The One-Move-Behind Problem | Writing Nights

The One-Move-Behind Problem




I have a client who's always in his own way. And he's always in his own way in one ultra-specific way. Right before delivery he stops focusing on the deliverable, on the ultimate goal. We'll call him Mr. Freeze. We've tried to address it. He complains about it, but he can't seem to solder this one link in the chain that retards his progress. He can't stop reflexively doing this one thing that prevents him from moving from merely good to successful. I sympathize. I have a similar issue.
I'll give you a case in point.

One of his customers commissioned a report. One of the things Mr. Freeze hires me for is to organize his findings into a report—something cogent and attractive. We've set a deadline, we've notified the client when the report will be delivered, and we're at the point where the deadline is tomorrow.

Two days before the deadline I emailed Mr. Freeze the link to the working draft we've already gone over three or four times. I want him to address some comments I've put in this Google doc (best for collaborative writing) because he's the expert. He has access to specific facts and the subtleties and gradients that flow from those facts. He understands how the facts apply, in a way I'm never going to be able to. He's been doing what he does for 25 years. That's why he's the expert. I would love to attribute his not responding to him being busy, however this is par for the course. The day before the deadline I call to get a phone number for a witness who has information we need. Information without which we cannot complete the report. I wind up in Mr. Freeze's voicemail. I call the office and speak with an in-house employee. I'm hoping the number is in Mr. Freeze's CRM. It's not. The employee ends up having to walk into Mr. Freeze's office to get the number from him.

I call the witness and get the information. Now all the report needs is for Mr. Freeze to read over and resolve my comments—you know, finalize the report. I'm anxious—I hate last minute submissions—so I send him a tickler. I email the link to the document again, and remind him that tomorrow is the deadline.

He does nothing overnight.

I call him early in the morning and I get voicemail. He calls back while I'm on with another client. He proceeds to leave a voicemail that says we should work out an arrangement where I text him and ask for information because it's difficult for him when he calls and I'm unavailable.

I think about this for quite some time. I wonder if I am being irrational or stubborn, or if I'm suffering some confirmation bias. I talk to my partner—Deb—about it. Perhaps the problem is with me. Perhaps the texting thing is the solution. Then Deb asks why my client hasn't either read over the report, or responded to the comments.

When I call Mr. Freeze back what he wants to talk about is a new texting protocol. And that's where it hits me. This is his "one move behind". What we should be discussing is the accuracy of the report, the veracity of witness and expert testimony, and ensuring his conclusions are solid so we can get the report to his client on time. My client is uninterested. What matters to him is that when he calls, sometimes I'm not available. If I text him he says, he can evaluate what I want, and can reply via text.

When I say this to Deb she asks what's the difference between text and email? What Mr. Freeze is really saying is, if I text him what I want prior to calling he'll know whether to take my call. If I call, and leave no message, he doesn't want to risk what I want being so important that his failure to return my call could cause a catastrophe. What's important is not the deadline, it's not the deliverable, it's not ensuring the report gets delivered to his customer on time. His greatest concern is whether he feels in control. That's how he stands in his own way, that's his one move behind.

Winning is not Triumph

When I first started playing chess I lost a lot. Which was fine by me, and what I expected. I've always preferred playing against people better than me. Winning rarely teaches you anything. The first time you win, that teaches you what success feels like. It feels great. And I don't mean when you first start winning at chess. I mean the first couple of times you win at anything in life.

You can easily confuse that feeling for triumph. Winning isn't success's gateway drug though, winning is success's methadone. You get to scratch the itch, but without that euphoria, without that challenge, without that tight-rope-walk across the valley between winning and losing.

Ever wonder why cheaters tend to hate winning? The triumph's missing. There's no triumph when you win a contest that you already knew you'd win; where you had an unfair advantage; where there was no chance you'd lose, since you weren't playing by the rules. Winning is nothing without the challenge. Accolades feel empty when they're unearned. LeBron James cried after winning this year's NBA Final. LeBron already had two championships. It's not the winning that made him cry. Ask LeBron if he would feel the same way, if instead of figuring out how to beat the Golden State Warriors after being down 3 games to 1 and executing, NBA brass had said instead: "Hey, all you have to do to get the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy this year, is beat this high school team, you and your Cavs, best out of 3."

