[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode, we discuss several simple strategies for thinking better by looking at lessons ranging from sources as disparate as the methods of Sherlock Holmes, to the principles of professional poker. How do you create focus and engagement when you’re trying to solve a problem? What are the potential ways that you can improve your memory to supercharge your thinking ability? How can you train your mind to think more effectively about emotion, risk and uncertainty? We discuss these and much more with our guest, Maria Konnikova.
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In our previous episode, we broke down the complex and confusing world of body language and nonverbal communication. We discovered the easiest starting point for learning the basics you need to know to get started with reading and understanding body language, and we dug into the specific tools and strategies you can start using right away to not only decode the body language of others, but also change your own body language to communicate what you want. We explored all of these and much more with our previous guest, Joe Navarro.
If you’ve always wanted to learn about body language but feel overwhelmed by such a complex and confusing field, be sure to listen to that episode. Now for our interview with Maria.
[00:03:04] MB: Today, we have another fascinating guest on the show; Maria Konnikova. Maria is the author of two New York Times bestsellers; Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and The Confidence Game. Maria graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and received from PhD in psychology from Columbia. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Wired and much more. She’s also an avid poker player. Maria, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:03:34] MK: Thanks for having me, Matt.
[00:03:35] MB: Well, we’ll super excited to have you on the show today as long time listeners will definitely know. I’m a big poker player as well and so I definitely want to dig into some of that stuff. But before we do, I’d love to kind of start out with some of the other work that you’ve done, especially the book Mastermind I thought was really fascinating.
What kind of led you to decide to write a book about Sherlock Holmes and are there some applications from kind of a fictional character that can actually lead us to better thinking and decision making?
[00:04:07] MK: Yeah, those are both really great questions. The first one especially because I’m not someone who was a lifelong Sherlockian. When I started writing the book I realized there was this huge community of Sherlock Holmes fans, Sherlockians from all over the world who’ve just lived and breathed Sherlock Holmes for their whole life, and that wasn’t me. I had been introduced to the stories as a child when my dad read them to me – Well, to our whole family. We had reading hour every Sunday before bed. It was really wonderful, and they really were beautiful. I remember loving them as a child, but I had never reread them as an adult. So it was kind of a childhood experience, childhood memory and nothing more.
In this particular instance, I was working on a piece about mindfulness, and this was actually years before everyone knew what mindfulness was. So we’re going back to like 2010 when this was not a buzzword and people, when you say mindfulness, were like, “Oh, doesn’t that have something to do with Buddhism,” and that was basically the end of it.
I was trying to figure out, “Okay. I want to write about mindfulness and cognitive psychology. How do I do that in a way that people will relate to, that they’ll understand what it is?” because whenever I’m writing I always like to have stories, examples, things that bring scientific concepts to life. As I was trying to figure out how to do this, I actually had a flashback to childhood to my dad reading to us. I remembered one particular scene, which was I couldn’t remember the story. I knew it was from Sherlock Holmes, and it was about Holmes asking Watson how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street and Watson not knowing.
Luckily, now we’re living in a time of Google, so I was able to go online and just quickly Google steps 221B Baker Street, and right away I had the story. I reread it and I thought, “Oh my God! This scene is actually –” My memory was really good in terms of just going to the right place, because if you read the scene fully, it’s not actually really about the number of steps. It’s about this exchange that Holmes and Watson have at the end when Watson says, “Well, I don’t really understand. My eyes are just as good as yours,” and Holmes says, “It’s not about eyesight. This is the difference between us. You only see. I both see and observe.” I was like, “That’s mindfulness, both seeing and observing.”
So I wrote up the piece and then ended up doing really well, and in the process I also became really kind of fascinated with the Sherlock Holmes stories. I thought, “Oh! This really interesting. I really enjoyed reading this. Let me start rereading them. Maybe I’m missing something.”
So I started rereading them from the beginning, and just within a few stories I said, “Oh my God! This is a goldmine. There are so many psychological concepts here. It’s so well-described. Conan Doyle really knew what he was talking about when it came to the human mind, and that was the seat of the book and that ended up becoming Mastermind.
