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The Focused Rise of Wesley So

March 3rd, 2017 · 32 comments

So Good They Can’t Ignore Him

Yesterday, Tyler Cowen published a blog post about the 23-year old chess grandmaster Wesley So. It begins: “[So] should be starring in a Malcolm Gladwell column”

As Cowen notes, just a few years ago So was seen as an up-and-coming player who lacked the strategic polish needed for elite play. Cowen was surprised to learn recently that So had risen to number nine in the world rankings. Since then, So won four top tournaments in a row including a win over world champion Magnus Carlsen.

“Arguably he is the second best player in the world,” Cowen writes, “and the one most likely to dethrone Carlsen.”

There are many explanations for So’s rise. But there’s one contributing factor, in particular, I want to emphasize. Here’s So in a recent interview:

“When I decided to try for a professional career…I thought about what I needed — more time to study and less stress. Both came immediately when I turned away from the internet.” [emphasis mine]

Not only does So restrict his internet use to email and chess game analysis, he also eschews other forms of distraction:

“There is only one cell phone in this family, and it belongs to my sister Abbey who is very capable of dealing with any unpleasantness that tries to enter through it. I have had no social media…for almost two years and I am alive, healthy and happy.”

I’m sure Wesley So has never heard the term digital minimalism, but his rise highlights an important principle of this philosophy: when evaluating new technologies there’s a difference between asking “what value can this bring me?”, and “what is its effect on the things I find most valuable in my life?”

(Photo of Wesley So by Abbey Key via Chess News; hat tip for this article idea: Ryan L.)

32 thoughts on “The Focused Rise of Wesley So

  1. Tushar Zala says:

    Very good blog. I like to receive more blogs from you.
    I’m first here to comment!
    Good luck!

  2. Vishal says:

    Inspiring post.

    The biggest challenge for Cal must have been to avoid ‘So’ in the beginning of any sentence for this post 😉

  3. Sean says:

    Very inspiring. Time to shut off my antenna’s and get back to work!

  4. Yes. And now as Sean said….back to work!

  5. Nitin says:

    Thank you Cal for regularly introducing us to such inspiring personalities. Your blog posts continue to put me back “in the lane” when I find myself slowly veering off toward the dopamine seeking routine.

  6. Septanto says:

    This post reminding me of John Mayer’s comment on how he can improve the guitar practise, and his answer is more or less like, “in my age there was no internet so I didn’t have to put my guitar too often.”

  7. John jones says:

    I guess less is more

  8. George Quinto says:

    Great blog! I think W. So will be the next word champion and just waiting for the right time…

  9. Shuttle Service Nvidia says:

    You conveniently leave out the fact that Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Vishy Anand and a host of other top grand masters have twitter and/or other social media accounts.

    Goddamn it, if only Carlsen closed off his twitter account, he’d be taking on Stockfish for his next world championship title!

    Gladwellesque blogging at its best!

  10. Adam says:

    Being out of school for over 5+ years and letting my concentration skill wither i found myself with huge focus inconsistencies when trying to learn programming. The only thing thats working for me is to avoid all music / internet etc before doing my work. So during the day, until all my work is done i live like an Amish person. Once my work is done I can go and do internet and musicagain and wake up the next day and be fine. God bless you cal!

  11. Dave Small says:

    Certainly there is a cause and effect: Less time on the internet = more study, less stress. You also wonder if it’s also a catalyst. Less time on the internet = more study, less stress + other behavioral changes that come from less time on the internet, more study, and less stress.

  12. I have been experimenting with a “digital sabbath” in reverse for the last month or so. Instead of taking one day off from the internet, I take 6 days off from the internet and only indulge one day a week (I chose Sundays). I still use social media, but only on Sundays.

    I also allow myself to use the internet any time I want to achieve a well-defined objective, such as buy something on Amazon, check the weather so I know how to dress, etc.

    I really like the results so far. I am already able to concentrate better, and it frees up a ton of my time that was previously wasted on mindless internet consumption.

  13. Ed Obrien says:

    Another example of digital minimalism to do deep work – the band ‘tennis’ goes on a boat to get off the grid and make music – they only have equipment for safety communication , thought I’d share:

    http://www.npr.org/2017/03/05/518378187/tennis-thrives-in-isolation-on-yours-conditionally

  14. Biplab Sarkar says:

    Reading your book “Deep Work” and from there got to know about your blog. I am glad that after finishing your book I will be able to stay connected with you through your blogs. Great going Cal and please keep up the good work. Thank you.

  15. Zoe says:

    Very inspiring. Hope to read more about “digital minimalism”.
    As a graduate student who plan to get into IT industry, I’m always worried about couldn’t get updated with new technologies if I turn away from internet. On the other side, All of our work are done with computer.
    Even closed all my social network, I still feel I spend more or less meaningless hours in the internet everyday.
    How could you access useful information quickly without being distracted, Cal?

  16. Tunde says:

    Anyone else having issues signing up for the enewsletter? Havent received the confirmation email to 2 different addresses and not in junk folder?

  17. Zen Ben says:

    I am really glad I went on the internet and read this nice blog written for the internet about how it is best to avoid the internet. I would have missed this had I not been online.

    1. Cynthia says:

      Well said:). This is my problem.

    2. Ryan says:

      Had you not been online you wouldn’t have needed this article.

  18. Zen Ben says:

    So glad I was on the internet and saw this to remind me to stay off the internet.

  19. Oliver says:

    I gave up on my smartphone and I’m not missing it except for taking pictures. Cutting back on email and social media too, except during marketing efforts. So much more time to focus now but getting to actually focus is still difficult. I have to relearn that.

  20. Dirk says:

    The Olsen twins, celebrities turned designers, “shelter” themselves to do the work of designing clothes and practice digital minimalism.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2017/03/09/mary-kate-and-ashley-olsen-talk-child-stardom-social-media-and-elizabeth-and-james-label/98944914/

  21. Shiv Dutt Sharma says:

    Really helpful post .

  22. MSJ says:

    So he shut off the Internet to spend his time playing a moronic game, that helps no one and changes nothing. And every commenter says, “good for him”. 90% of criminals are spending their time far better for society and the future than this moron. Cmon man! Chess? Why not Tic-Tac-Toe?

    1. Sille Mai says:

      This moronic game has earned him $295k last year
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/20/wesley-sos-triumph-us-star-295k-richer-winning-london-chess/
      Plus $50k as US champ 2017 plus 2,500 as an MVP prochess league MVP this year

      1. Sille Mai says:

        I forgot to add plus 10 k Euro last January when he won Tata Steel chess. and maybe $ 1,800 – just dividing 20,000 to 11 players when Wesley and his team won the pro chess league. Plus a team and individual Gold medal in the chess Olympiad last year giving honor to USA. And this moronic game enabled him to travel different countries and places. This moronic game also gave him lots of opportunities to know people and friends. Best of all this moronic game gave him a chance to glorify Jesus and be a good example to a lot of people who watch and play chess

  23. Give him more time, say 2 years and he will become a world champion.

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