Today’s episode is an exciting conversation with Chris Sparks, a retired professional poker player although I think he uses the term retired fairly loosely. I’ll settle somewhere in the middle and call him a well-paid hobbyist.
Chris has played over 2 million hands of poker across thousands of tournaments including main events tournaments like World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and the European, Asian-Pacific, and Latin American Poker Tour.
During his hay days, he had a fast and furious climb that eventually led him to being ranked in the top 20 online cash game players in the world.
In our conversation, Chris shares stories about his growth as a poker player. He’ll also teach us the meta-skills of high stakes poker that can be extrapolated and applied to our own life.
By listening to this episode, you’ll learn how to recognize a good bet, how to take action with incomplete information, and the benefits of focusing on the process versus being results-oriented.
If you’re a listener of the show and haven’t left us a rating and review, we’d really appreciate it if you did. And if you’re new, welcome, sit back, relax, and let’s learn something new.
I hope you enjoy my conversation with the man who started playing poker in college for fun but eventually used it to pay for his tuition…Chris Sparks.
Expected Value Calculator: www.forcingfunction.com/evc
Play to Win Article: https://www.forcingfunction.com/articles/play-to-win
Experiment Without Limits Workbook: https://www.forcingfunction.com/workbook
Performance Assessment: https://www.forcingfunction.com/assessment
Team Performance Training: https://www.forcingfunction.com/team-training
More of Chris:
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Note: transcript slightly edited for clarity.
Justin (00:03): Welcome to The Struggle Is Real, a show for twenty-somethings that are trying to figure out adulting. I'm your host, Justin Peters. Each episode we focus on solving a problem that we will face throughout this defining decade that wasn't covered in the classroom. This could include topics about our career, health, relationships, and money. Let's get into it.
Today's episode is an exciting conversation with Chris Sparks, a retired professional poker player (although he uses the term 'retired' fairly loosely). I'll settle somewhere in the middle and call him a well-paid hobbyist. Chris has played over two million hands of poker across thousands of tournaments, including main event tournaments like the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour, and the European, Asian Pacific, and Latin American Poker Tour. During his heydays, he had a fast and furious climb that eventually led to him being ranked in the top twenty online cash game players in the world. In our conversation, Chris shares stories about his growth as a professional poker player. He'll also teach us the meta-skills of high-stakes poker that can be extrapolated and applied to our own life. By listening to this episode, you'll learn how to recognize a good bet, how to take action with incomplete information, and the benefits of focusing on the process versus being results-oriented.
If you're a listener of the show and you haven't left a rating/review, I'd really appreciate it if you did. And if you're new, welcome. Sit back, relax, and let's learn something new. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with the man who started playing poker in college for fun, but eventually used it to pay for his tuition, Chris Sparks.
Why don't we start with your Comedy Cellar performance in 2017? First, how did you find yourself there, and is it true, did you play with Kevin Hart?
Chris (01:42): Yes. That is very true. I like to set strange challenges for myself. A lot of these challenges have the form of a bucket list, where, "Hey, this is something that I'd like to do at some point, so might as well do it now." So I found on my list that I would like to perform a standup comedy routine on stage. I was living in New York at the time, and it felt like a good time to pursue it. And Comedy Cellar offers a class where you work with a very successful comedian, someone who's been in the game for decades, who works with you to create a standup routine. Seven minutes on stage might not feel very long in the days of Netflix specials, but it is an eternity when they're on stage. I think I probably ended with maybe seven to ten jokes, but I threw out hundreds along the way that just did not make the cut. And the rule of thumb is that every two lines is a laugh. So that's how really precise you have to be with every word choice. So I learned a ton about the experience.
I like to talk about this in terms of skill development and deliberate practice, because I came in knowing nothing about comedy. And I don't know if the results show at all. I felt like afterwards I had a better understanding of what makes people laugh and what people find humorous. And, yeah, one of the jokes that I had in there was about playing in private poker games with Kevin Hart, and some of the fun of seeing a person offstage and the difficulty that they have with separating their onstage personality and who they are in real life and exploring some of the funny implications of that, where Kevin Hart forgot when he was playing and when he was actually the person Kevin Hart.
Justin (03:47): That sounds like such an experience. I feel like I would be super nervous to go up on stage there. How were the nerves before you actually performed?