To get to the second part of your question, of course, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, but what people often don’t realize is that first of all Arthur Conan Doyle was medically trained. He was a doctor. He actually started the Holmes stories, because his practice wasn’t going very well and he was sitting by himself and waiting for patients that never came. So he started writing the Holmes stories, and he was someone who was always very much into all of the scientific developments of the day. He followed everything that was happening in Germany. He knew what was going on with the signs. He was a follower of Sigmund Freud, and Holmes was actually based on a doctor. He was based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s mentor at the University of Edinburgh, and Joseph Bell was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
So we have here a fictional character who’s created by someone with a deep scientific training based on a doctor. Yes, absolutely, we can apply him to real-life because he came out of real-life.
[00:08:11] MB: What a great instance of kind of the power of subconscious incubation, right? You’re sort of working on an article and your subconscious just bubbles up this idea from 10, 20 years ago and suddenly that is exactly what you were looking for for that article.
[00:08:26] MK: Yeah. I think that’s probably the longest incubation period I’ve ever had, but it was a really crazy moment, because I distinctly remember this. I was like, “Oh!” I remember as a little, like that’s what struck me. That particular story, it wasn’t like murder or some big moment when I was scared. It was this not knowing. Because I remember identifying with Watson and saying, “Oh my God! I don’t know how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street either.” I don’t see and observe. I only see.
As a kid you don’t really get the depth of that message, but it definitely stuck and I have never, I think, seen subconscious incubation in action to the extent that I saw it then.
[00:09:11] MB: So let’s dig into some of the kind of lessons from studying Sherlock Holmes. What were some of the big findings or takeaways that you uncovered?
[00:09:19] MK: Well, I think that the first one was actually the first one, literally. It was this theme of mindfulness which ended up becoming the theme of the book, that the thing that distinguishes Holmes above any other detective, is the fact that he is able to observe. He’s present. He’s in the moment. He really just focuses and takes in all of these information.
One of the things that you find when you actually read all of the stories and look at what Holmes does, is how remarkably quiet he often is. He often makes a joke that he’s the most inactive/active detective I’ve ever seen, because if you look at photographs – Well, photographs. If you look at drawings that were done for the book, and basically every story you see him sitting in the chair with his fingers stippled together. Just sitting quietly or with a pipe or with his violin, and it really taught me the importance of taking those quiet moments of taking a step back, really making sure that you reflect before you act, before you jump in to anything, and that you try to see the whole picture. Because I think we’re living in a moment where we’re really just primed for a constant action. Whenever you take a step back and are like, “You know, I just want to reflect on this for a moment,” people are like, “Oh, you’re wasting time. You’re not doing anything.”
What Sherlock Holmes helped me rediscover was that actually doing nothing can be the most powerful thing that you can do. It can really unlock your mind. It can really force you to focus and to take in so much more than you would if you were just constantly busy, busy, busy. That’s a lesson that I think I have to keep relearning, because everything in society pushes against that.
Especially when it comes to, I think, the buzzword, multitasking, which is kind of my eternal enemy, because one other thing that you learn from Holmes and something that I tried to kind of convey in the book was that, first of all, there’s no such thing as multitasking. Our brains can’t do two things at once. So it’s task-switching, and it’s really exhausting and you don’t actually end up doing anything as well.
But Holmes also, this fictional character, shows the importance of being able to resist distractions and just kind of to uni-task, to really uni-task well, and that that’s one of your most powerful things when you can unleash your mind in that way.
Once again, that’s so hard to remember. Even right now, you and I are doing this interview and I’ve actually blacked out my computer screen, because otherwise I have – I don’t know, how many tabs opened. It’s just so temping to be like, “Ooh! Let’s look at Twitter and see what’s happening. Let’s look at this. Let’s look at that.”
I actually remember when I was writing the book, I downloaded this software, because I was writing about it, freedom, which turns off your internet. Because I was writing and not multitasking, I was like, “Oh, this is actually really interesting. Let me try it out. I don’t actually need it.” Get a free trial period and I think after 10 days or something you have to pay for it. I was like, “Oh! Let me do the trial period. I’m not actually going to need it.”
The first day I turned it on, you can actually put in any amount of time. I don’t remember, it was like from 10 minutes to 10 hours, something like that, where you can’t access the internet. Within two minutes when I was writing, I noticed my fingers going to the alt+tab to actually check my email and I realized just how often I got distracted, and I ended up buying the software, and it was the best purchase I ever made.
