The Bias of Success

I’m rather grateful for the time I’ve spent playing Texas Hold’em.  It’s a brilliant game for teaching people about life.  In this case, about what it takes to be successful.

 

Many if not most would define a successful hand as one which you’ve won.  I would argue that a successful hand is one which you’ve played to the best of your ability.  I think this highlights a dynamic which we see throughout society.  Perhaps far too frequently right now.

In Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt two cards.  They then must play those two cards as best as they can with the 5 community cards dealt to the middle of the table.  If more than one player makes it to the end, the best hand wins.  When you’re talking about playing the hand that you’re dealt, whether in life or in poker, what you’re really saying is do best with what you’ve been given.

When you’re playing against experienced players who understand the mechanics of poker, you’ll often see them lose hands which they played exceptionally well.  Sometimes they run into someone else who also played their hand exceptionally well, but more often than not, it’s someone who was dealt a more advantageous hand, or someone who benefited from the community cards more than anyone else.  Typically, this is called a bad beat.  Even at the highest levels of poker, we see this happen from time to time.  In most cases, the undeserving winner of that hand will apologize with a smile as they’re collecting their chips.

So why is it that most of the world assumes that a win means they did good?

I suspect that evolutionary biology plays a role here.  Positive reinforcement encourages you to connect your actions to your outcomes.  If something good happened, figure out what you did so that you can make it happen again.  Action = Outcome.  The problem with this mindset though, is that it ignores other important variables.  A more realistic equation might be: Nature + Nurture + Circumstance + Action = Outcome.  In the case of poker, that might look like: The cards you’re dealt plus your knowledge of the game plus the community cards plus how well you play that hand, equals a win or a loss.  Assuming that your actions were solely responsible for your outcome is just as erroneous as assuming that your actions had nothing to do with your outcome.

I think another influence here might be the places we work at.  I spent the better part of the last 10 years at two of the largest companies in the world.  I can’t tell you how many times I was told, “at the end of the day, the score board is the only thing that matters.”  In both cases, they were talking about sales.  I’ve also spent plenty of time serving on boards for non-profit organizations where people loved to talk about how unfair the world was.  I’m not sure which side of this coin is more frustrating.

Those who have had success tend to take credit for their success, thinking it was a result of their actions.  Those who have not had success tend to credit their circumstances, thinking there was nothing they could’ve done.  They’re both wrong.  The reality exists somewhere in the middle and the sooner we get there, the better off we’ll all be.

Perhaps my favorite example is that of Warren Buffet’s ‘Ovarian Lottery’.  As most people know, he’s one of history’s most accomplished investors.  What some may not know is that he’s been able to maintain a level of modesty and humility rarely seen in that tax bracket.  When asked about this, he says he got lucky.  Lucky doesn’t refer to the work ethic or business acumen he developed as a kid.  It doesn’t speak to the education he earned or the Dale Carnegie course he took to deal with his fear of public speaking.  It doesn’t refer to the level of integrity he maintained throughout his career.  And it certainly doesn’t reference the sheer amount of hours he spent honing his craft.  Those were things he could control, and he did them to the best of his ability.  Where he got luck, as he tells it, is with where he was born.  He was born a male when women weren’t expected to do much more than be married off.  He was born white when a minority in a senior role was rare.  He was born into a family that knew plenty about investments.  And he was born in a country that absolutely valued the capitalistic skill set he would eventually develop.  As he tells it, had he been born into a village in Africa, he probably wouldn’t have fared so well.

I’ve always looked up to the guy.  When I heard him say that, I couldn’t help but agree.  It was a shift in my perspective.  I was humbled and now tend to be more grateful for what I’ve been given.  We control much less than we think we do, but it’s important to recognize that what we do control, matters tremendously.

The decisions that we make, ultimately shape our lives.  But perhaps not the way we expect.  In poker, it’s said that luck favors the backbone, not the wishbone.  Beyond poker, it’s said that luck favors the prepared.  Both reference the same dynamic.  True success is is not a matter of luck, but rather the cumulative effect of many good decisions.  The decisions of how we choose to spend our time, who we choose to surround ourselves with and what we choose to learn about.   Over time, these kinds of decisions will have a more of an impact on the opportunities we’re presented than just about anything else.  It’ll also ensure that we’re ready for them.

And if that’s true, perhaps a win is a moment of good fortune, while success is a journey of good decisions.

 

Author: Author

In an age of promotion before substance, let's try substance before promotion. I'm hoping anonymity will help keep a focus on the ideas but I do understand wanting to connect to the person behind them. Let's split the difference with some fun facts: I have a professional crush on Harvey Specter, Bruce Wayne is my favourite superhero, and I share a personality type with the likes of Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Lex Luthor.

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