so it’s not too much of a stretch in logic he would show up again at some point, but great timing, Rex. Good stuff.
One more example;
You’ve all seen Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, right? If not, tough. It was released over 30 years ago, so here’s the big spoiler…
All of the Nazis die at the end.
Perhaps, given history and what we know about WW2 – this isn’t news to anyone, but it’s how they perish in the movie which concerns me. As the film reaches its climax – Indy and Marion have been captured and securely tied to a large pole while the Nazis attempt to open up the Ark of the Covenant and harness its power for their own evil endeavours. They’re screwed right? They aren’t getting out of this one in a hurry…
Upon prising the lid open, a supernatural force is unleashed and promptly flies around, melting everyone’s face off before setting our hero free with a dash of convenient rope burning in the process.
Where the hell did that come from?
Well, heaven apparently, as you’ll see in a second.
The movie scenes shown here are examples of a deus ex machina – a Latin phrase meaning ‘God from the machine’. This is a commonly used plot device whereby an unsolvable problem is resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. If this all feels a bit ancient Greek to you, don’t worry – it is. The origins of this device can be found in many Greek tragedies where a machine is used to lower ‘God’ onto the stage at a critical moment in the play. I say God… of course I mean actors playing God.
You’ve seen this technique in many of your favourite movies and it’s usually the result of a writer or director backing himself into a corner plot-wise and not having the creativity or time to think up a better way of moving the story forward.
Can you see the connection?
Laszlo Polgar played God with his own family. He added a deus ex machina in the form of Zsuzsa, Zsofia and Judit – solutions to a problem of his own creation, namely, the possibility of creating a future champion by immersing someone into the world of chess from early childhood. And while this is a very good example of someone drastically changing their life by adding a new character and event into their story, not many of you are willing to play God with another human being (or three). So we need something relatable, an inspirational story of an average Joe perhaps, someone with an overwhelming urge to kick start their future by throwing society’s rules out of the window…
Someone like Dan…
Dan McLaughlin – The man who quit his job in the pursuit of becoming a professional golfer
What would you say if I told you there was a guy who wanted to be a professional golfer? You’d probably look at me funny and ask me why I’m talking about golf. Fair enough.
Ok, what if this guy suddenly quit his job to follow a dream of someday playing alongside Tiger Woods? You’d perk up a bit because there’s probably an interesting story there about a promising athlete following his passion.
Yes, but you’ve heard it all before – in every sporting autobiography ever written.
But what if I told you there was a man with a plan (called Dan) who, at the age of 30, chose to quit his job as a photographer, pick up a golf club for the very first time and put his life on hold while he spent the next 6 years following the 10,000 rule just to see if it’s legit?
What the… what now? That’s what you’d say.
Go on, say it…
To find out the motives behind this quest for greatness, you have to look at the life events leading up his 30th birthday. As the youngest son in a family of high achievers, yet without any serious ambitions or goals, Dan was the odd one out. Dissatisfied with earning a living as a commercial photographer, and having done the travelling thing in his twenties, he saved up to go to grad school but changed his mind at the last minute… he was lost. He needed something to cling on to, something new and exciting.
It soon arrived after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’, and feeling inspired by the idea of following the 10,000 hour rule – Dan set out to achieve the impossible by devoting six hours a day, six days a week, for six years in his life changing experiment. “If I could become a professional golfer” he pondered, “the world is literally open to any options for anybody.”
Assembling a small team including K. Anders Ericsson, one of the leading experts in the art of deliberate practice and renowned golfing coach Christopher Smith, he found the right people to give him the best chance of success. Smith in particular found the idea of teaching a player who was a complete blank canvas with regards to the sport, and thus had picked up no bad habits or techniques, fascinating.
Most learners begin with the tee shot, but Smith gave Dan a putter and for the first 5 months – this was his only club. If he was going to devote his time to coaching a 30 year old with no former interest in the game – it may as well be a two way experiment.
Here’s how they have Dan trying to learn golf: He couldn’t putt from 3 feet until he was good enough at putting from 1 foot. He couldn’t putt from 5 feet until he was good enough putting from 3 feet. He’s working away from the hole. He didn’t get off the green for five months. A putter was the only club in his bag.
Everybody asks him what he shoots for a round. He has no idea. His next drive will be his first.
As of August 14th 2014 Dan has 4,553 hours remaining and is already scoring regularly in the high 70’s with a handicap of 3.3. He has no idea if he will ever make pro, but that isn’t the point. It’s the willingness to break free from the shackles and challenge the glass ceiling above us all that drives him forwards.
“What I’m trying to do with this project is demonstrate how far you’re able to go if you’re willing to put in the time.
