How to Reach the Top of Your Game

World Champion Chess Player Reveals Performance Secrets

I recently sat down with world champion chess player Sergei Lobatomov as he explained his five secrets for reaching the top of his game. Although he comes from the world of chess, Sergei’s insights can be applied to any endeavor.

Here is Sergei in his own words:

Set your goals appropriately

The top of your game is a subjective term. If you set your “top” to be 10 year olds who don’t play chess, you’ll reach your goals faster.

Fake it ‘till you make it

Identify the worst players near you and beat them over and over again. This will make you feel much better about yourself. You’ll feel like you’re at the top of your game even if you’re not.

Use leverage

Pay off opponents who are better than you. You could waste time by practicing but these days, who has the time? A few extra numbers in someone’s account makes for a stress free match. Pro tip: Use a low interest credit card to take out a personal cash advance. Don’t worry. Look at it as an investment in your future.

Always be improving

Learn what the queen can do. After 17 years of playing chess I finally asked someone and it has revolutionized the game for me. I was like, really? Any direction?

Think ahead

Learn to think several steps ahead of your opponent. For example, when I think my opponent is catching on that I’m cheating by moving his pawns when he’s not looking, I anticipate his anger and subsequent reaction of punching me in the face. This allows me to excuse myself to go to the bathroom where I slip out of the window and order an Uber.

Stay in shape

Even mental athletes need physical exercise. I went to the gym last month and won a game yesterday. Aside from my expert level skill in chess, I attribute the win to my superior physique. I’m not entirely sure why though.

Manage your time

Try playing speed chess. Speed chess is a unique version of the game where players have to make their move in a certain amount of time. Playing with a time limit gives you a built-in excuse for losing. You never want to admit you opponent is a better player than you. Doing so dilutes people’s perception of you being the best.

It’s better to blame it on the stress of an arbitrary time limit. Explain that your mind works best unfettered by such constraints. And if it weren’t for that constant ticking, you would have run away with the match.

Onlookers will be impressed by your insightful self-analysis. They will assume that everything you said is true (chess players are all brilliant) and will eagerly await a rematch where you can prove your true abilities. Of course you should never show up for rematches because the potential for humiliation is too high.

In conclusion

Before I end I want to leave you with this final question. Why do you want to play chess anyway? You have so much to live for. But who am I to judge? You do what you want. Just remember you must be motivated to achieve great heights in the game of chess.

Your motivation should come from a deep seated desire to be a top competitor. That, or the need to pay back your bookie with tournament winnings so he doesn’t break your legs.

The Effects of Music on Plants

As I was reading through Tristan Gooley’s book How to Read Nature, I came across a section where he condemns the notion that plants can hear music and react to it.

I hate to be the one to bang a loud cymbal and smash these notions, but there is no scientific evidence of plants reacting to music or noise of any kind. None. They are deaf. If that saddens you, then feel free to let your emotions go; the sound of your weeping will not slow the growth of the forest.

So where does the notion that plants respond to certain music come from? Why is it that some studies indicate there is a connection between plants and music. And why is there so much anecdotal evidence that it’s true?

Perhaps the sounds of certain music puts us in a better mood. Our improved mood makes it more likely that we open the shades to let in more light. Maybe a musically enhanced attitude prompts us to care for our plants more so we feed and water them promptly and regularly. Or maybe we just notice the growth of our plants more when we’re in a good mood.

However, I won’t entirely discount the effects of music on plants. Plants might not be able to hear like we do. But even deaf people can sometimes “hear” music through the vibrations it makes in things around it.  Why couldn’t plants feel the vibrations of music and be stimulated to growth in a way they otherwise wouldn’t? Studies have shown that even extremely low vibrations of a certain frequency for a certain period of time can stimulate bone growth in humans. Shouldn’t we expect the same type of thing with other organisms?

I don’t know if plants respond to music. I’ll never hold it against someone for playing it to them though. Too often we allow the great and mighty entity known as science to dictate what we do or don’t do. And while science sometimes helps us understand the physical world, it doesn’t hold all the answers. So crank up the Mozart and watch your plants grow.  


How to Overcome Creative Block

Creative block happens to everyone whether you’re a writer, programmer, salesman or builder. I’ve found the best way to overcome creative block is to do something else creative that’s totally different than the thing you were originally trying to do.

