4 Career Lessons from Professional Poker Player Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova is no ordinary professional poker player. A woman (rare in the world of poker), Konnikova is a graduate of Harvard, holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia, writes for The New Yorker, and is the author of two best-selling books. Her third, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, was published last month. It traces her journey from novice card player—when she thought there were 54 cards in a deck—to experienced poker player with annual earnings in excess of $300,000.
Earlier this month, Konnikova and her new book were the subject of an episode of the popular Freakonomics podcast. In it, Konnikova spoke about why poker is a metaphor for life, what poker taught her about decision-making, and what all of us can learn from her experiences at the poker table. Culled from that episode, in which Konnikova read several excerpts of The Biggest Bluff, here are several important career lessons that anyone can learn from—No Limit Texas Hold’em enthusiast or not.
1. When you experience bad luck, don’t think of yourself as a “victim of cruel cards” but an “almost-victor”
According to Konnikova, objective reality doesn’t exist—“everything is in how you perceive it.” That is, we interpret every experience, and how way we interpret our experiences creates our reality. And when it comes to poker—and life—the key, says Konnikova, is to perceive yourself as a victor, not a victim. When you’re dealt bad hands at the poker table, or table of life, if you continually think of yourself as a “victim of cruel cards,” as having bad luck, you’ll only wallow in misfortune and won’t be able to identify ways to overcome the challenges facing you.
She writes, “Potential opportunities pass you by; people get tired of hearing you complain, so your social network of support and opportunities also dwindles; you don’t even attempt certain activities because you think, ‘I’ll lose anyway, why try?’; your mental health suffers; and the spiral continues.”
On the other hand, if you’re card-dead—continually dealt bad cards—instead of folding and telling yourself you’re on a bad streak, Konnikova says your thoughts should sound like this: I’m just dealing with a challenging table that will force me to play harder. She calls this the mindset of an “almost-victor,” someone who believes they’re doing everything possible to succeed in spite of their bad cards. Thinking this way will plant “seeds of resilience,” allowing you “to overcome the bad beats that you can’t avoid and mentally position yourself to be prepared for the next time.” It will also result in people wanting to help you. “If you’ve lost your job, your social network thinks of you when new jobs come up.”
2. “Subtle deceptions” are acceptable and valuable
In the game of poker, deception is valuable and necessary. But in life, deception is negative and unnecessary, right?
Wrong, says Konnikova, who thinks “we use deception in real life much more than we realize. Every single social interaction has deception. You don’t necessarily like everyone as much as you tell them you like them. And then on a much broader level, when you’re in a negotiation, you use deception all the time to present yourself as a little stronger than you actually are. You present yourself in the best light possible in order to be hired or you’re not going to be hired. The person interviewing you is going to present the job in the best light possible.”
Konnikova calls these “subtle deceptions”—“it’s not like you’re completely lying. You are just choosing what and how to present … about your hand, about yourself.” And so, Konnikova is saying embrace these subtle deceptions. They’re facts of life—and of work, negotiation, interviewing, the job search. Don’t lie, of course, but allow yourself to be strategic about what you reveal, and how and when you reveal it. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s common, acceptable, valuable, and effective.
3. Beware of acting passively
Konnikova knows all too well the double standards women are held to in life, and especially in the workplace. She writes, “When you’re female, you try not to step on people’s toes. You try to be affable. You try to be nice. You try to not be confrontational. And it’s very adaptive, because if you’re confrontational, if you actually push back, it’s not going to go well, because all of the research on the psychology of negotiation and negotiating while female shows you that women are judged on very different criteria from men, and that women who negotiate more are not only not liked as well, but they’re not going to get what they negotiate for.”
This type of thinking led Konnikova to realize that, when she played poker, she played passively, folding frequently, thinking that if others (mostly men) were raising her, that meant they had better hands (when they could’ve been—and were very likely—just bluffing, trying to bully her into folding). She thought if she played too aggressively, other players wouldn’t like her. Eventually, she understood that her need to be liked was stronger than her need to win. And that, of course, is no way to play—at poker or in life.
Konnikova learned the hard way (losing a lot of money) that this passive way of playing can get you into trouble, not keep you out of it. She writes, “Every passive decision leads to a slow but steady loss of chips. And chances are, if I’m choosing those lines at the table, there are deeper issues at play. Who knows how many proverbial chips a default passivity has cost me throughout my life. How many times I’ve walked away from situations because of someone else’s show of strength, when I really shouldn’t have. How many times I’ve passively stayed in a situation, eventually letting it get the better of me, instead of actively taking control and turning things around. Hanging back only seems like an easy solution. In truth, it can be the seed of far bigger problems.”
And so, Konnikova warns against this mode of thinking, of acting passively, of “hanging back.” It can cause you to dig yourself a hole that can be difficult to get out of—especially in the workplace. At the same time, Konnikova appreciates that throwing away the passive security blanket is no easy task. Many people have been conditioned to act passively, taught that aggression will hurt, rather than benefit them. Konnikova calls it “emotional baggage that has accumulated, without my awareness, throughout my entire professional life.”
4. Learn to see yourself from an external perspective
Poker is a mind game, and success at the table takes more than a mathematical mind. It takes the ability to read other players’ signals—signals that players send in each decision they make. This is why Konnikova likens poker to an “interpretive dance,” where you’re constantly assessing how other players are reacting to you and how you’re reacting to other players. Often, according to Konnikova, it’s not the best hand that wins but the best player.
And to be the best player (that you can be), Konnikova says you need “to learn to see yourself from an external perspective.” This means closely tuning in to what you’re thinking and feeling, allowing you to identify mistakes in your decision process. And this perspective can and should be used away from the poker table—when making business decisions, when negotiating your salary, when answering difficult interview questions, whenever and however frequently you can.
Konnikova explains, “Most of the time we don’t notice it because we don’t pay attention to ourselves. We don’t notice that we’re making a decision while angry because we don’t stop to assess, ‘Oh, I’m angry. What’s making me angry?’ We just don’t have that sort of internal conversation. And I think getting into the habit where just before you make any decision, before you do anything, you just stop, take a breath, and take a moment to reflect and to check in with yourself and see, ‘What am I thinking? Why am I thinking that? What am I feeling? Why am I feeling that way? Okay, now let me act. Now let me respond.’ I think that that’s one of the most powerful tools that we can use that will enable us to be better versions of ourselves and make better decisions at the end of the day.”