Understanding the impact of variance in life

The man who said I would rather be lucky than good, saw deeply into life. Woody Allen, Match Point.

There is always going to be a factor in your life, affecting your success, that you won’t be able to control.

First things first. Most of the time when you will fail to achieve a goal is simply your fault. Badly chosen strategy, lack of experience, not enough effort, etc… Don’t use this article as an excuse. For rest of the cases where you failed even thought you did everything as best as you could and you were 100% sure it’s going to work out, it could be simply the variance effect playing with your life.

The following paragraphs will be heavily inspired by poker terminology and I will borrow several quotes from a great book on this topic called: “The Mental Game of Poker”.

I was 19 when facing a decision which career path to go. I was deciding between playing professionally online poker or becoming a software developer.

I loved playing poker and I earned quite a lot of euros in that time but there was one thing I was really, really bad at… and still am. Mentally handling variance and swings. As you may know, online poker became widely popular due to the opportunity it offers to amateurs players. Win a lot of money even against professionals in a short term. At the end, I decided to fully focus on my skills of writing software as it was always my dream with the benefit of having a stable monthly income.

Let’s start with a horribly technical definition of variance:

In probability theory and statistics, the variance is the expectation of the squared deviation of a random variable from its mean, and it informally measures how far a set of (random) numbers are spread out from their mean. The variance has a central role in statistics.

Or a way more understandable my definition:

Variance is the downswings and upswings caused by a third party over which you don’t have the control.

And as to poker, the same rules apply to various aspects of life. In order to don’t go too much into poker environment, I am going to demonstrate this principle on a topic that many young people, especially guys but girls as well, will find waaay too familiar.

You walk into a bar to have fun, socialise, meet some new people, maybe even with a bit of “luck” to find the guy/girl of your dreams. Let’s say it’s not your first time and you have already some Friday night’s behind you. You are socially calibrated, fun to be around not seeking anything, able and willing to provide a great experience for BOTH you and the girl/guy. You notice the future mother/father of your kids, you collect all the courage you are able in that moment and you approach him/her.

What will be the result?

Well, you may end up having a great conversation for hours, she/he may directly ignore you or you just chit chat to nowhere and your paths split. Let’s scale the example a bit. You approach several girls/guys over several nights with the same attitude and you realise that even though most of your approaches are very similar you get very different results in each scenario.

What changed? How is possible that by doing the same thing for 4 nights, the first 2 nights all the girls/guys ignored you, in the 3rd week everyone you talk to falls in love with you and the next Friday, during 4th night, nothing works out again?

It’s quite simple. As in poker, sometimes you are unstoppable, winning for months in a row when a downswing comes and you are not able to win a single tournament for next 6 months. Just ask some professional full-time players.

For illustration, this is a June’s graph of one of the best online poker players and notice his crazy ups and downs. Imagine he would give up when he was -15,000€…

Sure, real life is more complicated and I removed a lot of variables from the equation as no girl is the same, you are never at any point in your life exactly the same as before, the natural chemistry but there is a reason why we can remove all of those.

Did ever happened to you that you came to your boss desk to ask a question and he looked at you like you would dismiss his concentration for next few hours and he screams you out of there? Probably yes. Unfortunately for you, the next day you have to come to ask another question but surprisingly he welcomes you with a smile more than willing to help!

Did you do something differently? Not really. Was it the same boss? Yes. There is always going to be a factor in your life, affecting your success, that you won’t be able to control. This can be frustrating, demotivating, depressing and other D-words I can tell you but don’t hang yourself just yet! There are ways to get around this!

The objective should be to accept that variance and luck are always going to be involved in our lives and the only thing left is to keep a calm mind, expect it and do our best every single time while enjoying the process. The results will come.

I will finish this article by listing some of my favorite passages from the book in order to give you a different perspective on how to think about variance and luck.

Ultimately, this forced me to operate in a much more logical way. So much of what we poker players deal with is illogical, and my struggles with variance were a big example of it. Jared once asked me, ‘When you look at a weather forecast and it says it’s going to rain, do you get mad when you go out and it’s raining? So why do you continually get angry when you know variance is going to happen?’ I absolutely hate when I’m being illogical, and as soon as he reminded me that I was, I could instantly tell I was going to handle variance better.
EMOTION IS NOT THE PROBLEM. It’s the key to mastering your game. The fundamental difference between the common approaches to poker psychology and this book comes down to how emotion is viewed. When emotion is viewed as the cause of problems at the poker table, it makes perfect sense why conventional wisdom would urge you to become robotic, trick your mind, or become desensitised to emotion. In essence, traditional tactics are suggesting that anger, fear, and overconfidence are inherently bad, so you must get rid of them. Of course, your end goal is to get these negative emotions out of your game, but they are the symptom — not the true cause of why you play poorly. Finding the cause of your emotional problems requires digging a little deeper, and when you do, the role of emotion completely changes. Emotion, once seen as the problem, now serves a valuable purpose: highlighting flaws in how you are mentally approaching the game. In essence, emotion is a messenger telling you exactly what to work on in your mental game. (If you have no idea what the messenger is saying, you try to kill it.)
When the emotional system becomes overactive, it shuts down higher brain functions.

What’s the advantage of giving up?

… sorry to break it up for you but… none. It’s just an easy way out and every single person is able to take it and complain how the life is against them, how unlucky they are and why they couldn’t go to gym because it was one degree colder/hotter outside than they expected.

What’s the advantage of NOT giving up?

… unimaginable mental and personal growth followed by the possibility to enjoy the sweetest fruits of all of your desired goals.

Therefore, I would love to encourage you, focus on the process (assuming it’s the right process, otherwise change it and then trust the process).

Keep learning, trying, experimenting, working out, pushing through and sooner or later the “luck”, variance, will be on your side. But only if you push through!

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