Chris (03:58): Really high. The key to everything, I find, especially in these big performance moments where you're putting yourself on the proverbial stage—so this could be a presentation, this could be in a competitive context like sports—is that you do the level of preparation that gives you this sense of, "I have done everything I can to make the most of this moment. Let the chips fall where they may." So to say. And so having rehearsed this routine so many times that I could recite it backwards and forwards, but still having a note card there just for the peace of mind, hey, if I completely deer-in-headlights up there, that I have something that I can reference to get back on track.
It helps that I stacked the audience with the help of my wonderful girlfriend, now wife, who had a lot of friendly faces in the crowd who I could count on for a laugh even if the joke didn't quite land. And then just little things, like having very specific areas of focus.
So, I find if you want to bring more of yourself to a situation, if you want to be more present, it helps to zoom in. For example, when I'm at the poker table playing live poker, you're sitting there for hours, and the pace can be glacial. It can be very boring. So it's easy for your mind to start to wander, you have ESPN in the background, you start watching a game that you don't really care about, and I try to bring myself back into the room by having a single point of focus. For example, one that I like is just to watch people's hands. When you're playing poker, hands reveal a lot. They're handling chips, they're handling cards, you have nervous tics like touching your face or your arms. People are always giving a lot of information away with their hands, but more importantly, just having something specific to bring my attention back to.
So, when I'm on the stage, I bring my attention back to my breath. Am I talking at the right pace? And using breath as an anchor to that. Or there were really specific beats on the joke, points of emphasis, words that I wanted to make sure really came across. So focusing specifically on those words, rather than trying to think about, "Okay, what's the next line? Where is this going?" I found that that type of stuff helps me to maintain my focus and to maintain my presence when I'm in a situation that, you know, under the surface, I'm a little bit shaky.
Justin (06:36): Well, once again, I applaud you for doing that. Improv is actually on my bucket list of things I'd like to do but still don't necessarily have the nerves to go up there and do it quite yet. But it will be something that I tackle.
Like, Chris, I'm excited to have you on the podcast. We're gonna blend two of your lives in the conversation. Your life as a former top-twenty poker player, and then of course your life as a performance coach now. But I guess to start with, the word "retired" seems fairly loose in your terms. I think you use it as just a frame of reference of how you're approaching the game currently. How often do you play nowadays?
Chris (07:10): Yeah. I have retired from poker—and when I was a naïve twenty-two year old, retiring from life as well—multiple times. And I think of retirement as doing something for fun, because I enjoy it, rather than doing it as a full-time source of income or a full-time source of focus and mission. And for me, as I have the benefit of having other interests and things to occupy my time, poker takes the backseat sometimes. I go on a sabbatical once a year, usually during the summer. Poker tends to be slower in the times that people want to be doing things outside, as you might imagine, so it's a good time to take a break, focus more on my consulting practice, do some traveling, really double down on health and relationships.
On the other side, I tend to be a little bit all or nothing. When I am really into poker or the games are very lucrative, it can become quite the obsession. So, I've had periods in my life, you know, notably during my poker peak when I was in my early twenties, where my entire life revolved around the game, where all of my friends were poker friends, all of my dreams were poker dreams. That really allowed me to put in the time and effort necessary to make it to the top, but it certainly came at the expense of the other areas of my life. So occasionally I like to rebalance, to put things like poker down for a while to see to what extent I want to pick them back up. I like to use an investment analogy here, is when you have your investments, it's very easy to start from this status quo of, "Should I have a little bit more of this thing I have already? Should I have a little bit less of this thing?" versus imagining that you're selling everything and saying, "All right, I have this big pile of money in front of me, what do I want to buy with it?"
And you can apply this analogy to the way that you're spending your time, your interests, or think about a career as a portfolio, the various ways that you want to make impact or support yourself financially, is, "All right, if I had all the time in the world, how would I want to invest it?" Rather than approaching it as, "Do I want a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that?"
That's the strength that I find of the occasional retirement model, is that it allows you to step outside of what you were doing before and evaluate with a fresh slate. "All right, given I can do anything, what would I like to do?"