For example, if you’re stuck trying to write a chapter for a book, leave it and go sketch a landscape. On the other hand, if you can’t think of anything to draw or paint, go play the guitar, write a nonsense poem or try your hand at flower photography.

When you have creative block the problem is usually that you’re thinking too hard. You’ve allowed the “rules” of your art to put up a barrier to the creative freedom that you need to be able to come up with new ideas or develop existing ones. The exercises above give your brain permission to play and not be inhibited by the arbitrary rules it has placed on your original task.

When you go do your alternative artistic task, tell yourself that there are no rules. It doesn’t have to be good, presentable or even sensible. It just has to be you creating something new.

I find my original task is much easier to get started on after doing something different for a while. It’s amazing how quickly your mind can be convinced to abandon rules and embrace creative freedom. 

A few days ago I couldn’t get very far past just staring at the wall. I decided to get out my sketch book and draw something. Instead of starting with an idea of what I wanted to draw, I closed my eyes and just drew a squiggly line on the page. Then I started using the random shapes I’d created to sketch out whatever came to mind. I just kept adding to it until I decided to end it. Doing this opened me up to making other drawings and to doing some writing that I had been putting off.

Random Sketch

So next time you find yourself stuck for ideas or otherwise unable to do the task at hand, remember to pivot over to another task that you’re not so intent on. Loosen up your brain and you’ll be able to tackle any project.


Morning Walk Photos

Here are a few photos from this morning’s walk. It seems like there’s something new every time I look around. It’s amazing how much things change from day to day, month to month and year to year.

Sometimes the changes are slow so we acclimate to them and don’t really notice them. But if we take the time to slow down and be intentional about observing the world around us, amazing things become apparent.

These weedy bushes were overtaking a small corner of a field that’s being developed. I think I’ll visit these again and get some better pictures before they are inevitably removed by the construction crew.


Someone else must have been out for an early walk when this sidewalk was put down.


At first, this one didn’t make sense to me. Then I realized how much the apartment complex this dumpster serves will save never having to empty it. Brilliant!

The Fear of Making Nothing

Don’t be afraid of making something bad.

Be afraid of making nothing at all.

Jolie Guillebeau

The above quote really hit me. I’m guilty of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good all the time. I’ll sit down to sketch something or write something and five minutes into it I’m already judging it for not being good enough. It’s not exactly how I’d envisioned it or it doesn’t compare to someone elses work. So I end up quitting or starting over.

Instead I should simply be creating. The editing, the correction and the reworking comes later. It’s a lesson I have to keep teaching myself.

If you have a few minutes, watch Jolie’s TEDx talk below. She’s not only a great artist but an inspiring speaker too.

Custom Color Ramps For ArcGIS

Back in 2012 I wrote a post about loading custom color ramps into ArcGIS. It’s been a consistently popular post but is very outdated. In that post I suggested downloading and installing ESRI’s ColorRamps2.o package. ColorRamps2.0 was replaced with ColorRamps3.0 around the time I wrote the post. Today, although there’s a link to download ColorRamps3.0 it doesn’t seem to be functioning.

Instead of simply updating an old blog post, I thought it would be helpful to write an updated post. I’ll show you how to create color ramps on the fly in ArcGIS and how to import custom color ramps into ArcGIS 10.5. I’ll also provide a list of color ramp creation and download sources.

If you already have a color ramp .style file, you can follow the steps below to add them into ArcMap:

  1. Copy the .style files to C:\Program Files (x86)\ArcGIS\Desktop10.5\Styles. Your Styles will be different depending on your operating system and version of ArcGIS.
  2. Open ArcMap.
  3. Click the customize dropdown and select Style Manager.
  4. On the right side of the Style Manager click on the Styles… button. At this point your custom style name should just show up in your style manager. However, if it doesn’t because you put your style file in a different directory or some other reason, you need to follow two more steps. First, click Add Style to List. Navigate to the directory where you placed the .style files and select your custom file. Highlight the file and click Open. You will have to do this for each .style file you want to add.
  5. After all of the styles are shown in the Style References list, make sure they are check marked and click the Set as Default List button.
  6. Click OK and you should see your styles on the left side of the Style Manager. Close the style manager. At this point you can go to the symbology tab of your Layer Properties for a given raster and select one of the new color ramps. If you want to see the text descriptions of the ramps, click on the color ramp dropdown and uncheck ‘Graphic View’.

