How To Seem Good At Everything: Stop Doing Stupid Sh*t

Dizzy Bat

Photo: Flickr/Beth and Christian Bell

Back in college, one of my best friends was a prodigious chess player. He’d won a few regional championships and was pretty highly rated. Before I met him, I’d considered myself a competent player. Back in school I’d placed in a few high school tournaments, and in general played a better game than most of my friends. I’m a competitive guy, so I’d challenge him constantly only to get trounced. It was a lot like repeatedly banging my head into a wall.At some point, I caved and made the mistake of asking him what the quickest way for me to improve my chess skills was. What followed was some of the most insulting and profound advice I’ve ever received in my life. He pulled me aside and bluntly said “Josh, stop doing stupid shit.”

After that, I gave up chess for some time, as I was busy working on a piano performance degree while maintaining a healthy competition and performance schedule. Later, after renewing my interest in the game, I took his advice to heart. The impact it had was profound.

What constitutes “not doing stupid shit” at the chessboard? At the most basic level, it means not hanging pieces or falling for basic tactics. I spent about a month addressing these issues. I bought a couple of chess books and spent a couple hours a day drilling tactics that involved spotting pieces that could be captured “en prise” (about to be hanged) and basic tactics such as forks, pins and skewers. I should mention that at the end of the month I read up on a couple of openings.

After a month had passed, I decided to start playing again. I was shocked by the drastic improvement in my playing. I was regularly wiping the floor with people rated between 1400-1550. In case you’re wondering, that’s about the rating of an average adult tournament player, most of whom have been playing for years.

The experience of improving so quickly and so much by “eliminating stupid shit” was profound. After some reflection, I found that it applied to so many other areas of my life.

Playing the piano has always been a big part of my life. Growing up, I was always better than the average piano student. In high school and college, I won several competitions and even gave a few concerts in fairly large venues. Looking back though, the biggest moment in my musical career was the moment I “stopped doing stupid shit.” At that point, I had been playing for about 8 years and had just switched to a new piano teacher. She spent about a month beating numerous idiotic habits out of me. After that, followed the most productive two years of my musical career. My skills grew explosively during this time.

Even without the explosive growth in skill that eliminating stupidity usually comes with, it’s surprising how far just not making dumb mistakes will get people. Looking back on some piano competitions, it seems like the vast majority of the time, winners were chosen simply because they didn’t do anything that was stupid enough to be easily criticised.

This seems to apply to software too. Not doing anything dumb will place you firmly above the average in terms of developer quality.

Since I’ve received that bit of advice, it’s been my firm goal to approach new skills with the mindset of “learning how to not do anything stupid.” It’s amazing how much this has revolutionised the way I learn.

Learning how to reflexively avoid stupidity is a key ingredient to attaining great heights with any skill. It’s amazing how many hours you can piss away trying add new and interesting techniques to your repertoire before you’ve really mopped up the basics.

As a parting shot, I’d like to make a reference to the Pareto Principle. It’s been my experience that “Not doing stupid shit” will get you past the bottom 80% really fast.

This post originally appeared at Josh’s Posterous.

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