A Significant Experience

James Owen, in his book The Barbizon Diaries, wrote the following about being involuntarily committed to a mental hospital:

“After it had closed behind me, I stood in the doorway, unmoving, for several minutes, a single thought occurring and recurring in my mind: I am definitely having a significant experience here.

James (author and illustrator of the Imaginarium Geographica series), who was one of the speakers at the Superstars writing seminar I’ve alluded to a few times, has unfortunately had a lot more of these experiences than most people would ever want. He talks about them and their impact on his life in the books Drawing out the Dragons and the above mentioned The Barbizon Diaries.

To me, the most inspiring thing about those books is that James never lets these things beat him. He takes his licks, learns from them, and springs right back up. Sometimes that means accepting that the path you expected isn’t the path you end up taking.

An example of this is from the talk he gave at the seminar (which I believe is also covered in Drawing out the Dragons), where he spent all of his money on a one way ticket to Ireland, where he’d just gotten a job at a film studio. On his first day, the studio announced it was having substantial financial issues and would be laying off most of its employees. That morning, he had been sure that the job was the one, the thing he was meant to do. That evening, all he had left with the change in his pocket and no way to get back home. I think most people would have been crushed.

Not James Owen. He went and called his wife, and told her he was going to be starting a comic book company.  The path he thought he was walking had been closed to him, so he immediately started walking another.

These stories got me thinking about my own significant experiences. I consider myself fortunate. Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to me. But I’ve certainly had moments where things didn’t work out, where my expectations were crushed, where I’ve had to reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.  The example that comes to mind is grad school.

I was in a math Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon (UO) for three years. I’d wanted to get a Ph.D. since I was in high school. It seemed like a natural progression: I loved math, and I was good at school. I went to a college (Harvey Mudd) which sends a huge percentage of its students to grad school. I did well enough there to get into a top thirty graduate program, one where I’d even get a lot of teaching experience in. “Perfect,” I thought, when I got the acceptance letter. “This is exactly what I want to do.”

At first, it seemed great. My fellow grad students were amazing, and still count among some of the closet friends I’ve ever had. As hard as teaching was, I loved it, and was willing to put my energy into becoming better. The classes were tough, but not unreasonably so. I was having fun.

The first semester ended. I hadn’t done quite as well as I’d hoped; in my three classes I’d gotten a B, a B+, and an A-. This, as it turns out, is considered much less impressive in grad school than in undergrad. I got an email from the head of the graduate department that said something along the lines of “We need to chat about your performance so far.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t having so much fun.

Now, those grades, while not amazing, were ‘good enough’. I was able to improve them slightly the next term, getting a B, a B+, and an A. One of my class mates wasn’t so lucky. He got a C. Really nice, hard working guy. He was asked to leave the program.

At Harvey Mudd, I’d always had a great relationship with my professors. I went to office hours often, and ended chatting with them casually as much as about school. The support I got from them was a big deal, and really helped bolster my confidence and get me through the tougher classes. At UO, I found myself unable to cultivate that relationship. I remember one of the harder classes I took, I went to the professor’s office and talked at length about my difficulties, various things I’d tried, and finally ended it with a request for advice. He put his hands together and bowed his head as if in deep thought, and then said “Yes. Perhaps, if you’d spend more time reading the text, you would understand more.”

Things, unfortunately, just got worse from there. I kept my grades barely above the minimum bar, for the most part, though toward the end of the second year I got a C as well (which is basically an F in grad school), in a class I found absolutely impossible in pretty much every way. Still, if I passed the qualifying exams, I could stay, the grades forgotten.

Quals are rough. You need to spend a good 3-4 months over the sum studying 10-12 hours a day to have a shot. It takes passion and commitment and endurance to get through that. Things I was pretty much out of by then. I’d stopped having fun. I was depressed (not clinically, just the vanilla variety), I ate too much junk, and I had a lot of headaches. Teaching was a huge emotional drain, as much as I liked it, and I often didn’t have as much energy for studying / homework afterward. I would describe my studying for quals as ‘tepid’, to say the least. I did a good amount of work, but it was more going through the motions. I took the exams. I passed one, failed one. At UO, they count that as failing both, and I would have to retake even the one I passed.

I decided then I was done. In hind-sight, I’d decided I was done at least a year before, but out of stubbornness and shame, hadn’t been honest enough with myself about it. I left the program at the end of that year with a master’s degree, and no idea what I wanted to do.

I got a job, a fantastic one, at a company called Palantir. One of the things I decided, in that summer between UO and Palantir, was that I was going to do the things I wanted to do. My motivations for going to grad school had been suspect. At least one person, my cousin Stuart, actually called me on this, but I didn’t realize that at the time. It had been an easy thing to do, but it hadn’t been the right thing, and I should have known that.

James Owen says, “Never, ever, sacrifice what you want in the long term for what you want most, for what you want most at the moment.” My choice to go to grad school was based on convenience and some short term gains and stuff like “finding a job seems hard”. It wasn’t based on my dreams or aspirations beyond vague thoughts like “it’d be pretty cool to have a Ph.D.”.

I had dreams, too. I wanted to write even then. I wanted to design games. I wanted to play high level poker. For various reasons, I’d discarded all three as possibilities.

Grad school taught me how important it was not to do that. You’ve got things you want to do? Only way they’ll get done is if you do them. Sometimes that’s as easy as deciding to act. Other times it means beginning a very long process with uncertain results. But the only way you’re sure not to get there, is if you don’t even try.

