Unexpected Lessons from Improv

February 14, 2012

(or) Use it or Lose it Also Applies to Feelings and Emotions

Ten years ago, I was knee-deep in writing The Poker MBA and took a rare break to go on a first date. I mentioned that I played poker and was working on a book that showed how to use poker skills in business. Thirty minutes into what started as a promising evening, the woman said, “So what came first—the poker or the poker face?

I had become so adept at keeping my emotions to myself that this woman had no idea what I was feeling or thinking. She might as well have been having a drink with a robot. Since I write and talk so much about how emotion is the enemy to sound decision-making and negotiating, I had perfected this learned behavior. Particularly at the poker table, letting emotion get the best of you is a drain on your wallet. Moreover, showing those emotions gives your opponent an edge.

People who meet me now are surprised that I was a hyper-active and hyper-emotional kid. I would cry whenever my team lost a game. I would yell and scream a lot. I acted the way I felt, as opposed to the way I thought would be effective. There was tremendous honesty in the way I lived.

As life became more strategic, I learned to smile through the face of adversity. Integrating lessons from sports, poker and business, I developed skills to never let ‘em see me sweat. Part of it was practical. Another part of it was a defense mechanism, especially with women, when I wouldn’t want to let them know I was feeling hurt.

Words like stoic, balanced, unemotional, solid, unhinged all seem very positive in the context of poker and negotiating. When I don’t show my feelings, it’s a version of acting or hiding. It’s living strategically, rather than from the heart. What I learned on this date, and really uncovered in my Improv class, is that hiding emotion is a horrible trait for performing. And can often be just as bad for life.

I signed up for a 6-week Improv class at Westside Comedy to become a better speaker and workshop leader. I figured it would help me to think on my feet. I did what most of us tend to do—I chose to work on my strengths. I’m already skilled at knowing what to “say” when I’m on the spot. Finding the right words, in just about any situation, is easy for me. What I uncovered in this class is that I still have work to know how to feel.

The key to an Improv scene is emotion. Figuring out the who, what, and where is the easy part. It’s the why that really matters. We would do exercises in which we had to act sad, without using words. I struggled. At times we were told to act anxious, worried or surprised—without words—and I was clueless. Then it dawned on me that I had become so proficient at not showing any emotion that I almost never did. Like a muscle in which you must use it or lose it, I had lost it.

The other thing I uncovered is that I’m terrible at “space work.” We were given one minute to demonstrate a routine task without speaking, and I chose to make my morning smoothie. To do it well, you need not only to remember to open doors and jars, but also close them. It’s simple if you are grounded enough to reflect on something you do every day. And there again, I learned that I’m often so in my head that I don’t take the time to actually observe what’s going on at ground level.

Other great lessons that apply to both Improv and life:

-If you get stuck, say the truth.

-Look your partner in the eye.

-Listen. Pay attention.

-Say yes…AND…

My final class was last night, and I’m grateful for all that I learned. Our performance is this Friday, February 17, at 7 p.m. at the Westside Comedy Theatre at 1323-A 3rd Street Promenade–in the alley between 3rd & 4th. There’s no doubt I’ve become a better speaker. Time will tell if I’ve also become a better person.

I’ll know I’m on the right track if my next date forgets she is with a poker player.

And remembers she is with a human being.

When Someone Doesn’t Get it, That Person May be You!

April 1, 2011

(or) A Good Pass Is One That’s Received, but Why Make the Pass?

“Dewd, you don’t get it! You don’t even have GPS! How can you not have an iPhone? How can you not see how awesome they are?”

I gave Rob the same look I always do. He’s a heck of a salesman, so he grew even more incredulous. “You have no idea how much it will change your life! Get out of the dark ages! You’re a smart guy; how are you not getting this?

The concept of “getting it” comes up a lot for me. I’m a huge believer in the power of awareness because, without it, we don’t know that we need to change. Some people need to be scared into awareness by hitting a bottom or suffering immense pain. I’ve always believed that we shouldn’t have to wait for something awful to happen to take stock of our lives (become aware), see where the issues are, and then devise a plan to fix them.

