The Poker Mindset

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Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, we did something thoroughly unexpected: we taught my 8-yr-old son how to play poker. The logic of math is his native tongue, so when he said he wanted to join in with the adults who were trading chips and laughs, we gave him his own stack and explained the rules for 5-card draw poker. I don’t just mean the rank of different hands — I mean everything: how to ante, bet, call, bluff, take new cards, etc. Watching him throw out a bet that was more than minimum was a sight to see; so, too, was seeing his losing pair of 5’s. Learning how to lose is part of learning how to play.

This experience reminded me of Carol Dweck‘s insightful book, Mindset, in which she lays out the two different versions of our psychological software that shapes how we approach nearly everything in life:

  • The Fixed Mindset, which sees talent, skills, intelligence and potential as static qualities that can be maximized, but only to their in-born limit;
  • The Growth Mindset, which sees these qualities as malleable qualities that can be grown beyond their original dimensions.

People with the Fixed Mindset see things that are currently beyond their ability as dangers that threaten their ability,  while the Growth Mindset folks view them as opportunities to grow their ability. As a result, the Fixed Mindset focuses on “playing the cards they’ve been dealt” as best they can, whereas the Growth Mindset focuses on the opportunity to get better cards.

Imagine actually playing poker that way! Even a poker novice like my 8-yr-old can see the folly of being dealt a poor hand by the dealer and then declining to draw any number of new cards on the theory that “I’m just playing the hand I’ve been dealt.”

Even with a very good hand — say, three Aces — it is poor strategy indeed to sit comfortably and decline the opportunity to take a new card or two and possibly improve that very good hand even more.

Anybody who has ever played even a friendly game of family poker with zero money at stake understands this … even Fixed Mindset people. Yet, when we push away from the card table and return to our normal pursuits, whether professional, intellectual or relational, it is easy to slip right into the Fixed Mindset trap:

  • “Either I’m good enough for you or I’m not. Quit trying to change me.”
  • “This assignment is too hard. I’m not good at math.”
  • “I can’t do creative work. I’m a numbers guy.”

The key to a fun night of poker is knowing not only when to fold ’em, but when to bet on a not-yet winning hand in order to get the chance to turn it into a winning one. Being dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean being doomed to lose, and trading bad cards in for new cards isn’t an admission of failure.

It’s no different in life.