Pompous and Circumstantial

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Natalie Portman gave the Class Day address at our mutual alma mater last week, and despite her nerves she did a ‘Professional’ job (okay, I’ll stop). It was refreshing to hear her recount the experience of first setting foot in such an overwhelming and impressive place full of overwhelming and impressive people – and comforting to learn she made many of the same mistakes I did.

The world is full of brazenly confident people, and Harvard Yard has more than its fair share. For Natalie, there were five different peers who announced on day one that they would be President someday; I only remember two in my first days, but we both believed all of them from the sheer force of their conviction. Bold declarations are impressive, and those of us not in the habit of making our own are inclined to be won over by their swagger.

(This is the only explanation for a particularly disastrous dating choice of mine freshman year; he told me he was the smartest, funniest guy in the room and I believed him.)

As I quickly learned, though, there is no guarantee of any substance behind the bluster. For every Babe Ruth who backs up a called shot there are a dozen Donald Trumps who are full of shit.

Both Natalie and I reacted to our bold new world in the same way: by letting it intimidate us. We accepted these people’s brazen visions of the world, their standards for greatness, and their definitions of success. Instead of asking ourselves what we wanted out of school or life, we worried about not being good enough – and once someone else is allowed to make up the rules, there really is no way to come out on top. Just ask any six-year-old.

In this past year, I have been drawing inspiration from Albert Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis” (1905), in which he published four papers each of which was a major breakthrough in its own right. One of the recurring themes in discussions of his unparalleled achievement is the complete unwillingness Einstein had to ever accept any unproven principle as a given. Because he refused to believe time was an immutable constant simply because everyone else assumed it was and no one had seen evidence to the contrary, he was free to explore his own imaginings and now the world understands relativity. You’re welcome, world.

When we free ourselves from belief in how things are “supposed to” be, we open the door to far deeper understanding and far greater achievement. As Natalie put it in her speech, we should remain ignorant of the limitations the world has assumed for us. Or, as that six-year-old would put it, “Sez who?”

Look to the bumblebee for inspiration. For centuries, the world of physics expended a great deal of energy and hot air over the fact that a short, fat, fuzzy insect with stubby wings should not be able to fly. And yet they fly anyway. Mainly, as mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah pointed out, because a bumblebee does not understand the laws of thermodynamics. It simply doesn’t know it can’t fly.*

[*Also, as has recently been determined, it doesn’t flap its wings up and down like other flying things but rather front-to-back with a slight tilt, as though treading water. This creates mini hurricanes above each wing, with low-pressure centers that make it easier to stay aloft. But “because of ignorance” is more romantic.]

If Forrest Gump taught us anything, it is that if we dive into that box of chocolates listening to cries of “beware the cherry cordial” and “butter creams are the best”, we will very likely be disappointed, but if we go in hoping for a sweet treat, we will probably get one. At least I think that was the point.

In other words, don’t believe everything people say (especially about themselves), don’t believe everything you think (especially about yourself), and – to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s commencement address at Wake Forest – define your own standards for success and happiness. Then go for them. Everyone else can go suck a cherry cordial.

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.)