“I’m testing human potential.”
“I don’t think it can fail, because it’s not really about me or what ultimately happens with me. It’s about blazing a new path and kind of trying to change the way people see life’s possibilities.”
What a guy.
What an example of the possibilities open to us all. Few of us dare to dream big because we’re conditioned to believe success is for the chosen few. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s just an illusion?
What about the possibility that within us all is the capacity for greatness?
Just like Steve…
Steve Way – The 230lb smoker who became a world class marathon runner
The southern Dorset conurbation of Bournemouth (my home town)and Poole is famous for its beautiful coastline, award winning beaches and a rich history of notable former residents which include J.R.R Tolkien, Mary Shelley (sort of) and Batman himself… Christian Bale. In August of this year, another inspirational figure popped up around these parts and what’s remarkable about Steve Way’s 10th place finish in the men’s marathon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games isn’t the time, the position or the event itself – it’s the journey which captures the imagination.
Unfortunately, 230lbs of baggage is a lot for any journey – especially one covering 26.2 miles in a world class time.
So at the age of 33, Steve chose to give up his incredibly unhealthy lifestyle which featured binge drinking, smoking and late night kebabs in order to focus his attention on running – something he dipped in and out of in the past without any real dedication. This time it was different. Fed up with the person staring back in the mirror, and with a new found purpose in life, Steve trained passionately and clocked a time of 2:35.26 in the London marathon just 7 months later.
“The big change came when I was 33, in September 2007. I was at my heaviest, about 16-and-a-half stone, and I was smoking about 20 cigarettes a day. I’d have sleepless nights because of the coughing. It wasn’t pleasant.
“I’d be lying if I said I had an epiphany but I didn’t like the person I saw in the mirror in the morning and I do remember the emotion I felt, the feeling that ‘right, I’ve really got to do something, make some changes’.
How he ended up competing at the Commonwealth games is quite amazing. In his 40th year, Steve took part in the 2014 London marathon but due to a lack of specific race preparation, he planned to coast through with some of his running pals and use the event as a warm up for his real goal – the approaching 100km UK Championships.
Sensing he was in better shape than he realised, Steve chose to compete and finished in 15th place with a time of 2:16.27 – good enough to qualify for the Commonwealth games as one of the three fastest English athletes.
At an age when most people are happy to settle down and accept the hand they’ve been dealt, Steve turned his life around and transitioned from a 33 year old walking heart attack into a 40 year old elite marathon runner representing his country at a major sporting event. The shift in mentality is phenomenal; the dedication even more so. In order to fit in the 130 miles of running each week required for an elite level athlete, Steve transitioned from a well-paid career in IT to a bog standard 9-5 job for the sole purpose of freeing up more time.
And if you’re not inspired by now, you’re not human.
Introduce your own God and ‘180’ your life
Do you feel like your life has run out of ideas? Are you metaphorically backed into a corner without an escape route in sight? Is your story in desperate need of an intervention of some kind – maybe a new job, a different social circle or even a change in location?
It might be the right time to introduce your own deus ex machina.
Yes, I know. That was a cheesy link – but bear with me for a moment. I’m about to give you some awesome ideas and a motivational kick up the ass in the process (or your money back).
But I must warn you – this won’t be easy.
Do you think it was easy for Laszlo Polgar to produce 3 world class chess playing daughters? Is it the conventional life path for a 30 year old photographer to quit everything in the pursuit of one day becoming a professional golfer? Is it plain sailing for a 40 year old former slob to compete in the Commonwealth Games with only 7 years running experience?
These are all people who chose to radically alter their lives by adding a Deus ex Machina into their story. No top toeing around. No incremental changes. No other options. They went big.
Can you do something similar?
Perhaps you have no intention of playing God with your children or to infiltrate the ranks of professional sport. Perhaps you just need to shake up your life by doing something out of the ordinary, something completely out of character, something that forces everyone around you to stand up and take notice of this new alter ego you present before them.
Basically, are you capable of Heisenberging the shit out of your Walter White?
It’s up to you.
You are the one who knocks.
1. Quit your job and start your own business
Most jobs are terrible. You’re living in your own perpetual Groundhog Day of tedium, routine and misery. The dreams you had as a child are mocking you from a safe distance, dancing away as you stare forlornly at the years of regret littering throughout your past. Is it too late to make a run for it? What would happen if you chased down your dreams with feverish excitement and energy?
You want it. I know you do.
You’re wasting your life working for other people, especially if you hate your job. Is it really worth sacrificing 40 plus hours a week for a salary that barely covers your living expenses?