LeBron would pay money to make sure that never happened. Big money. Winning is empty devoid of triumph. Triumph requires a measure of uncertainty—an outcome that isn't predetermined.

One Move in Time

One of the things that makes chess so uniquely beautiful is that it's not so much about killing the king, as it is about orchestrating his downfall. There are no explosions in chess, no expansion at all actually, only constriction. In chess you organize your pieces, and attempt to position yourself in such a way that the opponent's demise becomes inevitable. You want to provide your opponent with a choice, offer him constantly the opportunity to choose between the lesser of two evils, until you slowly deprive the opponent’s king of all its support. Constriction. With one rather giant caveat of course—the assumption that you will not make a mistake executing your strategy. You can know precisely how you'll win, but if you don't carry it off you still lose. In chess, as in life, miscalculating is wholly different from making a mistake.

So it's about a month after I've learnt to play. I've read some books, picked up some strategies, racked up a whole tub of losses, and gained a ton of experience in the process. All the losses have begun to pay off, I'm getting better. Except a pretty big problem has jack-in-the-boxed into existence. It's frustrating. I am losing when I should be winning. I understand the path to victory, I figured out exactly how the opponent was supposed to lose; I strategized, I observed and exploited his weaknesses but when it came time to strike, to commit to the attack, I'd lose. My strategy was fine, but my execution was flawed. I was not making mistakes, I was miscalculating. I was behind in Time.

It took me a while to realize I was always one move behind. When I analyzed the games afterwards, I began to notice a pattern: I needed one more move. There was always one move that I needed to make prior to launching the attack, that would have made success inevitable.

How are you one-move away from making success inevitable?

What is that one mistake you keep making, that one obstacle that if you'd dispel it, you would increase your success tenfold? Are you overly critical? Do you communicate to potential clients that you're not trustworthy because you don't smile? Even over the phone people can hear your smile or lack thereof. Are you telling clients that you're not happy to see them thereby subtly communicating that you shouldn't be trusted?

Are you, your own worst enemy? Do you procrastinate until it's too late to make the deadline? Do you allow your life to orchestrate all the pieces in such a way as to only give you tepid almost-wins? Are your personal relationships in perpetual turmoil because you give too much to one needy person? Do you diligently sabotage yourself by destroying every team you work with? Do you find that you're often alone because you never give anything because you mistakenly believe you have nothing to give? Do youlike my clientfocus on process when you should be focusing on delivering?

Confession

I know what my one-move problem is. Why greater success continues to elude me. I am a talent hoarder. I keep saving, and saving it, waiting for serendipity and synchronicity to have a love child. I'm waiting for my perfect client. In that Goldilocks, golden moment, when the perfect client knocks, with the perfect opportunity I'll have just what will wow her. It does not automatically occur to me that I make things infinitely more difficult by attempting to locate that one perfect client, rather than, putting tons of good work out there where millions of people can see it. This is a corollary to the perfectionist’s folly. I'm hoarding for that one perfect moment. How I'll know to recognize that, I really don't know.

Stephen King once said people confused talent with a bucket you use to try and bail out the ocean on a day at the beach. He said it's a mistake to believe you only get the one bucket full. What a strange blend of narcissism and lack of self-confidence makes us up. The talent we have is not what's in the bucket. That talent isn't even the water in the bucket. The talent is the ocean. The challenge is in developing the best technique to channel the water from the wave.

That resonated with me but deep down I apparently don't believe it. I think all I've got is this little bucket, and I've worked really hard to fill it once or twice, so I wanna save it for something important in case I build my sand castle, and go back to refill my bucket and the ocean's not there. I realize how ridiculous that sounds when I say it out loud in the light of day, the idea that the ocean may not be there. But in the twilight of creative labor, it's not so obvious through the haze of sweat and tears.

I work at it.

Once I've got this one-move problem figured out I'll move on to the next one. Triumph! It's what we're all here pursuing after all.