Justin (09:51): Hmm. And it sounds like, once again, you kind of occasionally get brought back in whenever big games come up. I know it was early this year or late last year. It seemed like an invite-only Bitcoin game caught your attention, and you ended up finding yourself on a table that you were hoping to win, but of course, a bad beat story came out of that. But let's not revisit that story.
To summarize some of your launching points into poker itself, it seemed like one of your first predominant card games was Gin, and then some friends that you played with turned you on to poker late high school/early college, and then through college, you were somewhat of an, I don't know, casual, amateur player. Even though I use those terms pretty lightly, because I've heard you mention multiple times that you paid your college tuition through poker. So congrats to you. I think that's a skillset dubbed as a loan, or a scholarship. So you did something right there. But things really got going with two seemingly-unlucky actually turned-lucky situations. One being your job with Ford, and then the second being the accidental misclick with the Latin America Poker Tour. Can you bridge the gap between amateur and professional poker players using those two milestones for me?
Chris (10:59): Wonderful encapsulation, Justin. If I ever have a memoir, I'm gonna hire you to tell the story. That was very well put. So, yeah. I was a gamer growing up. I got into cards via the game Gin, which was a two-player form of Rummy. I was one of the best players in the world around the age of like fourteen to sixteen. I obviously wasn't making any money from it, I was just doing it for fun, and a few of my Gin friends mentioned that they were playing poker. Poker had just started online at this point. This was in 2002 to 2004. You had it showing on ESPN with Hole Cards, and there began this boom that brought in particular a lot of young, college-age males into the game. So when I was in university at Ohio State, that's what we did for fun. Not only if you were into poker, it was if you were into hanging out with other people, you played poker. So I had a little bit of an early advantage from my gained experience coming in, and realized that I had a knack for the game.
But the strategy all along the way was to make television commercials. That was my goal, as I was obsessed with marketing, and particularly marketing and psychology, with consumer behavior. How can we influence people to make decisions through story—a narrative that continues to weave through my work in poker, and now in performance coaching. And I played poker maybe ten to twenty hours a week, essentially on weekends or when I would forgo sleep and, you know, sleep in class instead. Not recommended, but found a way to make it work and make it through. And I had the, like as you put it, at the time very unfortunate occurrence. I graduated in 2008. A difficult time to be a college graduate, and particularly joining Ford Motor Company. I had a, let's say, a reality show that I participated in my senior year that put me on the radar of Team Detroit, which leads Ford's advertising, and through that received an offer to not only work in advertising on television commercials, but for the largest advertiser on television in the world. Ford Motor Company. And selling cars at the time felt like it would be really cool.
But Ford goes on a mandated hiring leave the week before that I'm supposed to start working full-time, so I found myself sitting in Detroit. I knew a handful of people, all of whom were people I got introduced to who were starting at Ford in the same cohort as me, and all of this free time was in my hands. You know, after a little bit of necessary wallowing, realizing, "Oh, I can do whatever I want. Well, I never had enough time to play as much poker as I wanted during college, because I was President of student organizations, taking all these classes, and hanging out with friends. Well, I don't have any of these constraints anymore. What if I treat playing poker as my profession until I get the green light from Ford to, you know, move on to the real world?"
And it was at this point I finally started treating it, "Well, I want to be one of the best. What does that entail?" I had never been inside of a gym in my life. It's like, "Well, it seems like working out—If I want to be a cognitive athlete, I should be more of a physical athlete. So, you know, let's try lifting weights. And well, maybe drinking water occasionally instead of just soda as my sole source of liquid, or you know, eating a salad instead of eating a pizza for every meal." All of these instrumental choices. "Well, I want to be good, I want to be able to, you know, have more energy and more focus. What do I need to do there?" And then moving from dedicating about ten or twenty hours to the game to playing forty hours and studying forty hours. Like continuing trying to hone my game, where fast forward about a year later I moved in with some friends in Los Angeles into a poker house where we really sharpened each other, continually found ways to make each other better on and off the poker table, and eighteen months after that, I was ranked in the top twenty in the world.
