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A Jedi Mind Trick for Improving at Poker

Last week, I looked over some basic principles of performance for poker. The first principle I mentioned was, “It is within our power to improve.” This item is incredibly important to understand on a deep level, but the reality of the situation is that most people don’t realize how good they could really be at poker. I’ve listed this as the first principle of performing well at poker because it completely forms your attitude towards how you play, how you study and your ability to get better. Understanding how flexible your intelligence really is can help you to make more money in a shorter amount of time once you stop selling yourself short.

The Role of Innate Talent

The majority of people have this deeply-ingrained belief that innate talent is one of the most important factors when it comes to any type of intelligence. While it’s a convenient excuse to believe that you’re simply not born smart enough to improve quickly at poker, the fact of the matter is that innate talent doesn’t affect the end results very much at all in the long run. In fact, it can be more of a hindrance for long-term growth if you find things too easy in the beginning.

Someone born with average intelligence who works moderately hard at poker will have much better results the vast majority of the time than someone born with above-average intelligence who does not work nearly as hard at the game. You don’t have to run yourself into the ground with dozens of hours of study each and every week to improve at a good pace, but sitting around trying to rely on some sort of trait that you were supposedly born with isn’t going to get you anywhere at all. You had to be taught not to crap in your pants, so what makes you think that you won’t have to learn how to play poker well?

The Two Mindsets

Carol Dweck is a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, and she’s someone who I have followed for a long time because she performs really interesting experiments on children. She does a lot of research on learning and how peoples beliefs towards intelligence affect how much they learn. Dweck believes that there are two basic mindsets that people tend to fall into. She calls them the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.” In short, people with a fixed mindset tend to believe that intelligence is static and something that you’re born with or without. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be improved with work and practice.

Here’s an example of the type of experiment she has done before. You start with a group of kids in the same grade who are about nine or ten years old. You give them all an easy set of math problems to do that are slightly below their level, and about 95 percent of the questions are answered correctly. Next, you give them all a set of very difficult math problems that are obviously too difficult for them, and nobody really gets any of them correct. Finally, you go back and give them another bunch of problems that are just as easy as the first set. What do you think happens?

Ahead of time, all of the children were interviewed with a set of questions designed to figure out if they have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. All of the children with a growth mindset did just as well on the final set of problems as they did on the initial set of problems, and that makes sense because they were of the same difficulty. However, the children with a fixed mindset did absolutely horrible on the last set of problems. If this was a graded assignment, most of them would have failed.

Dweck’s research has shown a number of benefits for people with a growth mindset and a number of disadvantages for those with a fixed mindset. In short, those with a growth mindset learn more in a shorter period of time. They also have a much better relationship to failure, as you can see from the experiment I outlined above, and they are much happier about the learning process. If you’re interested in reading more about what Dweck has to say about all of this and how you can change to a growth mindset, then this is a good resource.

The Willpower Example

Willpower is a great example of a skill that’s important to poker. Without willpower, you’ll tilt more often, make the correct decision less often, and do stupid things that you know are stupid. Willpower is also a great example of something that most people have a fixed minset about and believe either you have it or you don’t. The research of Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, indicates that the growth mindset towards willpower is the correct one.

One of the coolest things that have been indicated in Baumeister’s research is that willpower can be drastically improved through practice. Basically, there are two ways to exercise willpower. You can do something that you don’t want to do, or you can avoid doing something that you do want to do. By creating exercises for yourself based on these two premises, you can build your willpower to be stronger. I’ve given ideas for exercises for this sort of thing in the past, and I would like to share one of them with you now that you can take on as a homework assignment.

Go into a room where you can be by yourself for a while, and walk from one corner to the other. With each step, leave no room at all between the toe of your back foot and the heel of your front foot. Take your time and keep your balance so that you don’t fall over. Repeat this for a pre-set period of time (ie: five minutes) that you track with a timer. If you start enjoying doing this too much, then you’ll need to find a way to make it more difficult since you want to have some resistance to your willpower.

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