[Editor's Note: The following piece ran on SCG Premium two weeks ago.]
At the 2016 World Championship, I was being interviewed by Trevor Murdock for @MTGDiversity. He asked me if I could recall any specific success story of redemption, where someone who was a blight on the Magic community went on to be a source of good.
At the time, I couldn't give a good answer. I couldn't think of anyone specific. Even if I did, I wasn't sure if I wanted to throw that person under the bus.
As is typically the case, I realized the best answer many weeks after the fact: me.
For the most part, I try to forget my past. Perhaps I try a little too hard to justify that, saying "It's over and done with," and try to look at both the present and the future as more important. It's more likely that I make that justification because thinking about the past is painful, and one of the biggest reasons is how disappointed I feel when I remember the person I used to be. Bringing it up now (and throwing myself under the bus) isn't easy because I want to pretend it didn't happen.
A combination of having a (mostly) crummy childhood and being constantly let down by others left me with a chip on my shoulder. Life did not seem fair and I eventually realized that if I wanted something, I had to do it myself instead of relying on others to do things for me. Because I was disappointed by others, I didn't see any reason to stick my neck out for them. Eventually I stopped letting people in for fear of being hurt again. I became intensely self-serving.
Being selfish has two parts, self-focus and self-serving. Self-focus is lacking consideration for others whereas self-serving is seeking to benefit yourself. Both are "bad," but self-serving is arguably worse because you see other people and actively put your wants and needs above theirs.
A sense of entitlement came from thinking the world "owed" me something because of how bad my childhood was. I was well-aware that my pain and suffering weren't unique, and I certainly had a better upbringing than many others, but it didn't stop me from comparing myself to those around me. Instead of looking at the whole picture, I would only see what they had that I didn't or things that people got for free that I had to work for. Nothing seemed fair.
I failed to notice a few things. First, I wanted the outcome without having to work for it. Somehow, I thought my skill and my previous misfortune meant that I "deserved" something good. Nobody deserves anything. You can increase your chances of getting what you want by working hard, and while no amount of work guarantees you anything, I shouldn't expect to get handed something without working for it first.
Second, I was only looking for what they had that I didn't and certainly didn't notice the things I had that they didn't. Making those comparisons was not only irrelevant but unfair because it meant I was setting myself up for disappointment every single time.
Third, and most importantly, I failed to realize that there was no way for me to comprehend what was lurking beneath the surface of each individual. I didn't know their struggles, triumphs, or pain, and I didn't try to. Instead, I continued as if I were the protagonist of the story and all those around me were nameless NPCs with no feelings.
It took time, but eventually I realized that everyone has their own story. They have thoughts and feelings that are just as real as mine and just as important. Just because I couldn't see them didn't mean they weren't there. I lacked empathy.
My feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and my entitlement all lead to disaster. For the most part, I was a decent human. I would hold doors for others and be generous to my friends, but if I didn't know you personally, I treated you like you were subhuman.
Of course, I still recognized that people could be valuable. If I wanted something from someone, I'd treat them with kindness. If I didn't know someone already, I assumed they couldn't offer me anything and treated them as such. If #nonewfriends existed in 2004, I would have been all about it.
In short, I was a monster.
When I graduated high school, I didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life. Nothing seemed appealing, and rather than make a decision I knew I'd regret in two years, I looked for ways to escape and put my life on hold. Magic had been a thing I was doing and was kind of good at, so I kept at it. Winning felt like I was being productive.
At Magic tournaments, I suffered from being a big fish in a small pond. I was arrogant, self-serving, had bad manners, and had very little in the way of sportsmanship. I had an intense desire to prove to people how smart I was.
One of my main issues was that I made the mistake of tying my self-esteem to Magic. It wasn't Magic's fault I didn't feel as rewarded as I'd hoped for given the time I'd invested. It was the fact that I placed too much stock in my expectations of Magic and the fact that I didn't have anything else that I could derive that joy and satisfaction from.
It made me a bad loser. The combination of being selfish, entitled, and feeling like I needed to win or else I wasn't going to be validated led to it. Little did I realize that even if I won every match, I wasn't going to find what I was searching for.
I marginalized groups I didn't identify with, and one of those groups was "Magic players worse than me." When I was a poor loser, I was putting my feelings above my opponents. I was making a decision that my feelings of frustration were important enough to quash their feelings of triumph and joy. I actively took away their ability to enjoy the game. It was making a public statement that I thought I was better and more important than them, which, considering I was willing to do such a thing, probably meant it was untrue.
Not only did I put myself above other people, but there was also a desire to make people suffer how I had. I felt alone and no one seemed to understand what I had gone through. I lashed out because of it. My misguided search to get empathy from others further served to push them away.