It really moved very quickly, but in the beginning just recognizing, "Oh, this is an opportunity. Yes, my dream has been derailed, but there are many ways to make a living and I really seem to have a knack for this and I really enjoy it." You mentioned this other unfortunate occurrence that I like to mention, one of my favorite stories. I was playing online poker at the time, and they had what's called satellite tournaments, where if you put in a small buy-in you could either win a smaller amount or sometimes an all-expenses paid trip to play a tournament in an exotic location. And I wasn't playing a lot of satellite tournaments at this time, I was trying to enter a different tournament, but I misclicked, and I entered into a tournament where the first prize was a trip to Brazil to play in the Latin American Poker Tour, and included hotel and airfare.
Well, once I had entered, I needed to play it. So I ended up winning, and I traveled down to Brazil. This was right after I had graduated. And I remember that moment of arriving in the hotel. You have the waves of Copacabana crashing in the background. It just felt like paradise. Like, "Where am I right now?" And there were all of these young guys just like me who were hunched over their laptops in the hotel lobby. And my first reaction was, "What are all these guys doing?" Like, they're in paradise. If there's ever been a time to go outside, this is it. But then, I started to realize. "Oh, this is their normal life." That just being in paradise at this five-star hotel is just another day at the office for them. And, well, I could do that too. And why don't I do that?
So that was a real big shift for me, and that's something that I've seen over the years as really beneficial. When you think about, you know, mentors, not necessarily those who are older with gray hair showing us the way, but just being open to possibilities that we never would have considered.
Those two occurrences, I would say more than any other, the opportunity with Ford falling through due to the economy, and confronting my contemporaries who were living a very different lifestyle than I would have conceived, definitely sent my life in a right angle to where it was going before.
Justin (17:29): Yeah. To put a bow on both of those, it seemed like—Well, Ford came back maybe, I don't know, six months later or something and they're like, "Okay, the hiring freeze is up now." But at that point in time, you were making more on a monthly basis than you were gonna make on your annual salary at Ford. So it seemed like an obvious choice to push that decision later down the road—
Chris (17:45): Fiscally irresponsible. Yeah.
Justin (17:48): And then your Latin America Poker Tour, that also put you in the phase of the fact that, "Okay, not only can I pay for life using poker, but I can also become a professional poker player."
Chris (18:00): Exactly.
Justin (18:01): Which up until that point in time—I don't know—It didn't seem like you really met that many people that would claim that title or carry that title.
Chris (18:08): No. This was a first for me. I always thought of poker as this well-paying hobby, and something that, hey, I'm just doing to pass the time until the real world comes along. And then talking to these other professional poker players, again, who talked about the game like I did, looked like I did, acted like I did, just with this one difference, they said, "Well, why don't you do this? You can make money from it, you can do whatever you want, you enjoy it." And it forced me to, "Well, why don't I do this?" But I had never really asked myself the question before, because I had never had those examples.
And you know, I get asked, "What makes someone a professional poker player?" It's essentially you just confronted with the reality of, "Wow, you should be doing more of this. Why don't you do more of this?"
Justin (18:58): Yeah.
Chris (18:59): There's not a difference in that professionals are so much better than amateurs, it's just that this would be a good place to spend your time, why don't you do that?
Justin (19:07): That makes sense. And you mentioned moving into the LA home, that LA—Was this the LA mansion? I saw that video, that five- or six-minute video—
Chris (19:15): Oh, so embarrassing. Yeah.
Justin (19:16): That Young Guns reality show.
Chris (19:17): Yeah. Yeah.
Justin (19:18): Was that the LA situation, and did that video give an accurate depiction of your time at the poker house?
Chris (19:26): Yes, exactly.
Justin (19:27): Oh, man.
Chris (19:28): So, there were five of us living in this beautiful mansion in the Hollywood Hills, living that sort of Hollywood lifestyle that is the postcard version of success if you're, you know, a twenty-one-year-old guy who grew up in the Midwest and envisions, "Hey, this is what you do if you're rich and famous" type thing. So, we had a blast. You know, we had pool parties, we would go out to the clubs all the time, do all the LA, wearing-your-sunglasses type stuff. And yeah, we had the opportunity to shoot a pilot for a reality show that, again, good luck, bad luck, who knows, didn't end up getting picked up, because of the events of Black Friday, which we may go into later. But the perspective that we went into it with, was like, "Hey, do we really wanna do a reality show? Is that what we want to get into?" The producer, his last credit was a show on small people. The title was something like, "Midget Wrestling."