A month after I started at Palantir, I began figuring out how to write novels. That was a long process – took me about 15 months before I wrote my first one. The next spring, I went to Las Vegas and played in the World Series of Poker for the first time. I started taking piano lessons again. I adopted two awesome cats named Sabin and Edgar. I competed in some major StarCraft II tournaments. Game design has been deferred but not forgotten.

Anyway, James Owen says all of this a heck of a lot more eloquently than I. The two books I’ve mentioned, Drawing out the Dragons and The Barbizon Diaries are available digitally here: http://coppervaleinternational.com/ebooks/.  Take a look – they’re short reads, very well-written, and I think, quite profound.

All Swagger

Picture this:

You show up to the gym to play basketball with some friends. The opposing team’s sitting on the bench, waiting for you. They look tough. Muscular, athletic, big. They’ve got custom made jerseys and monogramed basketballs covered in famous signatures. They’ve got the swagger and the stare and that slightly arrogant smile as you guys practice. You start to get nervous. You think your team’s okay, you’ve practiced hard, but these guys look like they know what’s going on. They’ve got to be good. Real good.

The ref’s whistle blows. The toss-up goes their way, and their center grabs the ball with a terrifying grunt. You run back for defense, praying that he won’t hurt you too badly when they dunk.

Except, the center takes a few steps forward without dribbling. He gets called for travelling. You’re confused, but accept the good fortune and bring the ball up the court. They’ve got a guy defending you, but he’s got no footwork. His balance is off. You feint left and drive right. Open lay-up. Their other defenders look lost. They have no idea where to stand. In fact, two of them manage to run into each other trying to stop you. Their point guard dribbles with both hands, directly in front of him, and looks astonished when you easily steal the ball for another quick basket. In the end, the only point they manage to score is when one of their players, trying desperately to avoid having the ball stolen for the tenth time, wildly throws the ball up behind his back and it somehow finds the backboard and bounces in.

After the game, they dust themselves off. The captain comes up to you and points straight at your chest, puts a nice sneer on his face, and goes, “You punks got lucky today. We’ll get you next time.” Then they walk off the court, swagger still intact, loudly whispering to each other about how bad you guys were, while you stand there wondering if someone slipped you LSD before the game.

Think that sounds like an exaggeration? Yeah, it probably is. Basketball is transparent; when you are horrifically bad at it, it’s obvious to even people who don’t know the game. You can’t hide from it. You’ll get embarrassed, and either quit, find people near your skill level to play it, or be motivated to improve so you don’t shame yourself as badly next time.

In fact, you might think that there is no competitive activity where an analogous scene could occur. It seems downright absurd.

Except there’s this little card game called poker.

Scenes like that occur every time I play at a casino, complete with the swaggering, intimidating look of the players, and the arrogant, nearly delusional things they’ll say after losing (or winning). You think I’m still exaggerating. I wish I was.

Now, the point of this isn’t to make fun at the vast majority of poker players. I bring this up because I believe that the process which led me to become reasonably good at poker (I’m not great) changed the way I thought about a lot of things. It may be the most educationally rich thing I’ve done in my entire life.

I certainly didn’t expect that when I started – I wanted to learn how to play because my friends were doing it, it looked fun, and you could win a little money. I took the game a little more seriously than them, and slowly got better.  I began to play a lot more after I graduated from college and through grad school, right up till the justice department decided online poker was a profoundly evil thing, played no doubt by mostly terrible people, and effectively shut it down.

Many of my friends played too.  These are smart, smart people, who were very good at other things. They were not good at poker. That’s fine – plenty of things I’m not good at either. But that’s not the problem.

The problem was that they were bad at poker and they thought they were good. This illusion did not waver, even when they constantly lost all their money. It did not waver when well -meaning people, such as myself, politely pointed to their mistakes and the reasoning why they were mistakes.  

I bring all this up, because I think the reasons why this happens are interesting. Poker, unlike basketball, is not a transparent game.  Because the outcome of every hand is left up to chance to some degree, you can’t simply go “I won this hand, I played it well” or “I lost this hand, I played it poorly”. You have to understand the theory of the game at a high enough level to analyze your play, and you have to understand how to analyze long term results properly. The first of these things is a skill that is very hard to develop. The second of these things isn’t “hard” in one sense, as there are programs that will do it for you, but intellectually and emotionally comprehending those results is a tough pill for people to swallow, especially people who have not studied a lot of statistics (i.e. just about everyone).

These are further complicated by our own minds, which often make intuitive or emotional conclusions about results that are simply false. By not calling ourselves on it, and continuing ot make such false conclusions, they eventually become ingrained. As a result, you have people who have played poker for years and often have habits that are so bad they’d almost be better off using a random number generator to decide their play, and they’d certainly lose less money by giving up every hand.

This isn’t just about poker. The internal conflicts I’ve had to fight through in being a winning poker player transformed the way I think about everything. Sorting through this big emotional mish-mash that our minds create is vital to success in anything, especially when the going gets tough. I use many of the lessons I learned from poker right now, when I’m learning to write fiction, or even this blog.

Anyway, this is getting a little dense, so I’ll stop here. In the future, I’ll devote entire blog entries to different facets of this topic, as it’s one of my favorites to think about.  Till then, please enjoy your weekend