Playing at Life

Men playing Texas Hold 'Em

Like all primates, humans play. Play can be for the shear joy of it, a way to grow and learn, or even a way for the very talented to make a living. These games fall along a spectrum from games of perfect information like chess or go to games of pure chance like roulette. Life itself seems to fall somewhere in the middle. We certainly lack perfect information when we are trying to make decisions. But neither is our life completely based on fortune, good or bad. Life is somewhere in between. We have some information and our choices do make a difference, but there are also many things that we have no control over. The trick in life is to determine the difference in order to make better decisions. Maria Konnikova, a PhD in psychology, in her book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win shows how, to her, poker is the perfect game for learning this balance.

This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.

Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff

Konnikova is not the first academician to make this argument. In 2018 Annie Duke published Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. Duke was also a professor of psychology before going pro in poker. Her book is more of a business book, and she is a corporate speaker and trainer. Konnikova’s book is in the same vein but has broader appeal and is much more personal.

The book is the story of how she decided to become a professional poker player to write a book. She admits that this was a gimmick to start with, a way to motivate her and time box her writing process. But she began to become deeply enthralled with what she was learning and what it can teach us about life.

She takes on a teacher and mentor from the start, who teaches her about the game and how to play it. She was such a newbie she wasn’t even sure how many cards are in a deck (52). She tells the story of going from crossing the Hudson River to play online poker legally in New Jersey to playing to winning at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, she entertainingly educates the reader on the science behind what she is learning and how to apply it in our everyday lives.

One of the core takeaways for me is the idea that we cannot properly judge our decisions based on the outcome. We can make the optimum decision based on all the available evidence on hand and still end up on the losing side, of life or a poker hand. Luck, good or bad, is an inevitable part of our lives in every aspect. We need to better understand when we are making good decisions based on what we know. Too often we get lucky and, naturally, attribute it to our wonderful decision-making. Conversely, we often berate ourselves for poor decisions when the outcome is undesirable while the real culprit is something beyond our control or ability to predict. The key is learning how to separate good decision-making from luck, and Konnikova, through her experience at the poker table, shows how to do this in this excellent read.

An Abundance of Stats

When I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, I was excited. It was named the best business book of 2020 by McKinsey & Company. As I read the introduction, I became even more interested to learn what I wasn’t seeing about how women are being discriminated against in the name of neutral gender policies. And the book does not disappoint on the facts and illustrations. Unfortunately for me, the book bogs down a bit with the statistics, so it is taking me longer to read than I anticipated. I’ve read three chapters so far, and it has felt like a long sheet of statistics with prose holding them together. That makes it sound like I don’t like the book. I do. However, it could be written in a more engaging manner. Regardless, the knowledge it shares and the awakening it is stirring within me is worth the time invested so far.

Chapter 1 is entitled Can Snow-Clearing Be Sexist? It shows how prioritizing the largest roads is implicitly male biased. Most women drive less than men, take more public transportation, and walk much more. In one country (I don’t recall which), when they prioritized the smaller roads and sidewalks, municipal costs actually went down. Many more accidents happen on the smaller roads and sidewalks when they are not cleared. This illustrates how a more holistic view of resources not only is more women-friendly — it also saves money.

Chapter 2 is called Gender Neutral with Urinals. This centers around the idea of how simply making all restrooms in a building “gender neutral” works against women. Men end up using all the bathrooms while women tend to use exclusively the previously ladies-only restrooms. This is because the men’s rooms lack the female friendly features they need, such as a place to dispose of feminine hygiene products. Also, bathrooms are traditionally allocated the same square footage to men’s and women’s rooms. However, due to the smaller footprint of urinals, more men can be served by the same sized bathroom than women. In order to serve men and women equally, women’s rooms need to be allocated more space. I never knew or even considered this. Very informative and enlightening!

Chapter 3 is The Long Friday and highlights the differences in men’s and women’s responsibilities in caring for others and how this affects women’s careers negatively. This one came as no surprise, but the detailed statistics from around the world are eye-opening. There are some places making progress but many more that aren’t. There is a much room for the world to get better at this.

While I might like the book to be a bit more narrative, the content is fascinating and informative. I can see already how it is changing my view of the world and the problems in it. I expect I will learn even more as I continue to read and bring this knowledge to my personal and work lives.

Learning From Others

Nelson Mandela

Today I finished reading Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel. It’s sort of a biography formatted into lessons. I really appreciated this format. It allowed the author to focus on ideas throughout Mandela’s life rather than focusing on a time-based approach.

I bought this book many years ago and only just read it. I expected it to be a sort of leadership or business book applying the lessons of a great leader to those worlds. I was surprised to find that it was much more approachable than that. It is really a series of life lessons that apply to all aspects of life.