[00:12:57] MB: That’s awesome. It’s funny, I think mobile devices obviously, which we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole, but is another massively addicting and distracting thing that we’ve talked a bunch about on the show. But coming back to this idea of kind of how sort of quiet and contemplative Sherlock Holmes is, one of the kind of recurrent themes that we’ve seen again and again on Science of Success is this idea of contemplative routines and how important it is to kind of step back from the constantly reactive nature of boom-boom-boom, email this, that. So many people making demands on your time, and even spending 10, 15 minutes once a week or once a day to step back and say, “What should I be doing? What should I be looking at? What should I be focusing on?” and how powerful that can be.
[00:13:45] MK: Absolutely. Absolutely. Something that I started doing actually after writing this book was meditating every morning, not for long, for like 10 minutes. It’s absolutely huge. It’s a game-changer in terms of your clarity of thought, of your ability to concentrate, to make decisions. It really helps you harness your brain power for the rest of the day. I think that people who’ve never done it can’t quite appreciate. They think that it’s total bullshit. Until they try it. Because it sounds so crazy that 10 minutes a day can actually make such a big difference.
But recapturing that quiet space in your mind can be so powerful, and I think that it’s something that at every single level people are forgetting to do. I wrote a piece a number of years ago about boredom. There was really some interesting research being done on what boredom actually is and the fact that people are more bored now than they have been in the past, even though it seems like you should never be bored, because there’s always something going on.
Well, it ends up that boredom isn’t that there’s nothing to do. It’s that you’re attention isn’t engaging with any one thing. So the more distractions are around, the more you have your phone, the more you’re not forced to actually make choices, concentrate, do one thing. The less able you become to pay attention and the more easily bored you become, because your attention doesn’t engage with things in a meaningful way. I found that both fascinating and frightening.
[00:15:18] MB: I was just reading, or just finished reading actually the book Mastery by Robert Greene, and one of the most interesting kind of takeaways – I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but that he talks about in that book is this idea that to achieve master, it’s about kind of a deep encoding of whatever your mastering into the mind and into the subconscious. The only way that that kind of deep encoding work really happens is through focused attention over long period of time and long stretches of time, like years and years of focused attention. When we’re constantly distracted, that encoding like never happens. So we never end up building the sort of muscle memory and the subconscious processing power to really get towards mastery.
[00:16:01] MK: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I haven’t read the book, but I think that point is a very good one. I think it’s true not just of mastery, but let’s even go take it down a notch even if we’re not trying to master, but just trying to do anything, learn anything, absorb anything in the short term. I think it’s very easy to forget just how important engaging with it can be, because if you – Just think back. This is I think an experience that everyone has had. Think back to school, to like elementary school, or middle school, or high school. What do you actually remember from that? You remember the classes in which you were engaged and which you like the teacher, in which some book or some concept really spoke to you and you don’t remember anything else.
Now, you might have been a straight A student and you did well in the moment, but your brain didn’t retain it because you weren’t really engaging with it. It was a much more surface process. But you’d be surprised at how much you actually remember from 10, 20 years ago just because you were engaged at the moment that you were learning it and that you actually played with the material. You were interested in the material.
Actually bringing this back to Sherlock Holmes, one of the things that I think distinguishes him from a lot of other fictional characters, and I think is a key reason why he’s able to be so successful, is that he loves what he does. He has fun. So the common refrain, one of the most famous quotes from the book, “the game is afoot,” and that’s something that Sherlock Holmes says repeatedly about his cases, “the game is afoot.” It’s a game. It’s engaging. It’s interesting, and that’s one of the reasons that he’s able to do well and to keep learning and to succeed, because he actually sees it in that light.
I think that’s a very powerful mental thing that we can do, is turn things around so that they do become more, again, like more interesting, more challenging so that we’re actually excited and engaged as supposed to, “Oh God! I can’t believe I have to do this, or I have to read this, or I have to look at that.” You’re going to have to do it anyway. You’re going to have to invest the time anyway. So why not make it something more meaningful?
[00:18:14] MB: So how do we think about kind of creating that engagement or creating that sense of playfulness when we’re working on something?
