Don’t Play With a Stacked Deck – & More Things I Learned in 55 Years

I highly recommend, The Dip,  a short book by Seth Godin that lauds the value of quitting. I wrote about this at greater length on my other blog on judo and life, under the topic, “Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” where, being the horrible mean old woman that I am, I suggested that giving up trying to make the Olympic team, going back to school and getting a real job might be a better path for some people.

Or in the words of not one, but two of my professors in graduate school, at two different institutions thousands of miles apart, the 19th thing I have learned in (almost) 55 years is

“Never play with a stacked deck.”

The deck might be stacked against you for a number of reasons. One of the professors who told me that was an African-American woman and at the end of the academic year, she left for another university. She was right that she would probably never get the job she wanted at that university. Her research wasn’t African-American studies – it was policy analysis, and she taught not multi-cultural something or other but statistics. She could have stuck around hoping to get tenure and make them see that she really was just as good, just as smart – or she could have gone to another university where they already knew that.

The other professor was white, male and vice-president of a major corporation who had come to teach in the MBA program for a year because he felt like it and he was rich and important, so there. We were glad to have him. He was a great professor. He pointed out there are times that you are not going to get what you want, because, say, the company was a family business and the owner’s son was going to end up as president no matter how wonderful you are. It could also be that there is an entrenched group and they are not going to support you in your job no matter what you do. They’ve worked together for twenty years and you just came in here because the boss hired you over them. One of the students asked,

“Isn’t that letting them win if you just give up and leave?”

The professor answered,

“Or, you could stay there for five years and fight them and maybe after five years, bring them around to recognize your contribution to the team and support you. In the meantime, you’ve wasted five years when you could have been working somewhere else where people got behind you and got the job done and been five years further ahead in your career. So tell me, what did you win?”

Sometimes, it’s not people that have stacked the deck against you. Maybe you have had too many injuries to come back and compete. That may sound hypocritical since I won the world championships with a knee missing all the cartilage and 2/3 the ligaments. The fact is, I was lucky and if I had taken one more shot that took out that last ligament, I would have been done not just competing but probably walking.

So, that brings me to my 20th thing,

Know what you are willing to risk.

In the case of competing, I was willing to risk never walking again without crutches. Thank God for the medical advances in knee replacements or I’d be on crutches now. Right now, I’m making half the money I could be making because I’m spending a lot of time on starting up 7 Generation Games and not taking any new consulting clients.

This might sound hypocritical again, because isn’t doing a start-up something for only young people? As Vivek Wadhwa said, isn’t it true that the average venture capitalist portfolio consists solely of white and Asian males barely old enough to shave? So isn’t this playing with a stacked deck?

Not at all. We may not get $10 million in venture capital but I’m okay with that (really). We have learned not to trade our lives for stuff. We’re pretty happy with life because we’ve learned not to want too much what we haven’t got.

We’re willing to risk some of our own funds and half (or more) of our time for two or three years to make this game happen. Looking at the progress we’ve made so far, the people we have working with us and the work we are all doing, I am pretty optimistic, but it’s a risk. If it doesn’t succeed, I will be disappointed, we all will. Then, we’ll pick ourselves up and after some swearing and possibly a martini or two, we’ll go on to the next idea, because we have learned that failure is never permanent and neither is success.
See how it all fits together – it’s like Legos.

capybaraI know that’s actually a picture of a capybara and not Legos, but you see, I didn’t have a picture of Legos and I had this one of a capybara and I really do like capybaras.

Which brings me to my twenty-first thing I have learned …

You’ll be a lot happier in life if you don’t  take yourself too seriously.

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  1. I really enjoy this series of yours: No-nonsense, opinionated, down-to-earth advice, based on real-life experience.

    Thanks for proving that articles on career-related stuff can be free of new age-y “find your true passion” advice as well as devoid of clichéd management consultants’ bullshit bingo!

  2. I know what you mean. If I hear “Find your bliss” one more time I am going to blissfully slap the person who said it!

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