I sometimes read a book and struggle to make myself come back to it and finish. At first that happened to me with this book. I think that was because I was looking at it through a business lens. Once I shifted my perspective and saw it as a biography of life lessons to learn, I found myself eager to continue reading.

While I did not find any of the lessons earth shattering or new, there is great value in seeing how common life principles were lived by someone so much a part of history as Mandela was. And the author does not shy from Mandela’s flaws; this is no hagiography. In my opinion, that only make is more valuable. Life is messy. Learning how others applied life principles, successfully or not, is a great way to spend my time reading.

Overcoming Obstacles

man jumping across a small chasm

It has been a very rainy fall where I live. In fact, a few weeks back as I passed through the woods on my morning walk, I discovered my way blocked where the path was flooded. No problem, I thought. I know another path through. I backtracked and followed the other path. I soon came upon a similar situation. I tried going around the flooded path but found no success. I struggled to decide what to do.

I could simply walk back the way I had came instead of completing my regular loop. But that felt like giving up without trying, which I didn’t want to do. So, I headed back to the first path to look for a way through or around.

Once I arrived, I could see there was no way around. The flooding was too extensive. I looked for the shortest span I thought I could jump across without getting wet. I did my best to make it, but got my feet went anyway. I sloshed a short distance and came upon more flooding on my path. This time there were logs that I could walk across to stay dry. It was cold and the logs were slippery, but I managed to not get wet again. The rest of my walk home was soggy but obstacle-free.

As I walked home, I thought about what had happened. I was happy to not have been thwarted by the flooded paths. But I wanted to find a better way to get over them, one that would leave my feet dry. I didn’t know what I would do, but I was determined to find a way.

The next time I walked through those woods, the flooding had not receded at all. This time I found a fallen branch that I laid across the place I had jumped across previously. Then I found a long, thick branch to use as a walking stick. I used that to steady myself as I crossed the branch over the water. Success!

As I walked away, I realized I would need a walking stick the next day when I came back through. So I tossed the stick I had used back across the flooded area so I could use it the next morning. As I approached the next flooded area, I found another walking stick to cross over the logs and tossed it back for the next day’s walk.

Over the next week or so, the water slowly receded as I continued to use resources I had found in the woods to make my way down the path. Now the water has completely abated, but I am so grateful for the challenge that I overcame in the weeks previous. I feel stronger and more prepared to face difficulties on my walk should I encounter them.

During the those days when I had to get over or around that water in my path, something changed about my relationship to the woods and that path. I had been walking that woods since the summer and as fall progressed, it changed from dense green to being wide open and leafless. But it was more than that. My attention had been directed toward the pooling of water in the woods. I was noticing subtle low-lying areas that I had simply walked past before without noticing. By changing where my focus was, the obstacles had deepened and broadened my experience of the woods.

This lesson reminds of a book that I read last summer, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs by Ryan Holiday. Every day has its obstacles and difficulties. When I encounter them, I can choose to give up and turn back. Or, I can look around me for the resources to find a way around, through, or over the difficulty. In doing so, I will gain a perspective and vision that I had not had prior to the trial. Even though I don’t actively seek out challenges in my life, I no longer try so hard to avoid them. They are helping me grow into the person I strive to become.

What’s with All the Privacy Policy Updates?

If you have a lot of online accounts, you have likely received many notices over the last few weeks regarding privacy policy updates. There is a simple reason for this. It’s called the GDPR or the General Data Protection Regulation. If you don’t live in the European Union, you might not be familiar with it. It is an EU law that goes into effect tomorrow (May 25, 2018) “to give control to citizens and residents over their personal data.” Because so many Internet-based companies do business worldwide, it is easier for many of them to simply adopt the practices necessary to meet the GDPR for all of their users. That’s why you are getting all those emails asking you to review new privacy policies.

So how does the GDPR affect citizens of the EU and the users of companies that adopt the GDPR in general? Here are some highlights.

  • Companies who collect any personal information from you must
    • clearly disclose what data is being collected and how
    • why it is being processed
    • how long it is being retained
    • if it is being shared with any third-parties
  • You have the right to request a portable version of the data collected and stored about you in a common format that would be easy for you to read; in other words, they can’t send it to you in a file format that you would need to purchase expensive software to read
  • You have the right to have your data erased in certain circumstances
  • Any breach of data must be reported within 72 hours
  • And any business who primarily processes personal data must appoint a Data Protection Officer (DPO) who is responsible for managing all this

Keep in mind that these regulations only legally apply to those individuals within the EU and companies who do business within the EU. However, since so many companies do business around the world and collect personal information to do so, there is a high likelihood that you will have many more ways to control how your data is stored and shared.

Be sure to not simply ignore all those updates to those privacy policies. It is worth taking a little time to review them. They should be much easier and clearer now in many cases due to the new GDPR regulations that take affect tomorrow in the EU.

