“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Whew. This quote is often used and used with such a tone and inflection that does more damage than good. What I mean is that in discussing Life with someone, particularly in reference to their Life <business or personal>, if you are not careful how you use these words it can either:
<a> come across as condescending,
<b> come across as blatant ignorance as to someone’s situation, i.e., it is often used toward people in low income, low education geography as ‘inspirational words of wisdom, or even
<c> come across as flippant tripe.
I imagine it is a Life truth that pretty much anyone can play a good hand <or at minimum be less likely to screw it up>. Pretty much no one ever <or rarely> gets dealt a perfect hand. Almost everyone gets dealt some bad cards and some people just get dealt shitty hand after shitty hand.
But just because you are in a situation you don’t want to be in, well, in Life you really can’t fold. You need to work with what you have. Sometimes you, if you are really good, you can take a poor hand and play it out much better than someone with a much better hand. You are just more clever or smart or thoughtful & industrious.
Rather than discussing Life in general I want to use this quote to talk about business. Because, frankly, business is very rarely a matter of holding good cards, but rather of playing a poor hand well. If you are worth even half a shit in business you can play a good hand <and, in fact, you learn to not waste a good hand>, but if you are worth even half a shit in business you also know you very <very> rarely get a good hand.
Pretty much every hand you get dealt is flawed in some way and, in fact, often it is a poor hand.
Almost every successful person I know has been dealt some bad cards in their business lifetime. Sometimes some really bad cards. Cards you simply want to toss off to the side in disgust. But you don’t toss them. You keep them in your hand and think about what the fuck you can do with them. These people figure out how to take those cards and use them to put together a victory. They don’t give up when others thought their hand was unwinnable. They found ways to use those cards for the benefit and growth of the business.
They owned the hand and figured out how to win. By the way, that is business in a nutshell.
We all go through things in our business life that we don’t always like.
Things that we have no control over.
Things that others have in place that we have to deal with <and can’t change>.
Things that put us in a place and position we can’t change.
All that said.
You can’t fold.
We have to play the hand that we were dealt. You have to choose progress over waiting for ‘the perfect hand’ <which – sorry to say – does not exist> or even waiting around for a better hand to be dealt.
I am writing this because while I have found many business people use great cards to increase the chance to win the hand I have also seen that it doesn’t really guarantee them a victory.
In fact <part 1>, more often than not, having a less than desirable hand doesn’t mean you automatically lose. There are other factors that go into winning <or finding some success>.
In fact <part 2>, I would suggest that more often than not, a less than desirable hand wins.
The best business people know you don’t get to trade cards with anyone else or pay extra to upgrade your hand.
Each of us is dealt a hand when we come into work every day. It is important to remember most of the circumstances around you are out of your control … you don’t decide what circumstances you walk into and it does no good to complain about them or expect that they will determine your success.
<1> Many people think that a great hand, good circumstances, will guarantee their success <and increase the likelihood of happiness>.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
<2> Others will use their less than desirable circumstances as a crutch for why they don’t succeed. They take a look at the hand they were dealt and fold immediately.
They are foolish.
The hand you were dealt cannot be changed but the way you play it can.
Or the best of the worst choices.
Or making the worst best.
You are simply doing what you think it right. And you know what?
In retrospect, if you line up all the choices you made, it will be difficult to see how some of the choices in the left hand column are right … if some of the ones in the right hand column are right. Why? Because you played the cards you had <which were imperfect in the first place>.
But you don’t get to do it over. Part of growing up in business is simply learning to live with regrets and choices made. In an odd way business is a little different than Life in this whole ‘play the cards you have been dealt’ thing.
You will actually find that business is made up of mostly bad choices. Or maybe better said … making the best of the less than best choices. All you really try and do is to keep your balance between them.
In addition … you will actually find that in business, versus Life, is every hand … even if it is bad … even really bad … still has the potential to be a winning hand. And because it is business … as we view the hands we are dealt … I imagine we seek some learning from the past. In other words … you will want to look at some past hands and examine how others have played them.
<note 1: often we do this to some absurd levels>
<note 2: this is sometimes called “procrastination” or “avoiding making the decision”>
Don’t waste your time.
Fundamental business human behavior doesn’t change over time. You can explore the functional and/or ethical choices <because people inevitably do get affected by how you play your hand> made by others in the past … and we often want to super-examine those made in the most extreme circumstances … but I cannot envision they were any more or less capable to deal with the situations than we are. You can go backwards and judge their decisions and you can be criticize … or applaud … their decisions.
But inevitably the questions lurking behind all that you examine is … what if it had been you? What would you have done in their shoes in that moment?
That’s it. Not their learning, but rather what you would do with those cards in that circumstance. And you know what? I do not need to go backwards in time to figure out what I would do now. Frankly, I will not be any more comfortable knowing that I am doing something that someone else did in the past or something different than someone else did in the past, I have to seek comfort in my decision and my choice.
In the end.
In business … in life … you play the cards you are dealt the best you can. No excuses.You just play ‘em.
And you know what? You will get deal another hand and you play that one the best you can. And maybe that is what this quote tries to tell us.
The last hand doesn’t affect the current cards you hold in hand. And it shouldn’t affect the way you play the next hand. And you certainly don’t get judged by how you played the last hand in the cards you are dealt. People may look at you differently but the cards make no judgment.
They simply get dealt. And you play ‘em.
In the end.
As stated earlier .. in business you are more likely than not simply making the best of bad, or less than optimal, choices … therefore … business is pretty much all about playing poor hands well.
Originally posted in 2012