This has been sitting in my Google Drive since 2018. I rediscovered it a couple of weeks ago and figured I might as well find some closure for it.
So. Just in time for Father’s Day, too. You know, two decades ago, this day would have meant several hours hunched over a game board at home.
My dad taught me chess when I was six years old.
I learned on one of those huge wooden boards you could pluck from the bottom shelves of National Bookstore’s ever-baffling children’s games section. You know the ones: cream and green squares painted on either side of a hinged case that housed an assortment of chipped pieces. My dad set the board down on our dining table one after-school afternoon, wood meeting glass with a hollow thunk.
As he scooped out the pieces, I inspected the upturned playing field. Its cheap, unvarnished grain reminded me of the haphazard stacks of plywood I sometimes glimpsed through the gates of a nearby lumberyard. I no longer remember what I thought then, but now I wonder if I took a moment to puzzle over the impossible chains of choice and circumstance that could bring the same material to such different destinations.
A couple of days ago, I received an email from a school I’d applied to a while back. Their graduate program had accepted me for the 2017-2018 school year, but at the time, I’d deferred enrollment for a year.
I had my reasons. Finances: the one I’d been upfront about, and the one the school had accepted. Fear: the one I never disclosed, and the one I’ve been trying to ignore. Enrollment entailed moving six time zones away and balancing graduate-level study with immigrant-level stress. Deferral spared me that quandary until I could solve it with grace.
Or so I let myself imagine.
Opening the school’s latest email one year later, I realized deferral simply let me swap one form of constant, crushing perplexity for another. Now that trade was laid bare in a question of brutal simplicity: Would I be enrolling this year or not?
In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries Online added the acronym “FOMO” to its entries. A distinctly web-flavored coinage, FOMO stands for “fear of missing out,” itself a phenomenon that would never have gotten a name if it weren’t for social media.
Fear of missing out, as it says on the tin, is anxiety spurred by the suspicion that fantastic things are happening beyond your immediate realm of experience. People are having fun, accomplishing things, and making memories — and you, by virtue of not being there alongside them, are losing out.
In response to a question posted on Quora, a clinical psychologist sketched out the evolutionary and biological underpinnings of FOMO. Dr. Anita Sanz traces FOMO back to prehistoric survival drives: having a finger on the community pulse spelled the difference, say, between benefiting from a new food source and starving to death. Over time, these drives have become well-worn grooves in the operational tracks of our amygdala, that tiny node in our brain responsible for sensing danger and triggering stress responses. FOMO, it seems, is simply the latest spin on the primordial “fight or flight” response.
For all its deep-seated roots, however, FOMO as we know it today still feels like a newfangled affliction. Like all good technological phenomena of the startup age, it targets a hyperspecific niche: avid users of social media. By definition, FOMO is a very outward-looking malaise, and its regrets revolve around presence rather than ability. To borrow from Austin Kleon, FOMO strikes me as distress about verbs, not nouns. It rues our failure to witness, to immerse, to experience; it only ever glances at our inability to attain, to become.
At least, that’s how I understand it. Many of my friends have been marking various milestones all over social media: a good number in graduate programs abroad; others climbing the next rung of their career ladders. These updates come to me in bits and pieces, photos of destinations reached and check-ins for events attended, all arriving via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. It’s human, of course, to feel envious, or to simply feel left behind. But fear of missing out sounds like a superficial explanation, naming only the immediate prickle but not the older, deeper ache it happens to inflame.
On the flip side, that suggests that there is a resonant little kernel in the concept of FOMO. Some digging yields this: the idea that you are somehow reduced by not experiencing these things, not living these other possibilities. Thanks to technology, the world is better than ever at confronting you with all the people you could be — or could have been. FOMO or not, you are, in this context, “only” yourself, and lesser for it.
Of course, you don’t need the internet to feel like a diminished version of yourself.
Doors close all the time, and most of us register a twinge, at least, of regret when they do. Sometimes we might even hone that acute sensitivity enough to pass it on to others. The apparent glut of prodigious preschoolers supports this deeply miserable hypothesis. Worse, it suggests a terrifying adjunct: if you’re not careful (or rich, or able), doors will have slammed in your face before you hit your tenth birthday.
Many mommy bloggers, online thinkpieces, and op-ed hot takes are quick to blame Tiger Moms and helicopter parents for this and future generations of frazzled kids. It strikes me as an incomplete diagnosis, identifying only metastases. If these parents are fretting over their children missing out — on better prospects, better futures — they’re not driven by whim so much as the apparent precariousness of middle-class life.
In 1958, the British sociologist Michael Dunlop Young published a satire that popularized an enduring buzzword: meritocracy. Used by Young to describe a society that rewarded “intelligence-plus-effort,” meritocracy has since been touted as a cure for society’s rigged games. By dismissing the weight of affiliations, lineage, or wealth, meritocratic systems claim to hold doors open for whoever exerts the effort to go through them.
