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The Focused Rise of Wesley So

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. 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.

  2. 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.”

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

      • 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

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