Work harder … Learning to learn

A little study goes a long way

Lance Bradley

There is no such thing as an overnight success.

Yes, I know. We’ve all heard the story of a guy walking in off the street and winning the tournament. Most of those guys do not go on to become notable poker professionals. They save the money, which is a great decision, or they blow off the score in a succession of ill-chosen 10Ks.

Most guys I know who made it in poker put a ton of work into it. Even the ones who report that they’re lazy probably do nothing all day but discussing hands with poker friends.

This work ethic is to be expected. One of my favorite radio shows has always been Adam Carolla’s. On it he interviews people from all walks of life — athletes, comedians, writers, actors, architects, small business owners, construction workers, electricians, and so on. Anyone who has enjoyed real critical success says the same thing.

“I did it for not much pay for five to 10 years, and then I became so well-versed in the craft they had no choice but to pay me well.”

Researchers have recently begun questioning traditionally accepted determining factors of success. Many social scientists have begun to note that there is less correlation between IQ and success than was once believed. In fact, the ability to delay gratification seems to be a more accurate predictor of success than anything else.

What does that mean? Researchers place children in a room with one cookie, telling them that if they wait 15 minutes without eating it they can have two cookies. The children that wait those 15 minutes invariably go onto greater life success.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist who has studied West Point cadets, school children, and corporate sales personnel, noticed a similar pattern in successful test subjects. She popularized the term “grit” to describe their ability to delay gratification. In her words, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint … Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality … There are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.”

Those words found a special place in my heart when I read them. I believe anyone can become a competent and winning professional with rigorous study and a good attitude. In fact, I have devoted much of life to private consultations so I could prove just that.

Personally, I know these words to be true. I’ve never found myself to be especially smart, and I was all too aware when I started that I was in the back of the herd in terms of natural talent and ability to learn. I was incredibly insecure.

I channeled that discomfort into a daily study and grind regimen that slowly but surely improved me, until eventually I was playing the highest stakes tournaments. Some of my more talented peers probably could have lapped me if they put in one-third of the hours I put in, but they never showed up, and eventually it cost them.

When I began teaching, I ran into a problem with trying to teach grit. Many research books on the subject seemed to say, “people have it or they don’t.” I had my students read biographies and articles about guys who put the work in day in and day out. I showed them how Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were known for their work ethic before anything else, but that didn’t seem to do the trick. My students could understand intellectually, but they still wanted to take big shots. They still don’t understand why their time wasn’t now.

Then, I read Andre Agassi’s biography. His was especially interesting as he’d been considered a hit-or-miss underachiever who’d squandered much of his talent. He had a period of his career when he was considered finished, where he even began using methamphetamines. He then did the unthinkable by coming back to dominate tennis in his mid-30s. What changed?

He hired trainers and coaches who taught him grit. One was a trainer who, when faced with Agassi’s chronic laziness, told him, “you only have to give me 20 minutes a day. 20 minutes of exercise a day is all anyone needs.” Andre Agassi got used to that, and eventually he became trained to show up for the gym, ready to work, every single day. Then, his trainer switched him to harder work outs, because everything after the 20 minutes was considered a bonus.

It was a great way to trick Agassi into a grittier frame of mind. Another great method comes from Jerry Seinfeld, the world’s highest paid comedian. When asked how to become a better comedian he answered, “write better jokes. The way to do this is to write every day.” He then described how he hung up a calendar in his house. Every day he wrote he would put an X through the day. “Your only job is to not break the chain,” he said. He preached nothing in regards to results. The man was teaching grit, not giving catch-all answers that would end up helping no one.

I don’t know anyone who studies poker regularly who doesn’t become a tough player. Literally, I can’t think of anyone. Contrastingly, it’s staggering how many guys I know who have played 50,000+ tournaments or millions of cash game hands and haven’t learned a thing in years.

Lance Bradley

I used to tell people that you can learn something from 10 minutes of study that you wouldn’t learn in a million hands. I’ve taken that back recently. I’ve learned much about poker which I would have never learned on the felt.

If you want to learn about poker I’d recommend studying for 30 minutes a day. Real studying though, not smoking a spliff while watching a highlight-reel televised broadcast. Get good materials. Buy the books you’ve heard every great poker player recommend. Buy highlighters. Get a box of those spiral notebooks. Take notes on every page you read. Highlight the best sections. Have a master sheet for conclusions you really want to memorize, and carry it around with you the whole day. Duplicate this process with training videos and, when you have the money for it, recordings of your own one-on-one training sessions with a seasoned coach. Set up hand history reviews with colleagues you trust. Record them. Take more notes.

You can work ahead on this process. You can put three hours in one day and hit your quota for six days, for instance, although I’d advocate you don’t work more than a week ahead. It becomes an excuse to become lazier later and less regular in your studies.

I’d also recommend you start small, and incrementally ratchet up the work. Research shows people who constantly set realistic goals and achieve them are more likely to continue progressing and succeeding. I can also tell you that if you study three hours a week or more you’ll be in the top 1 percentile of practicing amateur poker players.

Also realize this: It is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Phil Ivey couldn’t afford to keep the electricity on in his apartment during his first few years of playing poker professionally. Doyle Brunson was winning major live tournaments well into his 70s. You have time. Just make sure you’re always using it.

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November 2014