I was exactly the person who I strive to be a good role model for now.
Are people truly capable of changing? I used to think that you could change certain things about yourself, but your core values and beliefs couldn't waver that much. It's still hard to say because real change didn't come about because I altered my values, but rather figuring out what I actually valued and why. I was at a crossroads and had to decide what kind of person I wanted to be.
I am no stranger to death or loss. Anyone close to those things will inevitably have thoughts about the meaning of life and wonder why we're here. I decided the interactions with other humans (and animals, animals are tight) are all we really have and the only real difference we make is how much we enrich the lives of others, especially those close to us.
Everyone gets to decide their own meaning of life, their purpose, and what they want to strive for. What happened to me and how I felt was a harsh reality, but reality nonetheless. Blaming the world wasn't going to change it. I knew that filling the gaping hole in my heart would be done by helping others and showing them the kindness and emotional support I lacked. I didn't want anyone else to go through what I did and feel like I did.
I also made a conscious effort to stop complaining. Using complaining as a means to vent is only necessary if you get angry in the first place. By complaining less, the atmosphere around me was more positive overall and that helped keep my mood up. It also made me focus on internalizing my anger, examining it, and figuring out what was causing it in the first place. What was I really mad at?
Was I actually upset to lose a coin flip? How could I be mad at what was a possible outcome? It was the entitlement talking and it wasn't a rational feeling to have. Over time, I figured out the best course of action was to focus on learning and getting better and eventually good things would happen to me. In the grand scheme of things, a single loss means nothing. By putting the emphasis on winning, I set unrealistic expectations for myself. Once winning stopped being my main goal, I was able to enjoy Magic again.
My lack of emotional support was also an issue. I didn't have family to turn to, and while I had numerous acquaintances I met through Magic, I didn't have friends that I was comfortable enough discussing my feelings to help me work through real problems.
The turning point was realizing how badly I wanted to be respected, accepted, and loved. Living without those things leads to an empty existence. It wasn't just me that needed those things, though! Everybody does. Being able to draw a comparison to every other human was powerful, as it allowed me to relate to them and be empathetic.
Soon enough, I met people like Jason Ford, Josh Cho, and Ben Hayes who became invaluable to me. We were always there for each other, no matter what. We could talk about anything. They were family.
Did changing my behavior actually make me a good person? It's something I struggled with, and still do to this day. The self-loathing I occasionally feel because I don't do enough or I do good things for the wrong reason can make me question everything. I do genuinely like to help people, but I also like people to see that I help people. Is doing a good thing for the wrong reason inherently bad?
My take is no. I don't believe in karma, but I do believe that if you're putting enough good out into the universe, your life will be better. If you are constantly bringing those around you up instead of down, they are more likely to bring you up when you need it.
Over time, I started doing good things just for the sake of it because I knew more good would come of it, whether it was to me or someone else. The person I interacted with might have a better day and pay it forward, therefore positively affecting someone else's life. Plus, you never know when the smallest kindness can have a huge impact on someone.
Doing good things is inherently good, regardless of the reason.
It's important to note that doing good things doesn't make you a good person, nor does doing bad things make you a bad person. While your actions tend to define you, you should not be judged on a single action. The line between "good" and "bad" is so blurry that only I could decide if I was happy with who I was.
Over time, what Magic meant to me also shifted. I started writing in 2004 and later in 2008 for the paycheck and because I wanted to show people that I was smart. What I wrote started helping people win tournaments and get better and sometimes they would tell me, which gave me an unexpected great feeling. Eventually I realized I wanted to maximize that outcome and actively worked toward making my work more accessible, easy to digest, and informative.
At times, that requires sharing knowledge that would have benefitted me in a tournament, which therefore hurts my chances in that tournament. I've come to terms with that. Winning is still important to me, but it isn't everything. Instead, I'm more focused on my role as a teacher or mentor because the satisfaction from helping someone else helps two people, me and them, instead of just helping me.
The amount that "hiding tech" could help me in any given tournament is low. When I was playing on the SCG Tour® in 2011 and crushing people with Caw-Blade, I wrote about it almost every week. I shared my information and I still got to win. I seized an opportunity to fill a gap in the market, where I got to become known as the person who doesn't hold anything back for personal gain.
Everyone gets something different out of Magic and we all get engaged with Magic for different reasons. Once I figured out what truly made me fulfilled from being in the Magic community, my life got exponentially better. I stopped resenting Magic because I no longer viewed it as what was holding me back from accomplishing things in life that would satisfy me. Magic wasn't the thing that disappointed me all those years. I was.
Again, I found myself wanting to help people.
Most of this comes down to social currency.
