Check Mate! (Part 3): “Roll With The Punches”

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Scott Drotar Bobby Fischer
Part of what made chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer so great was his ability to “roll with the punches” and adapt to unexpected moves by his opponents.

One of the most important skills you have to develop in order to become a great chess player is the ability to think on your feet and adapt to unexpected situations. Having the capacity to analyze and appropriately respond to a move by your opponent that you have never encountered before is crucial to defeating your adversary. What makes this aspect of chess so critical to being successful is that no matter how many thousands of hours you devote to practicing, studying the game, and memorizing openings, it is impossible to prepare for every possible sequence of moves. That means in order to make a strong move in reaction to this unfamiliar scenario you have to be able to remain calm, take stock of the situation, and apply the principles you have used in similar situations to this game. As crucial as this ability to “roll with the punches” is to chess, it is equally, if not more, important in life.

Most of us get up in the morning knowing, more or less, how our day is going to unfold. We exert a lot of effort and take great pains to plan and prepare for everything we might encounter. We use things like calendars, daily itineraries, and email reminders to ensure that we do not find ourselves in an unexpected situation. We even have apps that warn us about things like traffic jams and approaching bad weather to avoid being caught in unfamiliar waters. We do all of this because it makes us feel more in control of our lives and gives us comfort. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, and it is important to be prepared to be successful in life, but you have to accept that you cannot predict every possible series of events. At some point, a day will come where you find yourself in a circumstance that is completely unfamiliar to you. In order to get through these surprising situations, and maximize your happiness and success, you have to be able to “roll with the punches” and adapt on the fly.

Scott Drotar Manual Wheelchair
I was stuck using this manual wheelchair in public until my parents thought I was old enough to operate my power wheelchair safely.

When I was in kindergarten, my parents decided that I was not yet good enough at driving my power wheelchair to let me use it at school, and I cannot say I blame them, as giving a 5 year old a 300 pound electric battering ram around a bunch of kids is a bit dicey. After I completed kindergarten though, my mom and dad told me that if I did well operating my wheelchair during the Summer, that when first grade started they would let me use it in school. I made sure that I didn’t run over my brother or demolish any furniture for those 10 weeks, and when the first day of school was drawing near, I got the go ahead from my folks. I was so excited. Not only was I going to be a “big, bad first grader” that got to go to school all day, but I was also going to get to use my power wheelchair at school. I was going to be able able to play outside during recess, participate in gym class, and move to sit by my friends at lunch. I was so happy that I would no longer be dependent on others to move about. When the first day of school arrived, my new found mobility was even more freeing and liberating than I had imagined. I was able to play “Red Rover” and “Freeze Tag” with my peers, and I could sit and talk with my friends without an adult hovering over us to push my wheelchair. Life was good.

About six weeks into the school year, after I had gotten into my groove driving my wheelchair at school, I was sitting at my desk silently reading with my classmates when our teacher told us that it was time for gym class. As my peers were standing up and getting in line to go to the gymnasium, my teacher came over to help set me up to drive my chair. You see, in order to pull up to my desk to do my school work, my wheelchair’s joystick had to be swiveled out of the way by simply loosening a set screw. Then when it came time to go somewhere, my desk had to be moved and my control tightened back into position so I could drive again. This was something my teacher and I had done countless times before, but on this day something completely unexpected happened. When she went to tighten the joystick in place, nothing happened. No matter how hard the set screw was tightened, my control would fall right back out of position. No joystick meant no gym class, no playing at recess, and no freedom.

As I was panicking over my broken wheelchair, I had no idea that my teacher was very good at “rolling with the punches.” She got down on her knees beside my chair and began examining how the joystick and set screw fit together. I watched her poking around, but it was not like we had any tools, so I was confused about how she planned to fix it. After a couple minutes she got up, went to her desk, grabbed three packs of Post-It Notes, and came back over. I was baffled by this, but I wanted to see where this was going, so I just watched. She started packing dozens and dozens of those sticky notes around the set screw mechanism, and after she had gone through over half of them, she grabbed my joystick, put it in place, and let go. I was holding my breath expecting it to fall again, but to my astonishment, when she removed her hand the control remained in position. To this day I am not sure how my teacher managed to repair my wheelchair with office supplies, but somehow she pulled it off.

Scott Drotar Post-it Notes
Even MacGyver would not have thought to use Post-It Notes to fix a power wheelchair.

My teacher, who obviously would give MacGyver a run for his money, was able to get us through this unexpected situation by “rolling with the punches.” The biggest aspect of this is that when she was confronted by a difficult set of circumstances, she didn’t panic. She stayed calm and took stock of the obstacle facing her. Then, she used her past experiences and the resources she had to fix things. She did this both physically by using her sticky notes instead of tools and mentally by using her spatial reasoning skills to reason out a creative solution. She took a tough situation that was something that had likely never even entered her mind, and she calmly, quickly, and correctly navigated her way through it. This is pretty much the epitome of “rolling with the punches,” and although I was too young to fully understand and appreciate it at the time, this event taught me how powerful and important the ability to think on your feet can be.

Whenever I find myself in a scenario I am not prepared for, either in my life or on the chess board, I use this memory of my teacher’s “sticky note solution” to help me find my way through it. By developing my ability to “roll with the punches” I am now capable of keeping my cool in situations that are unexpected and unfamiliar, and then I can tweak solutions that worked in similar settings to overcome my current obstacles. Just like a chess player cannot memorize every sequence of moves, no matter how hard they may try, you cannot be prepared for every possible situation you will encounter in life. That is why it is so important to develop the ability to adapt and think on your feet. Being able to control your emotions and apply past knowledge to new challenges will help you successfully get through unfamiliar circumstances. Once you cultivate your ability to “roll with the punches,” and couple it with your skills at being prepared for as much as possible, there will be no scenario life can throw your way that you will be unable to successfully manage. This will bring a new confidence to your world, knowing that you have the mental tools to succeed in nearly any setting, which will in turn bring more happiness to your life.

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