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Live Local, Live Small: No checkmates needed in the game of business

I came to a crushing realization in September: I am a terrible chess player. This flies in the face of my perception of myself: I have always thought I was a good chess player—maybe not great but good. It stands to reason that I have no athletic ability whatsoever, but I do have a functional brain that is supposed to be good at these intellectual pursuits. It seemed to fit the pattern: I am a geek, a nerd, therefore I should excel at a game like chess.

And, so, after a lifetime of believing this (and playing chess fairly regularly), I have capitulated to the evidence of the contrary. I am facing this radical self-honesty, and I blame nine years of a Montessori education for my failure at chess.

After much analysis, I have figured out that my chess problems are the following:

1. I cannot think two moves in advance, much less any further.

2. I cannot predict what my opponent will do.

3. I don’t want to win.

See? That last one! It’s the result of a Montessori education. Sigh. But I’ll get back to that in a second.

Chess is a game aimed at immobilizing the king by putting him in checkmate where he can’t move without being captured. It requires a clear strategy and objective to accomplish.

 I was around 5-years-old when my dad first taught me to play chess. He told me the point was to capture the king. OK, I thought and set about it, using stealth. I actually captured the king, just like in checkers.

“No, you can’t take it,” he responded when I grabbed his king from the board.

Stealth is something a 5-year-old understands. One of the few weapons kids have at their disposal at that age is size and the ability to get places other people can’t and won’t. Daddy began backtracking to explain that in chess a player had to trap the king, not actually capture it. This seemed like a dishonest and bad idea to me, but so be it.

In order to succeed with chess, players need strategy that actually includes a plan to checkmate the king. Also, players need to be able to predict their opponent’s plan of action—not only to defend a king but immobilize the opponoent in the process. It’s understandable why chess is used to teach battle strategy on the stage of life.

Any time spent in the business world can be seen as a war with winners and losers.  Certainly, I make no bones that Amazon and Walmart are the evil empires attempting to drive every small business under if they can. Business “how to” books and seminars are geared at the idea of battle strategy and gamesmanship. Maybe it’s because in a modern world we have created a situation where one of the few accepted outlets for pent-up testosterone is through acquisition. Still, these books and seminars sound like military training. If a family were living on the western frontier 150 years ago, all that energy would be funneled into actual defense and protection of the homestead, but now it’s been chocked into a suit and tie. So, we play gamesmanship in small business and pretend it makes us powerful.

I started to accept a while ago how I don’t anticipate my opponents well in real life.  Consequently, rather than trying to develop that skill, which I lack (again, Montessori), I have actively tried to create a situation in my life where I don’t have “opponents” to anticipate. It seems easier somehow to own my sand box and invite people to play. If they don’t want to, they can take their toys and go home. But it’s not a war over the sandbox.

The realization that I don’t want to win has been an interesting one to come to terms with. I have absolutely no ability to visualize a strategy for isolating the king What happens over and over again when I play chess is that I get to a point where I don’t want to make the next move. I like where all my pieces are;  I like where all my opponent’s pieces are. It’s good for both of us. We’re both doing fine, so why not stay here and let things be good for everybody?

And that’s pretty much what I want out of life. Unfortunately, chess is a game that demands a next turn and therefore initiates change. I blame Montessori and I don’t think that is an unreasonable statement. Montessori education places a lot more emphasis on cooperation over competition. One of my biggest shocks upon immersion into the public school system was how everything was a competition. At Montessori we would not have had a classroom competition for anything—be it the most books read, the highest math score, or the most items collected. Instead it focused much more on what all the students could accomplish together, by bringing their different individual strengths to the project.

Now, I fully acknowledge that Montessori schools, by virtue of being private schools, are already an elite situation. Before anyone sends me mail on the topic, I already am aware that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos went to Montessori for preschool. Perhaps if he had been there longer, the world would be a different place right now. But he wasn’t, and it’s not.

I think that spending ages 2 through 11 focusing everyday on improving who I am—and building something that is mutually beneficial for all involved—has made me unfit for the modern business world. I don’t need to win. From the beginning, I have said the other indie bookstores in town are not the competition; B&N is. Jock commented on this when we were watching Ken Burns’ piece on the Roosevelts a couple weeks ago.

Eleanor’s refrain in her adult political life seemed to be that when it’s good for everybody, it’s good for everybody. More than anything, that is what has driven my live local hopes. It’s not that I want or look for any sort of massive redistribution of wealth or power from above. If we try to make choices on a daily basis that are good for the greater good, we can make a bigger impact. It’s not about setting up an endgame where someone gets to corner the king; it’s about finding a really nice arrangement on the board that’s good for us all. It’s not winners or losers; it’s cooperative success.

I don’t want to “win” to put someone else out of the market. I want it to be good for everybody, rather than one person winding up with all the toys—or the king. More economic success in our economy oils the engine for everyone to move forward. I guess I am more of a product of my education than I realized.

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