[00:18:23] MK: I think that it’s very specific to you and to what you’re working on and some things are obviously – They lend themselves to it much more easily. So if it’s actually for your job and you enjoy your job, well, then that should be pretty simple. If it’s something that’s mundane, but for a greater you know why you’re doing it, I think that’s key. Then you actually figure out ways to make it interesting and to actually psych yourself up about it, because it might be a very boring mundane thing, but you’re doing it in the cause of something much bigger, much more interesting, much more exciting. So you keep that thing in mind. You keep that ultimate goal in mind. Why are you doing it? You’re like, “Okay. How can I reframe this so that it’s no longer this boring thing, but now a piece of a much more interesting puzzle? Let me look at it as like one puzzle piece that’s essential. Without this puzzle piece, I can’t do this very interesting thing.”
I think that there are lots of ways that you can reframe your approach, reframe your thought, reframe the task, reframe whatever it is to make it much more palatable. I think a very important litmus test is if you can’t do that if it’s actually like just absolutely impossible. You have no idea why you’re doing it. You have no idea what you’re doing. You don’t like it. You don’t see any purpose for it or whatsoever. Then you might want to rethink your job choices.
[00:19:45] MB: I think that ties in many ways kind of back to the concept or the idea of flow.
[00:19:50] MK: Mm-hmm. For sure. For sure. I actually in Mastermind wrote about flow, because I think it’s a concept that really applies to mindfulness and to the ability to concentrate, to the ability to do something well. It’s a state that we can achieve in a lot of different ways. I’m sure all of your listeners know what flow is, but just as a quick kind of refresher, it’s that feeling of being kind of at one and with your task and [inaudible 00:20:21] who created that concept, and I actually recommend his books on it. If you haven’t read them, he’s a very interesting writer and thinker. But it’s just being kind of really focused on what you’re doing to the point where it stops being separate from you. It becomes kind of this flow, this state of enjoyable activity. We can achieve it in so many different ways doing almost anything.
I mean, there are some studies of people achieving flow doing just the most mundane, really crazy stuff. It’s not like you suddenly achieve it when you’re always, when you’re doing something creative, like playing the violin or doing something like that. So it’s actually more of a place in your mind than it is integral to the activity as such, if that makes sense.
[00:21:12] MB: Absolutely. For listeners who want to dig in, we had a great interview that came out a couple of weeks ago with Steven Kotler from the Flow Genome Project that goes much deeper into that. But I want to come back to when we’re talking about, I think, this idea of sort of task switching and multitasking, when we look at how focused attention really helps kind of build the right muscles for thinking more effectively and how engagement is a key piece of that. I think this ties back in some ways, and you could probably elaborate on it much more intelligently than I can about this idea that you kind of call the brain attic, and how we sort of think about storing information and organizing knowledge in our heads. I’d love to dig into that concept and learn a little bit more about it.
[00:21:58] MK: Yeah, absolutely. So I steal that concept directly from Arthur Conan Doyle. What Sherlock Holmes says in the books is that, basically, you carry this real estate with you always in your mind, your brain attic, and it’s his metaphor for memory. He has this exchange with Watson, because Watson always gets the short end of the deal in all of these exchanges. He says, “Watson, there are multiple types of attics. Yours is basically a lazy lumberjack’s attic. You just put God knows what up there. Obviously, I’m Sherlock Holmes, I have this wonderful pristine attic.”
What does that actually mean? Well, it goes back to what we’ve been talking about, this idea of mindfulness and of focus. So if you think about your memory as a place, just think of it – Imagine an empty room, an empty attic in a new house and you can make a choice of how you’re going to use that space. You can be someone who’s really excited that you suddenly have an attic and you’ve never had an attic before. So now you never have to throw anything out. You can just throw it up all there and you’re never going to run out of room.
What ends up happening – Well, first of all, you can’t find anything. Secondly, you do run out of room. Thirdly, you run out of room faster than your next door neighbor who has the same attic, but was using it more effectively, because you haven’t been optimizing how you store things, and it’s just one big mess. The files you do have up there get all jumbled up and messed up, and even when you find something, it might be wrong.
So that’s actually kind of the default of how our memories are. If we don’t think about it, that’s the kind of attic we have, because we just kind of remember things as they stick. We don’t think about it and we don’t necessarily put a lot of thought into how we’re encoding them.