The two words in that last paragraph which have really made me think are “change” and “fix.” Does anyone really need to change or be fixed? Better question: do I need to change or be fixed? Who’s to say that I and everyone else can’t simply be as is, without being made aware of our flaws. And to even call them “flaws” doesn’t reflect that our greatest weaknesses are typically our greatest strengths.

I’ve lost a once beautiful head of hair agonizing over how to make people get it. Since my basketball coach taught me that a good pass is one that’s received, I take the time to walk in the shoes of the receiver so I can fine-tune my message so that it’s understood. I take this concept so far that my ego gets caught up in making sure the receiver gets the message, that failing to do so means that my pass/delivery was flawed. That’s when I go back to the drawing board and think, think, think on how I can better present the information. The typical result is the other person still doesn’t get it and I make myself crazy.

Consider Rob’s pain in my failing to receive the message about the benefits of an iPhone. If his ego were caught up in it, he could blame himself, which would be insane because I’ve already made up my mind. But let’s back up: do I really need to change or be fixed? As it is, I have some solid reasons for not having an iPhone: health (I wrote a column about the many perils of cell phones, plus Tim Ferriss just documented the impact on sperm count in his book The 4-Hour Body), cost (plus I avoid fixed costs with contracts as much as possible), environmental impact of more bandwidth, and my desire to be more present, among other reasons.

Rob shakes his head because my lack of awareness–and here’s the big point–according to his perception, makes my life worse. The reason he’s willing to let this go is that it doesn’t impact his life much. Albeit not as fast as most, I can still text. I’m generally on time and get where I need to go. And there’s the rub. The desire to change or fix others by bringing them awareness (or having an intervention or sending them to a therapist or recommending a diet) is often driven by our desire to have others behave in such a way that is more beneficial to us. Selfish bastards that we are.

I’m sure you could hardly finish that sentence without thinking of dozen examples that prove it wrong. I’m only telling Bill to stop drinking so much for his own good. I’m only telling Susie to read that book because I know it will change her life. I’m (and this is me talking) only telling anyone who will listen not to use a microwave or artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup (and the list goes on) because it will make them feel and look better.

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Certainly if someone is hurting you physically or emotionally, you owe it to yourself to tell that person. People who love you often aren’t aware of what they’re doing and communicating gives them a chance to treat you the way you want to be treated. It’s usually a win-win.

I also still believe that in the right context, offering awareness for someone else’s benefit can be a beautiful gift. I know a guy who was smoking a cigarette on the beach and a stranger approached him and said, “So why are you trying to kill yourself?” This question was a catalyst to heighten his awareness, and he’s never smoked since. My brother told me that I say “I mean” too much when I speak and I’ve corrected this gaff and become a well-paid professional speaker. I read Dr. Mercola every week to become more aware, and it’s helped me improve my health and fitness. I’m still pro-awareness.

The difference is that now I stop to ask myself why I want to offer it. If it’s a gift to someone I love, I’ll offer it. But if it’s a request to change or fix something so that I benefit, I recognize that (through awareness!) and keep my mouth shut. Truth be told, I don’t think Rob gets how toxic and damaging iPhones (or any cell phone for that matter, especially if you want to have kids) are. I say this not to induce a debate on cell phones, but to point out that none of us really know what’s best for anyone else. Getting it could not be more subjective.

The next time you’re frustrated trying to make someone get it, ask yourself why it’s so important. Then ask yourself if anyone needs to be changed or fixed. Lastly, ask yourself who will benefit from getting it. Get my drift?


Still Thinking about The E.V. of an $8 Cab Ride

November 25, 2010

(or) Exercising Your Decision-Making Muscles Empowers Every Element of Your Life

Life is about decisions, and poker is a great training ground for honing your decision-making skills. Every day we have to make decisions and the more we develop that skill, the better our lives become.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was a good example. My flight to visit my family in Charlotte was scheduled to leave BWI at 3:35 p.m. I planned on taking a 1:20 Marc train from D.C.’s Union Station that would get me to BWI at 1:58. By the time I picked up the free shuttle, I figured I would be at the terminal by 2:15. While it was a little tight, it seemed like a good plan.

While waiting for the 1:20 train, there was an announcement that it was running late. My first instinct was to check my options. There are always options. As it was, the next Amtrak train wasn’t until 2:05. Taking a cab would have been at least $75 plus there was no guarantee that it would get there any faster.