Justin (20:29): Oh, god.
Chris (20:30): Not a term that I would use, but just to give you an idea of the type of programming that he specialized in.
Justin (20:33): That's terrible.
Chris (20:34): But we decided that we just need some form of artifact or archive of what this time in our lives is like, because if we tell people they might not believe us, and we might forget in the rearview. So it's really nice to have this kind of encapsulation of what life was like. And, yeah. We were so young, naïve, but you know, really aligned in, "Hey, we have an amazing opportunity here. Let's make the most of it."
Justin (21:08): How did you balance the distractions of living in that house? 'Cause it seemed like one person was maybe like a nightlife promoter and briefly brought in some late-night distractions—
Chris (21:18): Yeah.
Justin (21:19): But then at the same time, it's not like it was all bad for you either, because as you mentioned, you were surrounded by people that were making you better poker players. You would, you know, wanna get offline at a certain hour and then you would look around and see your other roommates are still playing and still invested in the game, and so you would continue to forge through that as well. So it seemed like there was a bit of a dichotomy between the house bringing some good and the house bringing some bad. How did you reconcile that in your own brain?
Chris (21:46): Yes. I think a lot about distractions, and when you look at it on a purely financial basis, it didn't make sense to do anything other than to tape ourselves to our chairs and keep playing poker, with how well we were doing, to the point that you could think of this to the extremes, is, "Well, it would never make sense to cook, so we should have every single meal delivered and served to us, and well if we need a haircut we should just have a barber come to our house and cut our hair while we play poker." You could take this to the extremes of if we were doing anything other than, you know, eating, sleeping, or playing poker, it was a distraction in terms of opportunity cost.
But you start to recognize that if you become too unbalanced, if you are too optimized to do only one thing, it creates the conditions for fragility. So particularly with poker, it's very up and down. So something that I think a lot of people don't realize is that your advantage on any particular day is very small. All of the winnings that you make come from, essentially, compound interest. That small advantage accumulates over time. But on any particular day, I was about fifty-two percent to win. So, essentially flipping a coin. And given the stakes we were playing, you could have very large losses. Right? Just like you could have very large wins. And if I was completely dialed into poker, it would create conditions that I could go on a bad run and potentially burn out and stop completely, or worse start to have emotional reactions and play badly. And this was exactly the scenario that I encountered when I was living in Detroit.
So I'm very happy to talk about this type of stuff, because I just completely went all-in on poker, and a lot of other areas of my life suffered. I lost touch with my friends, I didn't have any other outside hobbies, and it was very difficult to maintain things like my health. So what that led to was essentially feeling pretty unhappy and unfulfilled, and having periods where all I'm doing is playing poker, but I wasn't actually playing poker at all, I was doing other things to distract myself from things not going well.
So I actually found that when I was in LA, these distractions actually gave me a sense of balance and something else to tether my identity to for all those inevitable times when poker wasn't going well.
It's also, you know, your environment is such a massive influence on your performance, on your state of mind. And maybe, again, this is a justification, but in my mind being in a place that inspired me with people who inspired me, I think allowed me to perform better, and just gave me a reminder of why I'm doing this. Because when you're playing online poker, it's just a number on the screen. It's totally abstract. But actually seeing the tangible outcomes, that, "Hey, this work that I'm putting in is leading towards a life I want," it created a positive feedback loop.
Justin (25:05): Hmm. It's almost essentially a forcing function. You know, that's what your performance company is named after, but being in that environment is, you know, a bit of a stretch, but quite a forcing function in itself as well, because that environment is kind of stipulating or helping you know, maintain your goal of you know, becoming a better poker player.
Chris (25:24): Yeah. I'd love to touch on one of my favorite concepts, obviously, which is the concept of the forcing function, given that we named our company after it. So, I think of a forcing function as something that changes your default behavior in the future. And in that way, it's a catalyst. So one of the forcing functions is being in a house surrounded by four other really good players who are taking the game extremely seriously.