What Sherlock Holmes is trying to tell Watson, and this actually very close to our current understanding of memory. Now, the brain attic is flawed in the sense that memory is much more malleable. It’s not actually kind of this hard, enclosed space. But taking that to the side from a moment, let’s imagine this is an expandable attic.
What Sherlock Holmes says is, “Well, you need to be very careful. You need to be mindful of every piece of information that goes up there, because it’s not infinite, and you not only have to be aware of what you’re putting up there, but you have to be aware of where you’re putting it,” because any information you remember is only going to be useful to you in so far as you can retrieve it. Imagine yourself sitting in school taking a test and there’s a question and you say, “Oh! I knew that. I know that. Oh God! I definitely studied that.”
Well, if you don’t actually remember it at that moment, it’s useless to you. You’re going to get a zero for that question. That’s the essence of why you need to store things properly. You need to be able to retrieve them when you need them. Otherwise they may as well not exist.
So a few things about kind of what you can do to make your brain attic most effective. Number one is encoding. So the moment that we have the most control over our memories and over how well they’ll be stored is the moment of encoding, the moment where we first remember it.
So some things will never get encoded, because even though we experienced it, we didn’t pay attention and it’s actually not in our memories and we’re not going to be able to retrieve it later on. Actually, often times people get into a lot of trouble. There have been court cases with this where while you were there, how can you not remember? You must be lying. Actually no, they’re not. They just weren’t paying attention. They never encoded that memory. They were there, but they don’t remember.
So you have to make sure you have to make the conscious choice to say, “Okay. I want to remember this. Let’s encode it into my mind. Now, how am I going to encode it?” Well, you want to do it in a way that’s most effective and space efficient. So our memories are strongest the more we can associate them with things that are already in our memories.
So thematically, if it’s related to some of the concepts we know, if we’re with people with whom we share other memories, if we’re in a space where we’ve shared other memories. If there are sounds, if there are smells. Basically anything you can do to help encode that piece of information, use it, and tag that memory as much as you can. Cross tag it, cross reference it, because every single one of those tags, every single point of encoding will later be a point of retrieval.
So even if you forget three of the tags, as long you’re number one, you’ll be totally fine and you’ll be able to retrieve that memory. So that’s kind of that’s your efficient attic. That’s the one where you actually care about everything that goes in and you care about how it goes in so that when the moment comes, you can take it out intact and use it.
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[00:28:48] MB: I want to dig into a couple of different piece of this, because I think this whole approach of kind of conceiving of your brain in that way and the idea that only things that we actually can remember and retrieve at the right time are sort of relevant or useful. I think that really kind of harkens back to the Charlie Monger kind of mental models approach to the world, which I’m a huge fan of, and we talk all about on the show constantly is this idea that you have to kind of array knowledge in your brain around sort of useful semantic trees so that you can connect different pieces of information and understand the world more cohesively.
But it also comes back to, and we’ve had a number of interviews where we talk about the power of visual memory and pneumonic techniques and all of these kind of strategies for encoding that are incredibly powerful. Specifically, I’d love to dig in to one of the things that Sherlock Holmes talks about, and I know you kind of write about, which is how we can bring multiple kind of senses into the encoding process and how useful that can be.
[00:29:50] MK: Absolutely. So I kind of started mentioning that when I was talking about encoding things into your brain attic. But we tend to really ignore most of our senses at any given moment. So when we’re encoding a memory, we’ll encode the primary memory. So if we, for instance, want to remember what happened, we’ll just use our eyes. If we want to remember going to a concert, we’re just going to use our ears, and that’s incredibly wrong because we have a lot of different ways that memories are becoming a part of us. The more we can engage our senses and the more we can actually actively engage with our sense while we’re forming the memories, the more powerful that memory is going to be. The easier it’s going to be to remember. The more vivid it’s going to be and the easier it’s going to be to recall.
So, for instance, we’ve known for a very long time, and writers have written about it. Everyone, even people who have no idea who Marcel Proust is, know about Proust’s madeleine is, that’s smell is an incredibly powerful ways to evoke memory. One of the reasons is that it’s actually connected to the emotional part of the brain. There’s a direct connection there and a way that there isn’t for other senses.