As it was, I boarded the train at 1:40 and arrived at BWI at 2:18. I don’t hope; I plan. So before we arrived, I got up from my seat and moved towards the doors because I wanted to get on the first shuttle. When I arrived, the shuttle wasn’t there. Sure enough, there were cabbies hustling: “No waiting; we’ll take you now. Only eight dollars.”

Eight bucks for a cab or wait for the free shuttle? I now had an opportunity to flex my decision-making muscles. And because I’ve been playing poker since I was sixteen, I’ve developed the skills to quickly measure risk and reward and make an empowered decision.

I love this example because there are so many variables to consider. First off, what if I miss my flight? Given that it’s the busiest travel day of the year; will I be able to get on another flight that day? And even if I can, how much will it cost? How much of a hassle will it be for my brother who is picking me up in Charlotte? Where will I sleep if I have to stay over-night?

Let me take you inside my head. First of all, if I didn’t have eight dollars I would have had fewer options. Or even if I had it but was feeling strapped, that money would have been hard to part with. When you enter any game, business, or life situation short of capital, it creates fewer options and more stress which often leads to sub-optimal decisions.

I emphasize in my book, The Poker MBA, and in my speeches that decisions need to be made based on future, and only future E.V. (expected value). On this particular trip, I had saved more than $100 by not renting a car for my time in D.C., I crashed with friends, and this was all on the heels of being well paid for a speech, not to mention that my cross-country flight was paid for. Add the fact that I had paid $6 for the Marc commuter train instead of $14 for the Amtrak so the $8 felt insignificant. See, it felt insignificant based on the immediate past. Gamblers would say I was free-rolling because I had already saved money for the cheaper train. But I believe there’s no such thing as found money or playing with the house’s money. Once it’s in your pocket, regardless of how it came to you, it’s yours.

On the other hand, what if I had over-paid for a bad dinner the night before and then lost two grand playing poker? What if I had splurged and paid $34 to ride the Acela to sit in a more comfortable chair? I likely would have felt less inclined to pay for a cab when the bus was free. That’s human nature, but it’s also not sound decision-making. Since I had $8 in my pocket, the decision should have been limited to the future E.V. of taking the cab. It’s hard not to think about the immediate past, but it doesn’t mean it’s smart. Whatever I had spent in the past was a sunk cost.

Eight bucks for a cab made the decision easy. But what if it was $80? What if it was the only flight of the day and if I didn’t catch it I would miss a speech or a wedding? In those situations, I might have paid $800. What makes decision-making so dynamic is that we’re dealing with imperfect information. I couldn’t know for sure if the bus (or the cab for that matter) would get me there on time.

I took the cab. I arrived at the terminal at 2:28 and there was no line at ticketing. I was a bit disappointed. Then I went to security and when there was no line, I was really disappointed. See, I wanted to feel good about my decision! I had factored in that there could be a long line for security. As it was, I was at my gate more than an hour before take-off.

So did I make a poor decision? Given the outcome, it appears I did. I wasted $8 on a cab when the free bus would have gotten me there in plenty of time. And while I think there’s tremendous value in analyzing decisions, you can only evaluate them based on the information you had at the time. If I had to make this decision again, knowing what I knew not now, but at that time, I would have made the same decision to take a cab. It was a very small price to pay for insurance and the risk of losing $8 (as I did) was far less than the risk of missing my flight.  What I would have done differently is that I would have taken an earlier train and printed my boarding pass. Even though the outcome was okay, I recognize those were poor decisions and I’ll be smarter next time. I don’t want to miss any opportunities to learn even when the outcome was desirable.

Whether it’s catching a cab, going through a yellow light, or pre-paying for a gym membership, these are the type of life decisions we make every day. They all involve risk and return and require critical thinking. By honing the skills of a poker player, you become better at them.

The key learning points from this story are:

  • Have enough money and play at stakes you can afford. When you’re short on money, not only do you have fewer choices, but the worry and stress leads to an emotional state (known as tilt) that clouds your decisions.
  • Remember that there are always options. When choices A and B look bleak, think about choices C and D.
  • Hope is a waste of energy. Don’t hope. Instead, plan, evaluate and strategize.
  • Think about what you have to gain and what you have to lose from each choice. In other words, think risk and return.
  • Evaluate your decisions based on your thought process, not on the outcomes.