Live Presentation

Every year my local library has a summers series of lunch presentations on Fridays. Last year they invited me to present on the topic of passwords. I am doing a similar presentation this Friday at noon about Password Security and Privacy. See the details in the flyer below. Next week, I will review the experience here on my blog.

In preparation for the event, I have been reading a recent book about privacy and security called The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. The author is a hacker who explains a bit how technology works and a lot about how it affects you and your privacy and security. One of the most important points he makes is to make sure that you have a password on your smartphone. This will be one my first points in my presentation on Friday. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there!

What Makes Technology So Challenging?

Car Steering Wheel

In my experience training people on how to use their technology, I have noticed a recurring pattern. No matter how accomplished or experienced they are, at some level they are intimidated and made to feel incapable in the face of their tech. This puzzled me at first. How can such accomplished and successful people feel so out of sorts around their digital tools? Some even go so far as to try to give them up altogether. What were they finding so difficult?

Whenever we start learning something new, we are complete novices. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We are essentially helpless. For anyone who prides themselves on their successes and knowledge, this is a very challenging feeling to live with. And with technology, there is so much to learn, right? But what if there wasn’t so much to learn?

We often learn best through metaphor and stories. Let me share one with you. When I learned to drive a car, I learned on my family car. I don’t recall what make it was, but let’s just say it was a Ford. At first I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and everyone in my family was afraid to ride with me. Slowly, I got better and more confident until others felt safe whenever I was driving. This felt good. But then I had to drive another make – my grandmother’s Mercedes. While I was nervous about driving her really nice car, I wasn’t nervous that I would know how to drive it even though it was a brand new and different car to me. Why? Because all cars (in the US) work the same. The steering wheel is on the left. The gas pedal is on the right, the brake on the left. The gear shift is generally on the floor to the right of the driver. Sure, how you turn the headlights on and adjust the temperature of the inside of the car are different but the essentials for actually driving the car are the same.

Now, the same is true of any software you use. In fact, I would go so far as to say that once you learn how to use one program, you are about 70% of the way to learning how to use any other. Just like the car, most of what you know in one program works the same way in all the others. Sure the settings might be in a different place, but how you open the program, close the program, and use the menus are the same for all.

The source of much anxiety in learning to use software, then, is feeling overwhelmed by how much there seems to be learn. But with this idea, you can see that there isn’t quite so much as at first seems. In fact, if you can browse the web to read this post, then you are most of the way to knowing how to use any program on your smartphone or computer. Now you just need to learn to play with it!

You Can’t Break It, So Play With It!

Kids play with tablet

I’m referring to your smartphone. Or your tablet. Or your laptop. Or that latest program or app you installed or updated. You can’t break it simply by using it. In fact, modern software is designed for you to learn by using it. And it is pretty easy to do. Don’t believe me? Give whatever you are struggling with to anyone between the ages of two and twelve. They won’t ask you how to use it or look for a help file or video. They will just dive in and start using it. And you can, too. You may feel like you can’t or that it is simply too difficult. And that may in fact be part of why you can’t. You’ve “psyched” yourself out and frozen your natural playfulness. Here is a story from my family to illustrate my point (sorry, Dad!).

My dad is an incredible mechanic. The smell of oil and gasoline surrounded him when he came home from work. Every time I get my car serviced is a trip down memory lane. The last place my dad worked before he retired, he completely rebuilt a service truck. I mean he stripped it down to the frame and rebuilt it, improving each system on it. It was an incredible achievement of engineering. This brilliant man tells me that he just can’t get the computer. I lovingly tease him that it isn’t an inability but rather a lack of desire. You see, my dad loves to tinker with and build stuff – in the physical world, anything he can put his hands on, figure out how it works, and then make it better. Because computer software is a black box that he can’t see into or wrap his hands around, he has convinced himself that he can’t learn it. But we can all find a way out of our struggle struggle to learn if we decide to bring a sense of play to the experience.

Children have this innate desire to play and have fun. When kids are most focused on something they are enjoying, adults often mistake this for “getting serious” about something. For the child, they are just immersed in their world of play. As a toddler, I bet my dad sat on the floor playing with Tinker Toys/Lincoln Logs/Legos. His work as a mechanic was just an extension of what for him was play. And that childlike sense of play is the approach we all need in learning how to use our electronic doodads.

Here are some tips for turning that phone in your pocket (or other gadget) into a source of fun instead of frustration.

  • Treat your technology like a toy or a puzzle. Find something about it that you enjoy and play with it. Feel free to ask your family or friends for help.
  • Be patient with yourself. Few of us are very good at something the first time we do it. It takes time to learn. So be kind to yourself.
  • Share your victories. When you figure something out or discover something new, share it with someone close to you. Play is for enjoying and sharing with others.

Let me know how implementing these ideas helps you by leaving a note in the comments. And have fun!