So knowing that, if you’re actually trying to remember something, it doesn’t have to be bout food. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with smell as such, but try to remember what the smells were at the moment. Going back to your studying for a test, or you’re trying to remember something, you’re going to give a really important presentation at work, but you need to memorize it. So you’re really trying to kind of remember what’s going on. Well, maybe you’re doing it at a café. Breath in. Try to figure out what are the smells around here. Try to associate with a different sense. Hey, if you’re going to associate it with the small of coffee, awesome, because there’s probably going to be coffee at your meeting. Try to get the exact same blend to get the stuff going in your mind.
Listen. What’s the music playing in the background? Do you have any other associations with this music? I’m sure you’ve experienced this feeling where suddenly a song comes on the radio that is from the summer you were 13-years-old and all of a sudden you have all of these memories coming back that you didn’t consciously try to remember. That’s huge. Why don’t we use that actually to our advantage knowing that?
So listen and actually try to associate the sounds with it. Obviously, we look all the time. So that’s something that we’ll do probably anyway, but if you do it more consciously and if you actually try to notice the colors and actually really try to look in an almost meditative way, that will help you. I will often remember things because I could remember exactly where it was on the page on the table what I was doing and when I can actually picture it in my mind. It helps me retrieve that information.
Use the sense of touch. Use your posture. Where are you sitting? What are you feeling? What are kind of the textures around you? Actually just fully engage with the moment and then try to use those senses as ways to make the memory more tangible, bigger, more three-dimensional even if it’s something really stupid, like memorizing what I’m going to say on this slide of a really boring Power Point. It can make it much easier for you to then know exactly what you’re saying, and it will be more interesting, because you will have spent the time actually truly encoding it into your brain as supposed to just trying to rote memorize it.
I think we really underuse that sensory approach. That said, it’s actually – This takes time. So I’m not recommending doing this at every moment of everyday for every memory. That’s going to be overwhelming. So you have to pick and choose. You have to be kind of mindful. You have to be picky and you have to figure out what’s actually worth remembering. What do I want to spend the energy on encoding and go from there.
[00:33:58] MB: We’re going to throw some resources in the show notes for listeners who want to dig more into those strategies as well, because these techniques are so powerful if you get into the visual memory techniques that you can use to encode things. I mean, I still remember numbers that I’ve encoded using visual methods like six months ago that I’ve never thought about, and if I think about the kind of mental, like the mental image, or the memory palace that I created for it, it’s amazing.
[00:34:23] MK: For sure.
[00:34:24] MB: There’s so much more I want to talk about, and so I want to kind of change gears completely. The thing that we haven’t even gotten into yet, which is truly fascinating to me, is that you started out as a psychology PhD, a writer, all these stuff, and yet now you sort of find yourself – And correct me if I’m sort of mischaracterizing this, but you’re not a professional poker player. Is that correct?
[00:34:47] MK: That is correct. It is in service of writing. So my next book is going to be more memoristic about my journey into the world of professional poker. I took a poker for this book, and I ended up – I didn’t know that if I was going to be good, if I was going to enjoy it. I didn’t know anything about poker, and it not only drew me in, but it ended up that I was able to do well in it. So right now, the book ended up getting pushed back a little bit. Yes, I’m playing fulltime.
[00:35:25] MB: I think that’s amazing, and I want to dig into a number of kind of pieces of that story. How did you – Or sort of what kind of drew you in to the game of poker as somebody who studied thinking and psychology and human behavior and decision making. Once you kind of got in and started playing, what really drew you into it and make you more fascinated with it?
[00:35:46] MK: When I was in grad school, my main focus was on decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty and under hot or emotional conditions. So my advisor was Walter Mischel, who created in the 1960s the famous marshmallow test of self-control. So I was interested in self-control and in kind of how all of these things interact in environments where we don’t have a lot of information, where there’s a lot of uncertainty and where we’re really stressed, where we’re feeling under a lot of emotional pressure.
Anyone who studies those sorts of things will find very quickly that while human beings are incredibly smart and normally are very good at making decisions in some environments, that breaks down a lot when it comes to uncertainty, when it comes to kind of probabilistic thinking, when it comes to emotional decisions. Right away you start seeing biases. You start seeing people kind of go wrong and start making mistakes.
Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for this work was kind of the first one to really publicize it, which is basically how our minds go wrong, all of the different biases and heuristics that we use in making decisions. That’s what you see over and over and over.