In a way, meritocracy is a fragile promise. It tells us that we can go as far as we’re able, but it also warns us that whatever rewards we earn can’t be bestowed wholesale upon whoever comes after. In this light, helicopter parenting almost seems reasonable. As various journalists have observed elsewhere, skills and credentials have become crucial requisites for social status — and to paraphrase sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, you can’t pass on a law degree or an MBA.
Meritocracy is also an effective lie. There’s a reason Young wielded the term as criticism. Meritocratic systems assume that we pursue those law degrees or MBAs on even footing, playing by the same rules. Performance, these systems insist, is all that matters; success depends entirely on how well and how ruthlessly we can leverage our abilities. Privilege is immaterial, but so is disadvantage.
In systems blind to the many possible bounds on “intelligence-plus-effort,” the assumption is that everybody gets what they deserve. Perhaps, in this light, a life of intense calculation and crushing responsibility is a reasonable price for an inheritance to feel earned, for disparity to seem unassailable.
Of course most things of value reside behind locked doors.
Of course we celebrate those skilled enough to win their way through.
And what does it matter if some people have been handed keys, when there are so many ways to lose them?
“A long view of precarity,” Richard Settersen writes, in an edited collection looking at insecurity and risk in later life1Settersten, R. (2020). How life course dynamics matter for precarity in later life. In Settersten R., Grenier A., & Phillipson C. (Eds.), Precarity and Ageing: Understanding Insecurity and Risk in Later Life (pp. 19-40). Bristol: Bristol University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctvtv944f.8, “means paying attention to the relevance of the past — not just the shadows of the recent past, but also the far-away past — in determining the present.” As an example, he cites the idea of cumulative advantage and disadvantage: how early-life wins or losses “can pile up and be compounded over time.”
The more we try to trace them, the further the roots of our futures seem to wind their way back through our lives.
When I was seven, my dad gifted me my first book on chess strategy.
It’s hard to miss the strategic nature of chess. At six, it took me only a curbstomp of a loss to realize that planning a few moves ahead tipped the odds in my favor. But it was my dad’s book, a tattered old paperback passed down from his own father, that crystallized this image of success as the apotheosis of relentless, precise, perfect orchestration.
My dad liked Karpov, revered Capablanca, idolized Fischer. When he started mapping out the world of chess for me, then, it unfolded as a domain of positional play. One had to look beyond the tussle of the moment. Every move, after all, could build towards victory or tighten the noose around my neck. The endgame could be decided as early as my opening moves. Decisions stacked one on top of the other like cards in a trembling cardboard house, and I had to place the next one just so, or everything would come tumbling down.
That downfall, should I ever blunder into it, would always be a matter of public record. That was the word my dad’s book used for it, too: blunder, the layman’s equivalent for the question marks that caught my eye when I first learned chess notation.
Several systems exist for recording a game of chess. The current standard, algebraic chess notation, exemplifies terse efficiency. 1. e4 e5. It cuts decisions down to their most essential components: the agent and where it ends up. A noteworthy move receives a ! (brilliant) or ? (blunder) when it’s made, but nothing more. The soundness of each move’s underlying logic, or so the system holds, reveals itself in due time. To the analyst, reading plays after the fact, perhaps flipping through a chess book several decades later, the game’s outcome explains all the moves that came before.
This is the system I grew up with.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s book about the survivors of a swine flu pandemic, set the book review circuit ablaze in 2015. It lingered on my list, a meditation on loss that I would only start two years later, when I loaded the book onto my Kindle as my family prepared to leave for a different country.
The move kept me from proceeding to the next stage in an application for a job I’d been told I would do well in. Kneeling on my bedroom floor, sorting my clothes into packing cubes — sleepwear here; outerwear there — I turned the situation over in my head. Foregoing a stable job with a clear career ladder, some measure of prestige, and skill requirements that I might actually fulfill, but with obligations and responsibilities I wasn’t sure I could shoulder: good choice or bad choice?
In the middle of the sixteen-hour flight, Emily St. John Mandel would tell me, “Adulthood’s full of ghosts.” A rattling metal box was taking me away from another future, in distance and in time, but the maddening ambivalence of it all remained.
What happens to the people we run away from, the people we’re not sure we want to be?
If I believed Station Eleven then, I might have found relief in the idea of leaving those futures behind. The haunting happens when you stay, the book had said:
“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different, but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped.”
I submit that the people who don’t do what’s expected of them experience a similar suffering. The search for alternatives can gut people and turn them into ghosts regardless. The uncertainty of fighting what seems clear and sensible can carve conviction out of you as thoroughly as any lifetime of resignation.
So if you don’t want this, then what do you want?
I didn’t know. I’d been taught to win, not to want. Or, more precisely, I had always been told that if I could just win, somehow, no matter the game, then I would never have to want for anything.
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask what would happen when winning revealed itself the culmination of inestimable compromises; when playing at ambition became unbearable.
