“I wake up each day with the firm conviction that I am nowhere near my full potential. ‘Greatness’ is a verb.”

MAURICE ASHLEY is the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game of chess, and he has translated his love to others as a three-time national championship coach, two-time author, ESPN commentator, iPhone app designer, puzzle inventor, and motivational speaker. In recognition for his immense contribution to the game, Maurice was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2016. His book, Chess for Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens, shows the many benefits of chess, particularly for at-risk youth. His TEDx Talk, “Working Backward to Solve Problems,” has been viewed nearly half a million times. He also appeared with me in the Brazilian jujitsu episode of The Tim Ferriss Experiment, joined by our mutual friend Josh Waitzkin.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Quite a few books have caused fundamental shifts within my being. However, the first that still resonates to this day is Passages by Gail Sheehy. I read it as an 18-year-old, and it opened my eyes to the realization that I would be a different person at every stage of my life, all the way to my old age and eventual death. It led me to realize that I should try to live my life backwards, starting with the wisdom of the elderly and applying it to the energy of youth. I have not always been able to do it, but it has helped me immensely with keeping perspective on things that matter and things that don’t.

I would also add Sugar Blues by William Dufty to the list, as it made me radically change my diet for the better. Mastery by George Leonard detailed the challenges that we all face on the road to expertise in any field. And The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss made me ditch the average life in search of one with complete flexibility and freedom to live life on my terms.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
As a competitive chess player, failure is part and parcel of growth. My most important failure came at a tournament in Bermuda where I needed to win a crucial game in order to finally get the title of International Grandmaster, the highest and most prestigious title a player can attain. I was playing Grandmaster Michael Bezold from Germany, and in a crucial position, I had a choice between taking one of his important pieces or taking a mere pawn. It turned out that taking his pawn would have kept all my advantages intact while greedily taking his rook caused my attack to dry up in an instant. After I lost the game, Alexander Shabalov, a Grandmaster who won the U.S. title four times, reassuringly pointed out my mistake and then said words I will never forget: “In order to become a Grandmaster, you must already be one.” I understood right there that I had to get back to work on perfecting myself before I could actually go about winning games. That idea has kept my eyes focused on the process over the result ever since.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“I wake up each day with the firm conviction that I am nowhere near my full potential. ‘Greatness’ is a verb.”

These words came to me one morning in a flash of awareness and insight. I have miles to go before I sleep, and so I will spend my remaining years desperately looking to improve who I am from year to year. Greatness is not a final destination, but a series of small acts done daily in order to constantly rejuvenate and refresh our skills in a daily effort to become a better version of ourselves.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I recently took a self-help course called Landmark, and I learned more than anything to strive to be completely open and transparent in my relationships. That has led to fewer but higher-quality relationships over time, and it has freed me from worrying as much about what other people think. Now one of the most important buzzwords in my vocabulary is “authenticity.” That is my measuring stick for whether I am saying a load of crap or I am speaking the truths that resonate from my soul.

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