Recently, I had been running bad.
(Say it in a chorus with me, people: “Boo-hoo, you poor grrl, life sucks and then you die, go tell it to your mama.” I am well aware that no one really wants to hear it. Hell, even I don’t want to hear it.)
The most frustrating component of it had been getting crushed in games where I legitimately believe I have an edge, where in fact my past record shows that I have an edge, and where I don’t believe I’ve done anything meaningfully worse to produce such disproportionately bad results. In fact, the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude.
I experienced frustration, resentment, a foiled sense of entitlement, aggravation, irritation, impatience, and a stubborn unwillingness to revisit my own behavior in the light of current conditions. This is hardly the posture of serene equanimity that I aspire to. Just look at that list; that list is a summary description of someone on LIFE TILT.
Now let’s consider that previous observation again: the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude
“The only thing???“
Once the basics are covered (fundamentals of strategy, people reading, mechanics, math), attitude is not the only thing, it’s everything.
I was faced with the prospect of two tournaments, one right after another on sequential evenings, that I really wanted to win. On some level, I also felt that I needed to win them. For better or worse (mostly ‘worse,’ obviously), I was pinning some of my self-esteem to the outcome of these two games. This is not a healthy attitude in general, and it’s especially stupid for a poker player, since—realistically speaking—so much of the outcome of any two games is contingent upon chance.
In preparing for the first of the two games, I identified (in addition to the emotional errors listed above) another factor that I felt was missing in my approach to poker lately. I lacked commitment. I was blaming my failures on everything and anything under the sun; I felt cursed, snakebit, gunshy, doomed. On some level I had already given up on bringing my A game, since it hadn’t done me a bit of good for the last six weeks or so. I had all the safety-net excuses in place for my forthcoming failure.
You know how you can tell that someone’s diet isn’t going to work?
They say, “I’m trying to lose weight.”
You know how you can tell that someone isn’t going to manage to give up cigarettes?
They say, “I’m trying to quit smoking.”
You know how you can tell when someone is just one cocktail away from returning to alcoholic behavior?
They say, “I’m trying to stop drinking.”
The people who succeed at their goals say things like:
“I want to be slimmer. I choose to follow this regimen of diet and exercise today.”
“I want to be a non-smoker. I choose to not light up a cigarette today.”
“I want to live a life free of alcohol. I choose to not take a drink today.”
The equivalent for me:
“I want to be a winning poker-player. I choose to make the best possible decisions I know how at the table today.”
These are statements of commitment, and the actions they predicate are not something subject to material failure (e.g., attempting 13 reps in weightlifting and only being able to do 12). These are behavioral decisions that are totally under the control of sane sentient agents
. To quote a famous pop-culture sage: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
I brought that frame of mind to the first tournament and won it. I brought that frame of mind to the second tournament and won it. And the following night, I brought that frame of mind to the cash game I’d been losing at for weeks and walked away with a profit.
Coincidence? On some level: of course. I could just have easily lost in all three locations, attitude and all. But in another sense: no. When I make the best decisions I know how, I put myself in the best possible position to win; in fact, because I actually know how to make good decisions, I will win more often. I become the kind of person I have declared I want to be by behaving the way such a person behaves. It is not some supernatural woo-woo Law of Attraction new age bullshit. It is the way human reality functions.
Okay, let’s take this notion of the importance of commitment and widen the perspective a little bit.
When I started my year-long experiment exploring my potential as a poker-player and a writer, I put some safety nets in place: budgetary restrictions and a specific timeframe were the most significant of these. In effect, I was saying to myself: “I’m going to try out this business of being a professional poker player and see how it goes.”
Can you see the problem with this, the weasel-words embedded in the concept from the get-go?
Three-quarters of the way through this undertaking, I find myself looking ahead to a decision point in August. In August I will have to determine what to do, based on my experience. But I will have to make a decision based not only on incomplete information (as with many important life-decisions), but also on information which has probably been distorted by an underlying flaw in the premises upon which the experiment has been conducted.
I have not, in fact, been acting as if my livelihood and well-being truly depended on my poker decisions. I have been “playing at” being a poker player. I have been operating under the assumption that there is a Plan B, that somehow it doesn’t really matter whether I succeed or not. I have not been making the best possible decisions in my life circumstances, generally; I have not been consistently bringing my A game to this project. This renders my results to-date (already a statistically dubious sample) even more highly suspect. The whole thing reeks of lack of commitment.
Here’s the irony, however: there is no Plan B
I can no longer imagine happily returning to a more conventional way of earning a living. Of course if getting a regular job were to become a pure financial necessity, I would do it and I would make whatever accommodation was required. But I would experience it as a failure.
The fact of the matter is that I had simply never truly considered what the consequences of committing to this life would actually mean for me. It never occurred to me that (barring some kind of life-altering tournament score) I would absolutely have to move—leave my city home of sixteen years, my dear friends, comfortable residence, pleasant seasonal climate, familiar pastimes, rich cultural context. I had no clue that I would find myself ever more radically out of sync with the rest of the workaday world, to the surprising point of a certain discomfort, even for me, the perpetual outsider.
This is a strange place for me to find myself. I have changed careers multiple times in my life. People have often commented to me that they thought I was “brave” for essentially turning the page on one career and moving on to the next without much regret or anxiety. In retrospect, however, I think one of the reasons I was able to do that was that—again, somewhat ironically—I was never truly committed to any of my choices. I always figured: well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else. I’m lucky enough to have the education, the background, and the intellectual wherewithal to move on to the next thing if the current one doesn’t pan out. And so I have flitted from occupation to occupation (and pastime to pastime) without any truly signal accomplishments and without any deep-seated sense of satisfaction.
I am convinced, however, of this truth now: there is no substantial success in life, of any kind, without commitment. I have to now consider very carefully what I am actually prepared to commit to, because life is short and these things matter. It astounds me that it has taken me so long to come to this understanding, and amazing that I have poker to thank for it.
[Nota bene: "Commitment" is, of course, also a strategic concept in poker, and at some point I'll want to talk about that too.]
Labels: balance, book, meta, tilt