So when I moved in, I started with where I was before, which was, "Okay, I'll play for a couple hours, and I'll study if I feel like it, and if I'm, you know, tired or the games are quiet, I'll just, you know, watch an entire series, or play some Halo and hang out." And seeing, "Oh, these guys are working way harder than me, and when the games aren't good, they use that time to study." It just created this natural default to, "Well, I'm going to work harder, because everyone around me is working harder." And not in the sense of hustling, like, "Oh, you need to be hustling more, working harder." But given the massive opportunity in front of us, which wasn't going to last forever, it really paid off to have this forcing function of putting more time, energy, and attention into the game. And that just became very natural, because I looked around, and all of my people around me and my entire environment was geared towards this.
Justin (26:56): Can you extrapolate the concept of forcing function to another goal that you're currently working on as well? I think it makes sense to me, but it might make sense to bring it out of the poker context right there and give a different example.
Chris (27:09): Absolutely. So think of it as any commitment that you make that can raise the stakes for yourself or make it more likely that you do something. So one form is a precommitment. So instead of, "Hey, I want to work on public speaking," for example, you sign up for a class on public speaking and put some sort of financial stake on it. Or you have friends who are taking the class with you where you have a form of accountability. It could be having a trainer at the gym. Or another thing I think about is creating some form of intermediate deadline. So say you have to give a big presentation at work in four weeks. Well, the natural thing is to treat a presentation like we would a test in college or a paper in college, and we wait until the last minute, and you see all of the effort comes in the last ten percent before this deadline. What you can do is create an intermediate deadline with some stakes. So something like giving a presentation, you have a couple people who you respect and you ask them, "Hey, can I give you the presentation earlier on and you give me feedback on what's good, what's not so good?"
Justin (28:25): Makes sense.
Chris (28:26): And that way you have to have something to present them to. This concept of no one likes to show up empty-handed. Right? Just the prospect of being embarrassed, you'll front-load some of this preparation, but also you'll have the benefit of after you get to the presentation you're like, "Oh, I know this part is great, I don't have to worry about that anymore. This part they didn't quite get. I need to think about either taking this out of the presentation completely, or how can I flesh this out a little bit more?" So it's taking what normally would be a hundred percent of the grade as the final exam, creating these intermediate quizzes.
So this is just a really powerful concept for me, because it allows me to think about my life at the meta-level, of what I want to want. If I want to do something, I know that I can create the conditions that make doing that more likely in the future. Right? So say I want to save money. Well, I start subscribing to financial literacy newsletters and I start tracking my income and expenses. Doing these little things automatically shifts all of the decisions that I make in the future. Right? It's this one-time decision that shapes all future decisions. So I'm always thinking about this. If I want to do something, how do I make it more likely that I do it in the future? How do I streamline it?
In the same way, think about all of the alternatives, all of the distractions to doing that thing. How do I add friction, how do I make it less likely that I do those?
Justin (29:58): Let's continue to go down that path. I think we're gonna open up this conversation to decision-making in general and talk a little bit more about performance in the second half of this, but clearly, we're gonna weave in a whole lot of poker here as well, because that left a huge impact on you, and there's so many lessons learned through the game of poker that can actually be translated out into real life. You know, you played one time I heard you mention two million plus poker hands over your life, so you've really dialed in decision-making, because poker is an amazing training ground for actually making decisions. So let's start with just more of a generic question here. How do we make decisions with incomplete information, or how are we making decisions better with the incomplete information at our hands?
Chris (30:37): That's life. It would be—things would be very different if we had all of the information. But we can frame this differently, if this is an opportunity. If we can become someone who's comfortable with uncertainty and adapts quickly as the world changes, as we receive more information, we can have a relative advantage. Not in the competitive sense, but we can be more likely to get the things that we want out of life.
So first I think it is just recognizing that we will never have all of the information that we need to make a perfect decision, but we need to move forward anyway. This is something that I constantly try to reinforce and reward in myself, is to just take action. A phrase that I like is, "It's much easier to steer a moving ship." As you are doing things, you receive feedback on what's working and what's not working. So what a lot of people think of as one big decision, I try to decompose into smaller decisions, or as I like to think of them, as bets. If you think about a bet versus a decision, well, a decision has these, like, stakes. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I blow it? And that can cause us to delay and sit on the sidelines. So we think about, "All right, how do we take this big decision and break it into small bets where I try something and based on the feedback that I get I can change my approach, or if I'm getting good feedback, it allows me to move faster, to double down on this bet."
