• Brad Stulberg

What Poker Can Teach Us About Focusing on the Process and Peak Performance

In an excellent new book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Master Myself, Pay Attention, and Win, Maria Konnikova details her attempt to quit her day-job as a writer for the New Yorker to become a professional poker player. There’s a scene early in the book during which she takes a tough beat. She rushes over to her coach, poker legend Erik Seidel, to sulk.

“Do you have a question about you how played the hand?” he asks?

“Well, not really,” she answers. “I mean, I had a set…”

“Then I don’t want to hear it,” he cuts her off.

Konnikova is a bit taken aback. Seidel is generally considerate and patient.

“Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player,” he laments. “Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to dwell on them. It doesn’t help you become a better player…Focus on the process, not the luck. Did I play correctly? Everything else is just BS in our heads.”

In The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova reflects upon how this mindset, what she calls the difference between being a victor or a victim, isn’t just key to poker, but to all of life. “Do we see ourselves as victims or victors?” she writes. “As a victim, things are being done to me, happening around me, and I am neither to blame nor in control. As a victor: I made the correct decision. Sure, the outcome didn’t go my way, but I thought correctly under pressure. And that’s a skill I can control.”

Konnikova’s musing reminds me of a mantra I love: Put yourself in a position to win.

It doesn’t matter if I’m releasing a book; training to squat more weight than ever before; or coaching an entrepreneur or executive through a challenging situation. I try to restrict my focus on putting myself (or, in the case of coaching, a client) in a position to win. If I’ve done that, I’ve done my job. Whatever happens next, happens. You can’t be too upset if you did everything you could to put yourself in a position to win. This is what it means to focus on the process rather than obsess about results, to let the chips fall where they may.

Focusing on the process helps you feel, and perform, better. You are not subjecting yourself to an emotional roller coaster with peaks and valleys that you don’t fully control. As a result, you can maintain a clearer head. It also prevents you from becoming complacent or overconfident when you catch a good break, or from burning out when you are confronted with a streak of bad ones.

Additionally, a process mindset (or what Konnikova calls thinking like a victor) helps you amplify your own good luck. It is not only beneficial in navigating moments in which big results unfold, but also the future. Again, here’s Konnikova:

If you think of yourself as an almost-victor who thought correctly and did everything possible but was foiled by crap variance? No matter: you will have other opportunities, and if you keep thinking correctly, eventually it will even out. These are the seeds of resilience, of being able to overcome the bad beats that you can’t avoid and mentally position yourself to be prepared for the next time. People share things with you: if you’ve lost your job, your social network thinks of you when new jobs come up; if you’re recently divorced or separated or bereaved, and someone single who may be a good match pops up, you’re top of mind.

When you focus too much on results, especially bad ones, you all too easily drag yourself into a downward spiral. When you focus on the process, however, you are more swiftly able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game.

I’m fortunate to have cultivated a process mindset over the years. One of the first signs that I was experiencing anxiety and depression was when I lost the ability to focus on the process and instead dwelled on crappy results of the past or what my brain assured me would be even worse results in the future. I became obsessed with how little I controlled, and, at times, I lost a sense of agency altogether. Reflecting back on this experience I realize even more how important it is to maintain a process or victor mindset, to course-correct when you go astray, and to get help if you need it. Clinical pathology is an extreme, and I don’t throw it around lightly, but you want to work to stay on the other end of the spectrum.

To be sure, a process or victor mindset is not the same thing as being a Pollyanna. Losing a game or deal sucks. Losing something or someone you love sucks even more. Getting sick, physically or mentally, also sucks. Sadly, the reality is that you don’t control all that much. A process or victor mindset doesn’t neglect loss. It accepts it as part of the human experience; and then does everything possible to get on with the show anyway. It’s not about self-discipline; it’s about marrying self-discipline with self-compassion. It’s not about rote optimism; it’s about tragic optimism. All of this sounds nice and tidy but in the messiness of life it’s hard—harder than I can even begin to imagine, probably (e.g., I’ve never lost a spouse or child).

Even so, it’s worthwhile to cultivate a process or victor mindset. Some of the best ways are doing what Konnikova did: Allow yourself to grieve the defeats, but not forever. Show yourself kindness, but keep pushing too. And perhaps most important, get help from others (or immerse yourself in a community of people) who get it, who have been there before. Like Konnikova’s coach Seidel did for her, they’ll keep you on the path when you’d rather get off, and hold you when you’re falling.

At the end of the day you don’t control everything that happens to you. You don’t even control your own thoughts and feelings. All you control is how you react. More and more I’m coming to believe that is who YOU really are. The part of you that observes thoughts, feelings, and events. The canvas upon which all the content of your life, the good luck and the bad beats, gets painted. The part of you that can choose how to react. You might as well focus on strengthening that part.

“Bad beats drag you down,” Konnikova writes. “They focus you on something you can’t control—the cards—rather than on something you can, the decision.”

Brad

(For related reads see: The Point of Meditation is Not to Relax; Redefining Success So It Doesn’t Crush Your Soul; Big Goals Can Backfire, Olympians Show Us What To Focus on Instead; and The Mastery Mindset: Six Keys to Staying on the Path.)

Brad Stulberg   |   bradstulberg.com   |  bradstul@gmail.com