It may seem like a lot of work for a simple $8 decision, but once you begin to exercise your decision-making muscles, it becomes second nature and incredibly empowering. Plus, the pay-off extends to every element of your life.

I’m most thankful today that life has dealt me a wonderful hand with so many choices to make—even if a small part of me wishes I still had that eight bucks.

Drink Your Problems Away or Think Them Away? Or Neither?

June 17, 2010

Visit ThePostGame.com to read this story.

Avoiding “Tilt” Will Keep You Out of the Poorhouse and the Jailhouse

June 8, 2010

This is what TILT looks like on a basketball court


(or) 4 Bad Decisions Put You in a Hole…1 Good One Gets You Out  

My friend Ed says we get in trouble if we make four bad decisions in a row. Unfortunately, once you make one bad one, it often puts you in a state of “tilt” where subsequent bad decisions follow. In poker, the expression tilt means you are out of control, like a pinball machine, which typically leads to decisions that make your chips disappear. Decision-making guru Annie Duke says that two critical decisions for teens, driving drunk and having sex, are made, almost by definition, when a teen is on tilt. Indeed, it’s hard to think straight about driving drunk when you are drunk or about sex in the heat of the moment.  

I learned from basketball that success is determined by what you do right after you make a mistake. For example, let’s take the ultimate titled NBA player, Rasheed Wallace. He makes a bad pass. That’s one bad decision, and it could easily be mitigated by sprinting down the court and playing great defense. Instead, Rasheed’s second decision will usually be a stupid foul. His third will be to complain to the ref, leading to a technical foul. If he then makes his fourth bad decision—continuing to complain—he’ll get a second technical and be ejected. Four bad decisions in a row and he’s out of the game.  

Our ability to make decisions is often compromised by tilt. My friend Al received a job offer in Atlanta that required him to pack up his life and move cross-country in three weeks. He didn’t get around to selling his car until one week before his move date. Because Al felt stressed about his move, he was essentially on tilt for a week. This led him to make four bad decisions:  

  1. He never found out the car’s value ($5,600). It would have taken 30 seconds online.
  2. Because of this, he priced the car incorrectly and didn’t get many offers.
  3. He didn’t include “Salvage Title” in his ads, so the calls he was getting wasted time.
  4. He didn’t have a back-up plan. He could have gone to Car Max and at least found out the price at which he could unload the car if he didn’t have other offers.

That was four bad decisions, which put him in a situation the day before he left where he agreed to sell the car for $3,000. As it was, the offer fell through and he went to Atlanta while his car stayed in L.A. Certainly he was in a deficit position, but even after he arrived in Atlanta, he had options. If he had stayed on tilt, his fifth choice could have been to ship the car to Atlanta from a company that advertised on Craig’s List. This could have been disastrous since Craig’s List had warning in big letters on its site that said, “100% of Offers to Ship Cars are Fraudulent.”   

Here’s my point: in the midst of any situation, you are only one good decision from making things better. The key is to not be on tilt when you make that next decision. To do so, it might only take a deep breath or a moment of reasoning. It might take a cup of coffee and a long walk. Or it might require you to sleep on it. When I lived in New York City in 2006, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue running my literary agency and living in the city. I couldn’t make possibly make a balanced decision while I was there, so I decided to travel and let the decision come to me.  

In Al’s case, once he got settled in Atlanta, he was no longer on tilt. That allowed him to explore all options. It’ s important to remember that even when it seems like you’re in a hole, you likely have more options than you think. Al’s options included:  

  1. Flying back to L.A. to sell the car.
  2. Donating the car to charity.
  3. Getting three bids from reputable companies to ship his car.
  4. Demanding that I do him a favor.
  5. Asking me to sell his car in the right way.

Four bad decisions had put him in a hole, but one good one could allow him to crawl out of it. He thought hard about how he should ask me to sell his car and he walked in my shoes (one of the most critical points of my book The Poker MBA). Because I had helped him so much already, he was aware enough to know he had over-extended my goodwill. Rather than demand a favor, very tentatively, he said to me, “I know you said you didn’t want to do this, and I’ll understand if you say no, but I’ve been getting a ton of calls since I lowered the price so you might be able to make some cash.”  