What you don’t see nearly as much is, “Okay. Well, how in the world do I correct this?” Normally I’m right, and a lot of times these biases are there for a reason and they serve us well. But in these uncertain situations, when I’m emotional, when these biases really kick into high gear, how do I get over that? The answer is it’s really, really difficult. You can teach people all about these biases and they still have them and they still make these mistakes.
So what I realized when I got into poker was that poker is actually a way to teach your mind to think in the right ways and you do it over and over in a controlled environment through experience, which actually is incredibly helpful for actually teaching your mind to think in that way. So I think poker players understand probability in a way that most people don’t. They understand variance in a way that most people don’t. They understand uncertainty and risk in a way that most people don’t.
So it’s a very interesting confluence of ideas, where on the one side I’ve side I’ve studied all of these biases, and so I have a deep understanding of what’s going wrong. Then now I have this laboratory, if you will, to explore all of them and to kind of go deeper into my own brain and see what I can learn from a game that actually tackles them if you want to be good at it head on.
[00:38:46] MB: I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I love the game of poker so much. It’s just such a fascinating. I think the term laboratory is great. It’s such a fascinating laboratory for teaching yourself not only this kind of really important mathematical concepts, decision making concepts and really a huge array of kind of emotional concepts as well that are really important to thriving and succeeding at anything that you do in life.
[00:39:12] MK: For sure. For sure. It’s one of these things that – So you’ve been a poker player for a while, but I’m someone who totally came from the outside. So, for me, it just kind of hit me over the head all of a sudden, and I think that that is part of the fascination, because I had no idea what I was getting into. I’m like, “Oh my God! Wow! This is so much better than I ever thought it could be.” It teaches me so much about myself and about my shortcomings, things that I didn’t know existed.
It’s one of these games that is infinitely complex. So it’s not like suddenly you’re like, “Okay. I understand poker. I understand statistics. I understand this. I’m done.” If keeps evolving and changing, because you are playing people. You are playing situations. So you’re playing human dynamics, and those keep evolving. As people strategy evolves, your strategy has to evolve. So as a metaphor for life, it basically doesn’t get any better than that.
[00:40:10] MB: So you touched on this a second ago, but as somebody who’s a longtime poker player, obviously – And I’m sure you get this question all the time, but it’s amazing to see someone who – I think, what? Two, three years ago, you never played poker and now you’ve become a professional. What enabled you? We talked earlier about kind of dabbled into this idea of mastery. What enabled you to excel so rapidly in the game of poker?
[00:40:37] MK: Well, I think it’s a lot of things. First, I was incredibly lucky that I was able to gain access to some of the best players in the world. So my coach and mentor is Eric Seidel, who I think is one of the best players of all time, if not the best player of all time if you look at historically the fact that he’s been winning and kind of at the top of the game since the 1980s. No one else has been able to replicate that.
So having a mentor who is such a force in the game is crucial, because you can learn from that. You can really absorb it, and I’m someone who definitely loves to learn. So I’m very happy. I’ve been a writer my whole life – Well, my whole professional life. I’m very comfortable saying I have no idea what’s going on. Teach me. Help me. So I love learning from people who are very, very good. So I was very lucky that he was involved and that he introduced me to some other incredible poker players who’ve been incredibly helpful along the way. That’s one of the things.
But the other part is that I do love learning and I’m willing to study and to put in massive hours. So sometimes when people ask me kind of what I do, they don’t really believe it, and they say, “Oh, well.” Or even if they believe it they’re like, “Oh, but that’s crazy.” Really tell me how to be good without having to do this.
So basically I’m studying and working like 9, 10 hours a day every single day. I fully immerse myself in the world of poker. So when I’m not playing, I’m either reading, or analyzing hands, or watching streams, pausing them, taking notes, trying to figure out people’s strategy, trying to talk to people about strategies. So I’m always doing something to work on my game. I think that a lot of people don’t really want to do that. They want to play poker because they see it as “easy”, and I think it’s the polar opposite of that. It’s a very, very hard way to make a living, and good poker players understand that. There’s no easy money.
So, for me, it’s just been a fully immersive fulltime job of learning and constantly trying to improve. I think being willing – I think you always have to be willing to put in the hours and to realize that there are no shortcuts ever.