So that's the way that I essentially look at the world, is I predict, "If I do this, what will happen?" And then I take action, and see, "Hey, are the signals that I am receiving confirming my expectations, or are they telling me that, hey, I'm missing something, I need to take a step back?" So that's really the first step, is to just make more bets, but have those bets be really small, and approach those things as an iterative process.
Justin (32:41): I love that about you. I write down some of my favorite learning lessons from all of my guests as I'm researching them, and one that I wrote for you that I can see right here is this quote that you say, "Knowledge is only used as a force multiplier."
Chris (32:53): Yes.
Justin (32:54): "It is knowledge times action that equals results." So regardless of how much knowledge that you have, if you're multiplying that by zero action, you're always gonna get zero results. So it's a combination of the two that are really going to give you some kind of actual results that you're hoping for.
And I love that you're obsessed with this concept of experimentation, and you reward yourself for experimenting as well. This has definitely been a shift that I've had to make over the last couple years as well, where I just—Almost the permanency and perfection aspect of decision-making led to a lot of inaction and you just learned over time that regardless of how much you feel like you can make some kind of perfect decision it just never turns out that way, because of all the incomplete information. Once again, like you, I found that, you know, no decision is permanent, and you know, even something as substantial as where you move you can always change. We talked about your decision to move to New York, and you ran a small experiment to start that before you actually moved to New York.
Chris (32:54): So many places we could go with this. I think the main thing that I would say here is that the cost of failure is always way lower than we like to think it is. And this, it usually can be useful to write out, "Hey, what's the worst-case scenario?" And just seeing, "Hey, is this catastrophic or just merely bad?" And think, is there a way to de-risk this decision, to find a way to move forward? 'Cause there's usually some form of fear of failure that's causing us not to take action, and particularly early in your career, you are rewarded for taking more shots on goal, because each individual shot costs you essentially nothing, so shoot your shot.
There's a classic study that I love, and I think it's illustrative. They had a ceramics class. And the goal of the class was to make the best pot that you can. Right? A vessel. Like, a vase that would hold flowers. And there were two different options. One, you can spend the entire semester perfecting your pot. And the second group was, "Make as many pots as you can." And inevitably the best pot was the group that made as many pots as they could, and then picked the one that they thought was the best. Because of the power of iteration, you learn so much more through experience rather than just reading and learning and spectating. So finding any way that we can to get into the arena.
So you mentioned one decision that I had, which was I wanted to move somewhere that would most accelerate me in what I wanted to do. I was in a poker retirement phase, I'd just finished some travel, and was pretty uncertain with where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. And I created this spreadsheet which now exists as a free exercise that I offer everyone called the "Expected Value Calculator." So you can find this at forcingfunction.com/evc. The power of this exercise was I could list out, "Hey, here are the five things that were important to me in where I wanted to live." So in this case I wanted to be around ambitious people, I wanted somewhere that was walkable, I wanted there to be a startup scene because I was really interested in entrepreneurship, et cetera. And then I could list out the cities that I was interested in. Okay, Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, New York. Throw some curveballs in there. And then just rank how these cities do on these criteria or values which were most important for me at the time. And through this exercise, I was able to see very clearly that assuming these five things were most important to me, that New York was by far the best place to be right now. So I booked a flight for the next day.
All of my assumptions were telling me this is the best place to be, so why waste any time? Let's get on the ground floor and see if this is correct. I think a really big part of improving yourself as a decision-maker is being willing to test these assumptions. So I created an experiment, I found a place to live with some friends of friends for one month, and I said, "Let's see what living in New York is like." I had visited, but I'd never actually lived there before. So let's test that, hey there really are ambitious people, and it really does have a startup scene, and I really do enjoy walking, and I do more things, and so on. And through the results of this first experiment living in New York for one month, realizing, yes. All of these assumptions that I had turned out to be more true than I thought. So I signed a lease for one year. That was the next form of the experiment. But it gave me the confidence to move forward quickly, because I had started from, "Well, what do I want? What do I value?"
