Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Going All In

31 Dec 2009

When I was in Grade 10 in 2002, my good friend Prashant introduced me to this game called Age of Empires. It was a simple computer game where you grew a civilization of your choice and waged wars against neighboring civilizations in an attempt to destroy them. The rules of the game itself were quite simple, but the game-play would often get quite complex, especially if you played with someone of the same caliber as you. After about 10 games, you'd realize that there were three broad strategies to achieving control in the game. You could play defensive the entire game. Or you could send a few troops to ambush the enemy every five to ten minutes starting early on in the game. These little skirmishes only served to buy you time to build your economy and secure far-away resources, but didn't really achieve anything significant. The third strategy, which was always my personal favorite, was to launch a small sneak attack somewhere totally random to serve as a distraction and then to take advantage of this gap to launch a full-blown attack on the enemy using virtually all your military resources. What this type of attack achieved is a complete large-scale annihilation of the enemy from which he has zero hope of recovering. Age of Empires was my first early childhood lesson in the advantages of going all in.

In February 2009, Bill Gates delivered a fairly moving TED talk on mosquitoes, malaria and education. The talk itself was on-the-whole pretty much very Bill Gates'ish, but there was one particular paragraph that I found to be very profound:

But we have to be careful of malaria — the parasite evolves and the mosquito evolves. So every tool that we've ever had in the past has eventually become ineffective. And so you end up with two choices. If you go into a country with the right tools and the right way, you do it vigorously, you can actually get a local eradication. And that's where we saw the malaria map shrinking. Or, if you go in kind of half-heartedly, for a period of time you'll reduce the disease burden, but eventually those tools will become ineffective, and the death rate will soar back up again. And the world has gone through this where it paid attention and then didn't pay attention.

In Age of Empires, you never sent a small army unless it was a sacrificial distraction. If your small army is taken down, you indicate to your opponent how small or large your army is. Your opponent will then "evolve" to prepare for the next attack. You've then lost your advantage. What you want to do is to go into enemy territory with the right artillery through the right back door, and in such a vigorous and swift manner so as to completely overwhelm the opponent. This, of course, is the idea behind blitzkrieg that the Germans so effectively employed during the 2nd world war. If you go in several times half-heartedly through the front-door, you may see yourself achieving minor gains, but your opponent will simply use this opportunity to re-base elsewhere. Plasmodium, the malaria-causing parasite transported largely by female anopheles mosquitoes, behaves in much a similar manner.

That's why you'll never see SWAT or black-cat teams comprising of just 3-4 agents unless the operation is expressly covert. They usually come in the 20s or 30s. They know what it means to overwhelm the adversary. They know what it means to go all in. And they know why doing so is so advantageous.

In the spring of 2008, I decided to apply this "going all in" principle to my MATH 239 Intro to Combinatorics final exam. I had received an unimpressive 63% on the midterm exam, and virtually everyone I spoke to who had taken the course before me told me the final exam was going to be harder than the midterm. Failing the final was not an option. Luckily for me, this was my last final of the term, and I had exactly 3 days to prepare for it without having to worry about anything else. Given how much I knew about the material at that time, which was about 50%, my expected final grade was 75%. But I knew I could do better. I knew I could ace the final if only I invoked the "all in" strategy.

How did I go all in? First, I cut all distractions. I turned off my cell phone for 72 hours. I un-installed Google Talk, MSN and Thunderbird. I disconnected my landline. I blocked off facebook, twitter and youtube in my hosts file. And I made sure there were no mirrors in my room. I made sure I was eating healthy. I made sure I woke up at the same time everyday and went to bed at the same time every night. And I made sure I exercised for 10 minutes each morning. My roommate had already moved out by then, so that was one less distraction. I always had inspiring music playing in the background. I let as much sunshine flood my room as possible. I ensured I was never hungry or thirsty throughout the day.

In essence, every single little optimization that could be made, was made. No exceptions. No excuses. It was that simple.

Besides taking care of my basic needs and body functions, I did nothing but study for MATH 239. Day in and day out. Non-stop. I re-read all my 150+ pages of notes. I re-read the assigned course notes from first to last page. I re-worked all the solved examples in the textbook. I re-ran through all the theorems, lemmas and definitions first in my head and then again on paper. I re-solved all the practice problems at the end of each chapter. And I re-did all the 10 assignments on my own, glancing at the solutions only when I was absolutely stuck. I also sat down and solved three past exams.

In a matter of just 72 hours, my expected grade shot up from 75% to 95%. My final grade in the course, a whopping 96%, was only slightly above my expectation.

There's something very powerful about engaging your entire heart and soul about something you're really passionate about. You remove all distractions, you cut every corner possible to get what you want, and you feel such a wonderful rhythm in you that makes nothing else matter except the goal in front of you.

2010 is going to be such a beautiful year with tremendous and unprecedented opportunity for advancement. I hope my "going all in" principle will be the single-most valuable technique to help me take advantage of all these stellar opportunities ahead of me.

I am my own civilization, and opportunity is my only adversary in this battle field.

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