I went to work in a great frame of mind (the opposite of tilt) and made a series of good decisions. In less than five minutes, I found out the Blue Book Value of the Car ($5,600), changed the ad on Auto Trader to include Salvage Title and posted a new ad on Craig’s List. Three days later, I sold the car for $4,800.  

As for the decisions about driving drunk and safe sex, it’s best to make those decisions before you reach a state of tilt. Let’s pretend you know you’re going to drink, yet you still drive your car to a party. You park in a spot where you’ll be towed if you don’t leave by midnight. You get drunk. You’ve just made three bad decisions. The fourth one could lead to a series of bad outcomes—ranging from getting your car towed to getting a DUI (which could cost you $15,000 plus your license). If those were your only two options, getting your car towed doesn’t look so bad. However, because you’re on tilt, you won’t be in a state to leave the car–or make an even smarter decision, such as calling a friend or even your parents.  

What led me to write this column was watching how Al’s series of poor decisions put him in a bind. I see all the time—and this is what inspired me to start this blog—is that most of us make poor choices managing our own lives. Had Al not been on tilt in the first place, he would have spent less time trying to sell the car, made more money, and never would have needed to ask for help. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending, and it proves the point that, in the midst of any situation, you are only one good decision from making things better. To do so, find a way to get yourself out of a state of tilt and explore all your options. Even better, plan your life in such a way that you avoid tilt altogether.  


There is actually a group of friends whose purpose is to get the others on tilt so they can swindle or embarrass them. The Tilt Boys are highlighted by my friends, TV host and poker author Phil Gordon and possibilities’ accelerator Rafe Furst. They even wrote a book, Tales from the Tiltboys, about their experiences.

Who Knew Eddie Murphy was a Prophet about Clothes?

June 3, 2010

(or) Pick Your Preference: Value or Perfection

In the film 48 Hours (1982), Nick Nolte’s character says to Eddie Murphy’s character, “Class isn’t something you buy. Look at you, you have a $500 suit on and you’re still a low life.”

Murphy’s character replies, “Yeah but I look good.”

It’s the biggest night of your life. Perhaps you will be marrying your soul mate, receiving your first Academy Award, or watching your child receive the Nobel Prize. Just visualize the occasion and go with it. You’ve laboriously crunched the numbers and decided that $1,000 is the most you can spend on your dress/suit.

You try on an outfit that is beyond your wildest dreams. It’s the absolute perfect style, fit, and color, and you’ve never looked better. You couldn’t hire a tailor for ten grand and possibly look this amazing. The retail price is $1,200 but since it’s 25 percent off, it will only cost $900 (this is a fantasy so we can forget about sales tax). Just as you’re about to pay, gloating that you got the perfect outfit below your budget, your friend brings you another one.

You try it on, and it looks great. Had you not seen the other one, you would have been happy with it. Its only flaw is that it’s simply one notch below the first one. The retail price is $2,000 but since it’s 75 percent off, it will only cost $500. That’s a $1,500 savings!

To summarize, it’s the biggest night of your life. Your budget is $1,000 and your choices are:

  • $1,200 outfit for $900 that you absolutely worship.
  • $2,000 outfit for $500 that you like.

Which one would you buy?

The answer to this question will give you an idea of how much importance you put on perfect fit/getting exactly what you want versus getting a bargain/finding value.

The questions you ask will say a lot about the process by which you make decisions. From the economic such as: What else can you do with the savings (and how much did you budget for shoes or a tie)? Isn’t the retail price just an arbitrary number anyway? And, will there be an occasion to wear it again? Then there’s the spiritual: Am I losing focus on the event by focusing on my clothes? Or just as relevant: will how I look impact how I feel and act?

The weakness of this exercise is that it may reveal more about how we feel about clothes than the more important question about perfection versus value. You’ll find most people get more emotional about a house, a car, a puppy, or even a flat screen TV than clothing. That’s why it will help to modify the example and change the scenario depending on the audience. Ask your friends and family. Ask your co-workers. Especially ask couples in order to gauge the impact of gender.

When I did this exercise with a married couple, Frank and Carrie, Carrie said she’d buy the first one for $900. I asked her what she would do if it wasn’t on sale and she had to pay $1,200. She said, “If you can afford $1,000, you can find another $200.” Frank responded, a bit irked I might add, “But where are you going to get the money?” And I thought, what’s the point, as I stated of having “laboriously crunched the numbers” if you’re not going to honor your budget?