So it’s the same with writing. When people ask me, “Oh, I want to get published in the New Yorker too. How do I do that?” I say, “Well, I’ve been writing fulltime for over 10 years before I got my first piece published in the New York.” They’re like, “Oh, but I don’t want to do that.” I’m like, “Well, I’m sorry. There’s no magic bullet. That’s what you have to do, and that’s not the answer a lot of people want to hear.
[00:43:36] MB: It such an important point and a theme that comes up again and again on the show as well. Even coming back to this, kind of the book Mastery by Robert Greene, like he has a quote in that book that’s if you’re – I’m sort of paraphrasing it, but it’s basically, “If you’re looking for a shortcut, then you are unsuited for the pursuit of mastery.”
[00:43:56] MK: Yes, I think that’s a very good way of putting it. I have nothing to add.
[00:44:02] MB: I think also this idea of kind of, as what I would call sort of beginner’s mind, which is this notion of setting your ego aside. Being willing to learn, being willing to ask what might be sort of dumb or embarrassing questions. Kind of putting yourself out there and just saying, “Hey, I don’t know, and I just want to learn.” I think so many people get kind of tripped up on the ego side of it and never really fully embrace that, which is such a core component of learning.
[00:44:28] MK: For sure. For sure. I think actually in poker, that’s more true than it is in a lot of other places, because poker is such an ego-driven boys club. I mean, there are hardly any women in it in any given tournament. If it’s kind of a big well-known tournament, it will be about 3% of the field if you’re lucky. So it’s not a lot at all. That’s actually up. So before, it used to be – Sometimes we would be 0% of the field. When you have so much kind of male ego, when you have so much testosterone, when it’s always been kind of a boys club, in those environments it can be very difficult to put aside kind of that ego to realize, “Okay, there are a lots of people who are much better than I am.”
To be fair, I think the best – These days, the best male poker players are absolutely willing to do that and are among the smartest, most studious people I’ve ever met. They work their asses of and they work hard and they’re working with lots of software. They’re really, really trying to understand the game in an incredibly deep level, and I think that’s amazing.
[00:45:41] MB: So what would be kind of one piece of homework or sort of actionable advice that you would give to listeners who want to kind of concretely implement some of the ideas and concepts that we’ve talked about today?
[00:45:53] MK: The one concrete piece of advice that I would say, and this is the one habit that we’ve already talked about that I’ve changed, but I actually think that it’s the single most important thing that you can do is have a 10-minute a day meditation. Everyone has 10 minutes. I don’t care how busy you are. I don’t care how much you have going on. You have 10 minutes, because it doesn’t actually matter what is going on around you. That’s the beauty of this. It can be incredibly allowed [inaudible 00:46:22]. You could be a mother or a father with like five kids running around. As long as there’s someone else keeping an eye on them for the 10 minutes that you have your eyes closed that they’re not going to kill themselves, you don’t care that all of these things are happening.
Because the point is to kind of admit all of the distractions that are happening and then to let go of them. So it’s not like you need to sit in a quiet place. It’s not like you need to lie down. You can be standing. You can be sitting. You can be anywhere. It’s just this ability to do a 10-minute exercise where you just focus on your breath or whatever kind of meditation you want to do.
I just happen to do mindfulness meditation and to really train your brain to acknowledge distractions. Let them go and go back to the moment and to force yourself to do it for the full amount of time. So you can set a timer on your phone. There are a lot of apps that you can use. I think that it’s something that can be really difficult at first. But if you can actually implement that one habit, it can really be life-changing in your ability to concentrate to make good decisions, to pay attention.
[00:47:35] MB: For listeners who want to dig in, learn more, find you and your work online, what’s the best place for them to do that?
[00:47:41] MK: I am on Twitter @mkonnikova, where I tweet a lot of stuff. I’m on Instagram @grlnamedmaria, except girl doesn’t have an I in it, because I was late to Instagram and there’s already a girlnamedmaria with an I in it. So I’m a misspelled girlnamedmaria. I have a website, mariakonnikova.com, that I unfortunately don’t update nearly as often as I should, and I have Facebook @mariakonnikova, but I also don’t love Facebook. So I’m not on there as much as I am on the other platforms.
[00:48:14] MB: Well, Maria, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing your incredible journey and all of the wisdom that’s come along with. It’s been great to have you here.
[00:48:23] MK: Thank you so much for having me, Matt. It’s been a pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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