Poker Face (That’s What She Said)

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In 2012, I wrote a screenplay about a girl who starts an underground casino on the Princeton campus in order to pay for her suddenly scholarship-less senior year. Since the only personal experience I have with gambling is playing “Vegas rules” solitaire on my computer when I’m procrastinating, I had to do quite a bit of research before I could write it. One of my favorite discoveries came when reading about the psychology of the greatest poker players.

In poker, as in much of life, there are four possible outcomes every time we play a hand: we can play well and win (yay!); we can play poorly and lose (boo!); we can play poorly and win anyway (yay!); or we can play well and still lose (double boo!). Most of us – mere humans that we are – are emotional creatures, or what Lord Voldemort would call “weak”. While Voldy’s assessment is a tad harsh, it is true that our emotional dominance tends to result in reactions like those of the parenthetical cheerleader above (Mr. “Yay! Boo! Yay!”). We focus primarily on results – winning is good, losing is bad.

But some people are ruled more by logic instead – Sherlock Holmes, the main character on Bones, and Mr. Spock to name a few. These people would have very different reactions to the four possible outcomes, because they don’t focus on results as much as process when judging performance. Good poker players know that long-term success demands that they learn to think this way – to be more Spock than jock – and they have the experience and maturity to “make it so”. (Yeah, yeah, I know that’s Picard’s line. Give me a break.)

A professional poker player understands that sometimes, life happens (or, in their case, luck). Sometimes, you play the odds perfectly, and read an opponent just right, but he still draws that one improbable card that gives him the one had that can beat you. Yes, this hand is lost, but what matters is that it was played well. The successful poker player walks away from this situation satisfied, and would be similarly displeased if the roles had been reversed and she had won on a lucky card rather than skilled play.

Daft Punk may be up all night to get lucky, but the best poker players are up all night to hone their craft.

Empirically, I know this to be the path to success. I tell my LSAT students relentlessly, because I have seen it bear out time and again: focus on the process instead of the score, and not only will you be happier, you will also ultimately see much better scores. It is logic. It is proven. It is also much easier said than done.

Most people hear about my romantic travails in 2012 and immediately want to give me a hug, buy me a cookie and tell me it’s all going to be okay. I won’t lie – it was emotionally rough. But I look at the year as a success because I finally learned to start looking at the world with the eye of my inner poker player. Yes, I had two relationships end in one year, and yes, both times it was because he chose to be alone rather than to be with me. I could easily look at that, see two defeats, and decide to try being a different person, but the outcomes don’t bother me. Sometimes, two people just aren’t meant to be together – and boy, did I not belong with either of them. Instead, I choose to focus on how I handled things once that was known.

Neither of the two men involved was capable of sustaining a long-term relationship. The first was a true loner; he loved me, but after a year his wanderlust started making him more and more distant. When this became too apparent to ignore – along with the fact that he was never going to own up to it – I sat him down and told him to figure out what he wanted. If it was me, fantastic, I was totally in; but if it wasn’t, he needed to go so I could find a man who did want me. He left and it was heartbreaking, but for the first time in my life I had handled a romantic entanglement with complete maturity and strength. Even though I lost, I walked away with pride because of my good play – and hoped to continue such behavior in the future.

Naturally, my handling of the next guy was a disaster. He was self-absorbed, closed off, and a really good liar. Even though, in the few short months we were together, my inner voice kept screaming, “Get out! You deserve better than this!” I chose to believe him every time he begged for patience and forgiveness. My last capitulation – an agreement to pause, let the holidays pass, and regroup after life was calmer and heads were clearer – was rewarded with an abrupt break-up speech en route from one Christmas party to another. It really couldn’t have ended better.

Still, even though I consider that last relationship more of a win than a loss (being single is so much better than being with him), I seethe with shame every time I look back at it because I really could not have played it worse. Well, okay, I could have “accidentally” gotten pregnant by him to appease my biological clock – THAT would have been worse. But you get my point. Any outcome based on bad play is far less desirable than even a loss after good.

Poker mentality is a refreshing alternative to our usual results-based evaluations. It is especially vital for sanity when taking the life or career path less traveled. Sure, it’s a little annoying that to most of my friends I appear far more upset about (and thus attached to) the ass than the guy I actually loved, but that’s on them for making assumptions. I’ll take my healthier mental state any day.

Of course, it is still harder to practice than to preach. Not only do we have to learn to focus on process over outcome in the face of a culture that overwhelmingly cares about results, but we also have to learn to trust our own evaluation of that process. This is especially hard in an imperfect and uncertain world, where it is often difficult to distinguish bad luck from bad strategy. Did this relationship or project fail because it just wasn’t meant to be, or because there is something wrong with my selection process? Most of the time, it’s a little bit of both.

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. We just need to practice. The more experience we collect, the easier it will become to judge our process and then to trust that judgment. Start small (my oven timer broke and the cookies burned, but the batter tasted great), work up to the bigger things (sure, my kid’s a rocket scientist, but what matters is that I taught her to be nice to people), and counteract inherent uncertainty with self-forgiveness.

If we focus on the method instead of the goal, we will find more pleasure in the process, and with a little luck see better outcomes than we ever imagined. (That’s what she said.)

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4 thoughts on “Poker Face (That’s What She Said)

  1. Stephanie Pfaff

    If only we could all learn to think that poker players. Life is about the journey but its hard to live it that way.

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