There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s an exercise to gain awareness about yourself and others. Its purpose is to make you better prepared when real life examples come up that mirror this situation–from buying a company to going on vacation to deciding where to go for dinner.

If I was buying the outfit, the choice would have been an easy one—until about a year ago. Our identity is often revealed in our answer. I’ve always viewed myself as a value buyer. I pride myself on my ability not to get emotional and make the most pragmatic choice. I’d go for the better deal and congratulate myself for getting what I wanted and being $500 under my budget.

We can talk ourselves into anything, and our inner dialogue is critical to how we view our experiences. My values have shifted, and if this happened today, I would reason with myself that the most important thing is to get what I want. I still remember, as a kid, shopping with my mom at a discount store like Syms or Marshalls when she’d find an item on clearance. “But mom,” I’d plead. “It has a stain on it.” Her eyes would light up and she’s day, “Even better! We’ll get them to knock off another five bucks.”

I’ve evolved to believe that it’s only a great value if I love it. So for this scenario, since I love the first suit and I’m still below my budget, no other “deal” is relevant. In theory, I’d have peace of mind passing up the $2,000 suit even it cost $1. I would so with the awareness that I wouldn’t be making the “pragmatic” choice and that perhaps I have swung the pendulum too far. But like Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, I could look in the mirror and say with a bold smile, “Yeah but I look good.”

Sometimes You Only Get One Chance to Kiss the Pig

May 20, 2010

(or) You Start by Scrutinizing

Do you buy a business before you look at the financials? Do you propose marriage after one date? Do you print letterhead and business cards before you launch your blog?

That last question ties directly back to my column about starting before you get bogged down in paralysis of analysis. The beauty of the Web is that we never have to go to press. But there are other situations in life that call for patience, practice and precision. My friend, Darius, who has worked in venture capital, likes to remind me that sometimes in life we only get one chance to kiss the pig. Thus, we better be damned sure we put our best foot/kiss forward when we do get that chance.

If you rush into running a marathon, you’re begging to get injured. If you’ve come up with a catchy website, you’ll probably lose the URL if you don’t register it right away. As for meeting key people, show up unprepared or without a compelling pitch and you’ll alienate them and prevent future opportunities. All those points seem to contradict the notion that you “start by starting”. Like most things in life, there’s a balance when deciding if you should dive right in or perform meticulous due diligence.

When I was running my literary agency, I set up the Stuey Ungar biography as a film with Academy Award-winning producer Graham King and Warner Bros. and had to negotiate my back-end compensation as an executive producer. My friend Ray was in the exact same position with another project. We both had to decide whether to dive in and sign our respective deals or spend the time and money to scrutinize every clause. I decided to pay $1,000 to have an attorney quickly negotiate the contract. Ray spent $25,000 on legal fees and his deal was in limbo for almost a year. Even so, he kept boasting, “If this movie makes money, I want to be at the big boys’ table on the payout, not at the little kids’ table.” Neither film ever got made.

It sounds like I’m the smart one here, but I think we both made the right decision. For one, Ray stood to earn far more than $25,000 if the film was a hit. But more important, Ray was building his production company (while I was still focusing on my agency) and establishing a quote that would determine his payout on future deals. In short, it was a long-term investment and given Ray’s situation, his decision made sense.

A Partial List of Situations to Scrutinize Before You Act

  1. A job or college application.
  2. A major financial investment.
  3. An invention or anything related to intellectual property.
  4. Marriage.
  5. Pitching an investor or meeting with a career influencer.
  6. Purchasing a non-refundable airline ticket
  7. Recording/filming your demo.

I finished the first draft of a screenplay yet I’m not showing it to agents. Does this sound like classic fear of failure? Perhaps. But for me, this decision is strategic. I know that it’s not my best work (because I did share it with friends) and showing an unpolished draft could close the door on a future meeting.

Think about situations in your life that present the question of starting or scrutinizing. If your first move is to scrutinize, decide if you’re acting smart or acting scared. If it’s the former, do your research. If it’s the latter, lean forward, pucker up and kiss that pig!