So where can you find alternative .style files with color ramps? It seems to be getting harder to find them these days. As I mentioned above, you used to be able to get them from the ESRI mapping center but that resource seems to be abandoned. Let me know if you know where to find ColorRamps3.0 or 2.0 today. used to be another good resource but the site has removed the option to download ramps in the .style format. Fortunately, you can still access them by going to and downloading the zip file.

You can check out Fred Lott’s color ramps on GitHub too. Of course, if you aren’t finding quite the ramp for your needs and you’re trying to show quantities, you could always build your own.

To set your own quantities ramp for your layer, follow these steps:

  1. Right click on your layer and go to the symbology tab.
  2. Click on Show Quantities and select Graduated Colors.
  3. Choose your field’s value and normalization and how many classes you want your data broken into. Your classes will already have a color ramp assigned
  4. Double click on the first class symbol color. Choose another color that you want for the start of your custom ramp.
  5. Next, double click on the last class symbol color and choose the last color in your ramp.
  6. Right click on any of the symbols and select Ramp Colors. This will generate the color ramp between the top and bottom colors you chose.


So there you have it. If you’re not happy with what ESRI has already provided you for styles you have a few options for customization. If you know of any other style resources I didn’t mention, please feel free to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.


Escorted Home By Birds

A few weeks ago I wrote about a nest of Plover eggs that I had been watching for a while. I just happened upon it one day while I was taking one of my early morning walks in the neighborhood. The male and female parents would throw a fit every time I walked by. When I started stopping to take close up pictures of the eggs, they got even crazier. It got  to the point where I thought they were going to come try and peck at me.

Every time I came by, one of the birds would fly in front of me and squawk loudly while leading me away. Even after the eggs hatched they’ve kept up this practice. Sometimes, they continue walking with me for about a quarter of a mile until I reach my house. And yes, they seem to know where I live.

It’s always fun when you get a chance to interact with wild animals. It’s almost as if these birds have been scolding me for intruding on their day. They’re telling me they don’t trust me and to show it, they chaperone me to my house, ensuring I don’t make trouble.

When this first started happening, my kids were convinced I was in the middle of a fantasy story. They told me to follow the Plover wherever it went because it could lead to a magical portal into a different dimension or world. So far, I haven’t seen any portals appearing before me. But I still keep my eyes open.

Personal Growth By Avoiding Comfort

I watched a TEDx talk yesterday called Why Comfort will Ruin Your Life, by Bill Eckstrom. Bill’s central point was that only through the discomfort of complexity in our lives can we grow.

It got me thinking about my own life and  how many years I wasted seeking out comfort. Instead of achieving growth, I was largely stagnant. We seek out comfort because it feels good. Sometimes we seek it out because we fear the unknown and the unpredictable. In a comfortable state, everything is in order and can be anticipated. In a state of disorder, we don’t always know outcomes.

I remember once in college my professor encouraged us to take a summer internship that promised to teach certain technology skills that could lead to a high paying career. But out of fear, I didn’t even bother applying.

I was workng at a textile factory and using it to pay my way through school. I was afraid that if I gave it up, I wouldn’t have a job after the summer. In reality, the company probably would have been happy to bring me back. But even if they hadn’t, I would have found something else. It wasn’t the only job around. Or the internship might have led to a much better job.

I let the comfort of a low end job keep me from something much better. Looking back on my life I can identify other times when I actually chose stagnation over growth. But, instead of brooding over my past mistakes, I use these observations to challenge myself today, right now.

There’s nothing I can do about the past. And I can’t predict or control what happens in the future. But I do have influence over what I choose to do right now. I can choose to be comfortable and watch time pass. Or I can choose the road less traveled by, which might be longer and harder but will bring me to new places.

The great thing about only being able to influence the present is that if you fail to choose growth, You’ve only failed in that moment. The very next moment is like a life reset. That realization takes off a lot of pressure. You don’t have to look at your entire past and pick out the successes and failures. You only have to observe this moment and challenge yourself to complicate life for a moment for the sake of growth.