In Magic, especially at the highest levels, social currency is one of the scarcest resources and typically the most valuable. We all probably have a satisfactory way to acquire the cards for our decks, get to events, and pay for hotels and gas. Hell, you're currently paying to read a bunch of words.
I've burned some bridges in my time, and while it hasn't been nearly as many recently as in the early 2000s, they always find a way to punish me for it.
For the most part, I try to cut toxic people out of my life. They're a bad influence on me, both for my actions and my mood, and it's safer to just extricate them. Then there are the other people I'm too hard on, where maybe a quirk or interaction we had leads to me cutting them out. Whenever I make that decision (or any, really), I don't do it lightly. Either way, I'm trying to cut those people out less often because the vast majority didn't do enough to deserve it.
You never know when you're going to need help from a place you least expect it. When the time comes, you will certainly appreciate when that person loans you the cards you need for your deck, gives you a ride to the tournament, floats you an entry fee, lets you join their team, or intentionally draws with you into the Top 8 instead of knocking you out.
An acquaintance of mine once recommended I get my taxes done by another acquaintance who was a CPA, since he'd probably do it for free.
"Why would I do that?" I asked. "That's his job. I'm not going to make him do it for free."
He replied, "What else are friends for?"
His tone was so cold that I got the impression he was just collecting friends to use them later, which he agreed was the case. It was repulsive.
Here's the thing, though: social currency is valuable. It's undeniably +EV.
I enjoy collecting social currency. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I still feel kind of dirty for it. Again, if a selfless act is actually done because selfless acts make the person feel good, is it truly a selfless act?
I don't even want to spend it. In fact, I hate the idea of it. Part of it is because I respect people's time and don't want to inconvenience them. Another reason is because I can't seem to get over is how difficult it is for me to ask for help. I loathe doing it. It fell on deaf ears before and I want to prove to myself that I'm capable of dealing with things on my own. I also want to appear strong, not weak like I was in the past.
Even if I didn't want to become a good person, I recognized the value of social currency. The thing is, I might have started on the path to becoming better person because I wanted to acquire social currency. "Fake it 'til you make it," "dress for success," and even method acting are all different things that show the power of pretend. If you spend enough time forcing yourself to do something, it's more likely to become reality.
I'd like to think I didn't take the sociopathic approach of the acquaintance I mentioned earlier, collecting friends with superpowers that I felt entitled to call upon whenever I needed, but my actions weren't selfless initially. Eventually it became something I thought it was the right thing to do (although you could argue it was just a long con to get to brag about it now, heh).
These days, I donate a large portion of my time to answering Facebook messages, Tweets, and talking to people at events. It isn't strictly work for me because I enjoy most aspects of it. Chatting about strategy is fun! I enjoy learning things and meeting new people. Sometimes the time commitment it requires to perform everything on a level that's satisfactory is too much, but it's worth it.
I deal in social currency on a daily basis. If I respond to a Facebook message or chat with someone in person, maybe that person subscribes to my Patreon, hires me for a job, or designs a logo for me. Maybe they end up building a sweet deck they want to share with me and I end up winning because of it. Or perhaps someday they'll buy one of the many books I've been too lazy to finish.
And if they never provide any value to me? Who cares. In the meantime, I'm helping people. Maybe I provide them entertainment, a glance into my lifestyle, a sweet decklist or sideboarding strategy, but either way I hope my presence can help people achieve something that makes them proud.
If you try to tell me my job is worthless or pointless, or that I'm not providing anything of value, it will probably be the angriest you will ever see me.
I love what I do.
I've been playing Magic for a long time and my reputation was originally awful, but it was well-deserved.
Since then, I've changed and I'm proud of that. I want people to remember me for how I am now instead of the person I was back then. I've done things that are shameful and embarrassing, but it's important to not forget because I still have a lot to atone for. I can't undo what I've done or fix the misery I caused, but I can change the future. I take my mistakes, learn from them, and try my damnedest not to repeat them.
I hesitate to say that I'm a pure source of good now, but maybe that's just the imposter syndrome talking. At the very least, I went from being a source of net negativity in the Magic community (and life, really) into a source of net good.
I think I can honestly say the world is a better place with me in it and that makes me happy. The vast majority of people would probably say that about themselves, but there was a time when I knew it wasn't true about me. It's a huge burden lifted. The baggage I carried around with me everywhere that I'm a drain on society isn't there anymore. My self-esteem is higher as a result and I'm generally happier on average. Depression hits me less often and isn't as brutal.
Hard work finally got me here. It was a long road and certainly wasn't easy, but it was easily the best thing I've ever done in my life.
Special thanks to Josh Cho, Jules Robins, Laura Robinson, Andrew Veen, and everyone else for the discussions and good examples you set for me in life. Y'all had a huge impact on the making of this article and of me in general.