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November 26th, 2022

A crucial setback can make it very tempting to throw up hands and give up. All is lost, it seems.  Take for instance a game of chess. Losing a critical piece unexpectedly can easily make it feel like there’s no point continuing with the game. With such a disadvantage, an opponent just needs to trade pieces off the board until the endgame magnifies the advantage, and then it’s just a squeeze of time till the end.


However, giving up misses out on two critical aspects where the underdog can gain enormous benefit.


The first is simply the unexpected turn of events. I played a game of chess this evening, lost a rook early on, figured I was done for, but managed to trap and triple fork a queen and take her. A few dozen moves later, I’d won the game. All after thinking I was guaranteed to lose.


The second, and more important benefit of raging against defeat in disadvantage is the chance to exercise perseverance in precisely the sort of situation when it’s most needed. This is a crucial opportunity: it keeps the door open for all future long shots at turning things around. But it also extends the opportunity to learn. The urge to give up is really just an urge to relax, and stop putting in effort. In some respects we are always gunning for the chance to rest and relax, and the potential of imminent defeat is a great excuse to kick back and relax - why keep up the fight when it’s hopeless? Isn’t it smarter to cut losses and move on? Certainly for some things, yes. But when the risk is minimal and the time investment required is negligible, keeping at it till the bitter end exercises a rare muscle of relentlessness - a muscle that can easily become the most important one in certain dire circumstances. If the default is to always give up the moment things less than excellent, the ability to persevere will be weak when it’s needed.


Impending defeat is simply an idea - never a certainty and it’s an idea of it’s inevitability that we use to fool ourselves.

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