The Wisdom of Go

4 minute read

In 2021, I started playing the ancient game of go. I've typically struggled seriously engaging with a hobby or a game, because I tended to see in it a reflection of my self-worth. I hadn't picked up a game in a long time, but I felt ready to work on this. Along the way, I kept noticing lessons in the game of go that could be extrapolated to life in general. After noticing enough of these, I made this list. A live version of this document can be found here. I welcome any contribution!

Detaching oneself from the outcome, and focusing on fun

The first lesson is a personal one, and the primary one I’ve been working on. It can even be construed as the primary goal behind my playing go: learning how to detach myself from the outcome of the game. Instead of winning, the aim of the game should be to have fun, and if possible, for both participants to have fun.

Managing an ego is a lot of work, and it’s not the funnest, or really necessary at all. But egos are dreadfully dogged and have a way of rearing their uggly heads persistently. Managing that, and progressively letting my ego take a back seat is one of the main objectives, and a transferable lesson to boot.


It’s easy to succumb to greed on the go board. Greed often comes from ignorance. Our inability to see the board in its totality, and understand where we stand on it, can push us to want to dominate all theaters, when we really don’t need to. To get a sense that we are winning, we sometimes feel the need to kill our opponent wherever they stand. This can lead to tunnel visioning and to our own demise.

Make peace with not being in control

In the game of go, your opponent will score points, make attacks, settle positions. You will not be able to win every time, and you will not be able to control the board all the time. In life, you are not in control of your own circumstances, nor can you fully control another person’s life. When you make peace with this fact in go, you can avoid greed and desperation. When you make peace with this fact in life, you can let go of feeling ownership over things you never really owned.

Mindfulness, system 1, and system 2

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman breaks down human thinking into two categories: an impulsive, fast, easeful system 1, which uses instincts to express itself, and a slower system 2 which checks system 1 by using rational thinking. System 2 is effortful, and system 1 is always trying to elbow its way into the decision making process.

In go, both systems need to work together. The intuitive pattern recognition of system 1 helps us identify branches of a tree to explore, while system 2 helps us identify the optimal branch, through careful reading.

Reading is so mentally exhausting, that system 1 is liable to win out at any moment, and push us to make a snap decision. This is where mindfulness comes in handy. Mindfulness is the last line of defense from our system 1. With enough mindfulness, it’s possible to catch ourselves at the moment we are about to cave, and re-engage our system 2.


For some of us, pressure can produce a gambling mentality. Faced with complicated decisions, we can let ourselves become seduced by the thought that this crazy move my system 1 is pushing just might work. Fireworks, and big moves can make the game fun, making the proposition ever more tempting. But scratching beneath the surface, we can see that this is a failure of our system 2. We should strive to make an informed decision, instead of a lazy decision.

Fighting spirit

As in all games, it’s not over until it’s over. What seems like a losing position now, could very well end up in a victory. An opponent is never safe from making a silly mistake, and a streak of solid moves on our part can result in mounting pressure on our opponent. Remaining steadfast in the face of grim prospects is a skill tested in many situations in life, and go is no exception.

Facing the weight of freedom (and reaping its rewards)

In go, and life, being our master can be difficult. It’s so much easier to be an employee, than to found our own company. And taking orders from a fair leader is comforting, whereas making our own assessment of a situation and deciding the best course of action can be taxing. Taking responsibility is hard.

The exact same dynamics play out on a go board. Especially while playing against more skilled players, it can be tempting to buy into their narrative of a game. Wherever they play, we follow. They know better, so why would we play elsewhere if their latest move represents the greater threat? While this makes sense, and can occasionally even work out for the weaker player in a handicap game, this strategy is doomed to fail in an even game.

Playing in gote is what awaits us if we follow blindly, without any attempt to wrest control of the narrative of the game. We know where playing in gote leads to.

Becoming comfortable with the unknown

In life as in go, we sometimes need to operate without knowing what our circumstance is. We might be lost in a foreign country, we could lose access to our online accounts, be afflicted with an ailment that no one understands. Making sense of our predicament with so few bearings can be overwhelming. This is what learning go can feel like at times. The board is so large, and the possibilities endless. We grasp at the few heuristics our imperfect teachers will have left us with, but ultimately feel disempowered. In go as in life, keeping a steady head on our shoulders, doing our best to make sense of a situation, and trying things until we find something that works, or see repeating patterns is the way to overcome.