Chess is a game of post-mortems.
Success depends as much on looking backward as it does on planning ahead.
Hermann Helms, one of the world’s greatest chess journalists, published his first chess column in 1893. From the early 1900s on, he served as chess reporter for The New York Times, writing for more than fifty years. Even then, the length of Helms’ career is a blip in the long tradition of chess analysis. When my dad started our schedule of endless matches that humid, suffocating summer before third grade, AI hadn’t yet overtaken the study of chess, and dissecting every move right after a game ended was ritual.
Founded in 1872, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, more commonly known as Sciences Po, predates Helms’ career. In the field of social sciences, Sciences Po is considered France’s leading university; its graduate school for international affairs is ranked second in the world. The main campus, home to most of the graduate programs, resides in the same arrondissement as the Oulipians’ Café de Flore and the existentialists’ Les Deux Magots.
A quick look at an unofficial list of alumni yields heads of state, heads of international organizations, and countless other members of the global elite. For international students, tuition costs €14,700 a year.
In the summer of 2017, several months before I found myself uprooted for entirely different reasons, my deferral clock ran out, and I declined a place in their next cohort.
At my great-aunt’s dining table, fifteen time zones and thirteen years away from the last chess game my dad and I had ever played, I am trying to unpack everything.
Is it human instinct to consider the future, what could be? And from there, isn’t it a simple step sideways to what could have been?
The Atlantic tells me, “Imagining the future is just another form of memory.” Half a year earlier, studies featured in The New York Times reported the same thing: the human mind dwells on the future, and it mines past experiences to simulate future possibilities. Mistakes, regrets, prospects — we contemplate them all using the same neural circuitry.
Here, again, the cumulative: our past circumscribes our futures. The most vivid possibilities are the ones we have the most material for. Consider, then, the difficulty of imagining far-off outcomes. What do you want to be when you grow up? Where will you be in ten years?
The vast majority of us can’t actually answer these questions. To fill in the blanks, or to give ourselves a scaffold for speculation, we turn to “cultural life scripts,” a series of milestones that our particular cultures expect us to reach.
I haven’t reviewed a chess game in years, but falling back into the scene is easy: the table’s edge biting into my forearms; the ache building behind my eyes; the tacit acceptance of responsibility. Likewise, looking back on these imagined futures, my first instinct is guilt over all the doors I couldn’t pass through, the opportunities I should have done more to earn.
How did you get here? What could you have done differently?
Instead I imagine myself at eleven years old, interrogated by a record full of question marks, venturing beyond frustration and despair for the first time. A childhood of relentless drills couldn’t change the decades of prior experience my dad challenged me to overcome. Ticking all the boxes on an admissions checklist didn’t create more scholarships to apply for; didn’t change the hoops that international students had to jump through; didn’t quite get me through the doors that “merit” had supposedly unlocked.
Here, now, with new information, I continue assembling the possibility that my decisions aren’t the sole determinants of failure; that we are not entirely to blame for being, always, outmatched.
Economics tells us that nothing comes without a cost.
In a world of finite resources, scarcity is unavoidable, and so is choice. The concept of opportunity cost describes the losses we incur with every decision we make — a valuation of chances missed and roads not taken.
No chess game ends without exchanges.
Most theoreticians assign each piece a point value, the better to evaluate the merits of one sacrifice over the other. A queen is worth more than a rook, which is worth more than a bishop, which is worth more than a pawn — which can be worth as much or more than any of these, if it can fight its way through the board.
The myth of merit is a gambit, a careful construction of acceptable risks.
It pulls us into a series of rigged games on the promise that we can earn our way out, that our gains will be guiltless when we do. It measures us against countless other, better lives, on the assurance that these are the only ones we can forfeit, the only ones we will ever have to answer for.
But opportunity cost, strictly speaking, denotes the value of the best alternative forgone.
In the movie WarGames, a supercomputer is programmed to run endless war simulations. Of course, in every scenario, the goal is decisive victory. Beyond that, its purpose is to learn, to identify the best possible scenarios and how to engineer them.
Crisis comes because the supercomputer is linked to the US military’s nuclear weapons control system: prompted to run simulations of nuclear war, the supercomputer is driven to win the game, and it can’t distinguish between simulation and reality.
Buying into the illusion of merit entails a lifetime of missing out and falling short. But we give up the best alternative before the accounting even begins. Here, I think, is merit’s biggest play: that, given tenuous comforts, we accept the premise that we are only ever playing for and against ourselves; that lives can be appraised; that the battle for wins of ever higher value is the only one worth fighting.
In never looking beyond the board, we forgo the possibility of doing away with it entirely.
Cycling through every possible iteration of nuclear war, WarGames’ supercomputer learns that engineering any kind of meaningful victory is impossible.
It gives up control of the nuclear arsenal, observing that it has been drawn into a strange game.
The only winning move, it concludes, is not to play.