I hate being poor. I hate being poor while unemployed – but it’s infinitely worse being poor when you’re slaving away for the privilege. If you’re going to be short of cash, you may as well be doing something vaguely enjoyable unless your idea of a good time is punching data into a system with the pounding fists of despair.
But don’t do that, it’s frowned upon.
Within a few days of deciding to start my own business I quit my job and moved out of my apartment. I was completely clueless. I had no idea what I was doing – but there is only so long someone can tread water before they slowly sink into their own personal oblivion.
It’s far better to dive right in. You never know whereabouts you will resurface, but either way – if you’re going to get wet. You may as well do it properly.
I still consider myself relatively poor (at least compared to where I want to be) but I have more disposable income than ever and more free time than anyone I know.
2. Stop fantasising about asking someone out – just do it
I used to be painfully awkward around women. Chatting was fine, as was light flirting; but the thought of walking up to a beautiful stranger and offering myself as some kind of sacrificial lamb to the slaughter of the love Gods, was truly terrifying. Because that’s exactly how it felt.
When you sleep alone every night and all you have for comfort are the soft, furry and unjudging memories of your favourite childhood teddy bear – life can get pretty shitty. I was fed up with it, as you can probably imagine.
I remember the first time I approached a woman in a club. She had a friend… they always do. Stood together on the edge of the dance floor, peering into the melting pot of debauchery as they slowly sipped their drinks. They looked bored. I, on the other hand… must have looked like I was shitting myself.
I dithered for ages – like the dithering idiot I am.
But I stumbled over and with a swift outburst of words which may or may not have resembled a familiar language, I was in.
We chatted, they laughed – I grabbed her number.
The point being; every minute that passes by when you’re debating whether to make the move is a minute closer to this person hooking up with someone else. In the bar there are people better looking than you. In their workplace or social circle, there are people who have more opportunities than you. There are ex-boyfriends and girlfriends all over the place itching to rekindle their former glories.
The good news is most people are dithering idiots too. Be different. Make the move. You’ll be creating a Deus ex Machina for two people at once.
Think of it like your good deed for the day.
3. Go online and book your dream holiday or simply go somewhere different
If there is somewhere you want to go, and you have the money available then, in the nicest possible way, I want you to go away. Leave. Get out of here.
Especially if you’re anything like me – someone who yearns for pastures new but is guilty of creating a ton excuses where none exist. In December 2012, following 10 years without stepping foot on foreign soil – I made the snap decision to get the hell out of here.
I had been on a few dates with a girl and she suggested we visit Bruges. Normally this kind of thing would result in a panic attack and a change of underpants but for some strange reason, I agreed. I needed to get out. My desire to see a new country was stronger than the oddness I felt doing something spontaneous with someone I barely knew.
So I went online, booked the tickets, and off we went.
I won’t lie. The whole process was scary, and it was during this trip I discovered why it’s not the best idea to hop across Europe with someone who annoys the hell out of you… but overall, it taught me a valuable lesson…
Change is good
Without change, our lives become stale. Boredom sets in. Our present situation is merely a snapshot in history – never to grow, evolve or realise its potential.
Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.
I know the idea of throwing a deus ex machina into your life seems scary. Most conventional advice advocates starting slowly; changing one thing at a time and not derailing your goals by taking on too much too soon. You have no need to worry. The three examples I introduced earlier on seem huge in scale – but when you strip them down and look a little closer – are they any different to the smaller examples I presented from my own personal experience?
Laszlo chose to teach his first daughter how to play chess. I chose to speak to one woman.
Dan quit his job and started playing golf. I quit my job and started my own business.
Steve got off his ass and went for a run. I got off my ass and went to Belgium.
None of these people knew what the end game would be – they took a chance because they felt cornered. It was now or (potentially) never.
I’m not saying Incremental change is bad. It’s a fantastic way to overcome your bad habits, to improve your skills and to become a better person, but there is always the danger your ‘one step at a time’ approach to life is just covering up your inability to seize the day and make shit happen.
Maybe it’s fear. Maybe the thing you think you want isn’t actually what you want after all…
Can you risk sacrificing all that time for a maybe? Isn’t it better to find out straight away? The quicker you make a mistake, the quicker you can rectify the situation and move on.
Don’t fear change. Fear the result of not changing fast enough – or not changing at all.
Incremental change is what happens after you have made that 180!
Mini habits are built when you’re already on the right path.
There is no ‘two steps forward and one step back’ unless you’re actually walking somewhere to begin with.
There is no tomorrow. Every success story has its origins in a decision made today.
There is no such thing a big decision – just the right decision.
You already know what your deus ex machina should be…
Go on; do it!