And I think this is maybe the most key part of making any decision, is asking yourself, "In this decision, what am I optimizing for?" And particularly, "What am I optimizing for most?" And that's hidden in the expected value calculator, if you do the exercise, is that if you decide what's most important to you, the result at the end will change. So had I changed the categories that I was looking at, deciding, "Oh, okay, I want to be in somewhere that's really close to nature, and I wanted to be somewhere that had a low cost of living," obviously New York didn't check that box very well. Well, New York wouldn't have been the answer, and I would've moved to somewhere completely different. But I had done that hard work up front in deciding what's most important to me, what do I want my default behavior to be in the future, what do I want my forcing functions to be? And knowing what I wanted made that decision of where to move relatively easy.
So that's what I always like to think about, is if I do the hard work of knowing what I want, what I'm optimizing for up front, I can move quickly later on.
Justin (39:03): Yeah. Kind of the introspection piece, too, 'cause if you just have misaligned goals, then you're gonna run crazy all the time. So.
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Another aspect of decision-making is emotions, and being a poker player, I would expect that you would approach this kind of in a cold stone, you know, type of approach when it comes to emotions. Suppress them, because they are adding no value in the decision-making process. But I was surprised that I heard you mention that emotions are not your friend—Or, are actually your friend and not your enemy.
Chris (41:08): Yeah.
Justin (41:10): And your justification was the fact that emotions can actually supply information. The negative impact of emotions is when you start feeling feelings about your feelings, if that makes any sense there. So can we unpack that a little bit, and maybe can we expand on some of those thoughts?
Chris (41:25): Sure. A common belief about poker players is that we are robots and we have somehow found a way to poker face our way through life, and that things just don't affect us. That we—
Justin (41:39): Is that partially true? Like do some poker players approach the game of poker that way?
Chris (41:45): Yes. That is a whole rabbit hole in itself.
Justin (41:47): Okay.
Chris (41:48): I think that's definitely an approach. As we uncover more about the way that humans make decisions, we learn that there is no separability from decision-making and emotions. So trying to suppress emotions, pretend that they're not there, and make a perfectly quote "rational" decision is doomed to failure. So when I work with a startup founder or an investor, I really try to help them uncover their emotions when they're making a big decision, because I believe that these emotions have very interesting and useful things to say about what's actually going on, what's actually important to them, what their actual fears are, which can sometimes elevate risks to the surface which are worth de-risking or finding ways around them to move forward. My model is that emotions are signals from the subconscious, that not only do they have useful things to tell us that we might not be aware of, but that if we ignore these emotions, we're gonna find ways to get in our own way. We're gonna block ourselves, do things that feel like self-sabotage. That there are these urges that we'll be trying to satisfy and say, "Hey, I don't understand why I'm not taking more action." Well, because you haven't reconciled the very real reasons to not take action.
I'm always thinking about how I can create an alliance with my emotions by listening to them? And at the poker table, there are things that I will not be consciously aware of, but I'll notice. It's like, "Oh, I feel a little bit fidgety," or, "I have this heat on the back of my neck," or, "I notice I'm getting a little bit angry about how this player is conducting themselves, and that doesn't really make any sense." Well, I could just, I could deny that that's happening, or I could use that as an invitation to inquire into my experience and what's going on. So, particularly at the poker table, if you don't get a handle on your emotions, you'll get punched in the face. You'll make a very costly error. And you see this throughout life. Emotions really guide our decision-making, not just in like, "Oh, this is a bad thing we have to avoid," but we can get this sense of resonance and excitement and alignment that allows us to move forward faster.
So that's really the approach that I try to take, is to understand what I'm feeling. And as you said in the context of not getting stuck, not creating a negative or a vicious spiral, the phrase that I like is, "to not feel feelings about feeling feelings." You can imagine a scenario like this where you miss your alarm in the morning, so you're—You wake up late, and you're frustrated, "Oh, I thought I set that alarm." And now you're driving on your commute and, "Oh, I'm so mad at myself, I always do things like this." And you're frustrated. "Why can't I become the type of person who's on time?" And then you're sad, it's like, "Oh, all these moments of my life, if I'd been more conscientious, more on time, things would go differently." And you start to spiral and you create this narrative that, hey, if you're looking for negativity, you're very apt to find it.
Versus just sitting in the frustration or the anger or the sadness or whatever negative emotion it is—There are no positive or negative emotions. Just emotions. And say, "Okay, what is this anger telling me? What can I learn from this? Given where I am now, what is the best path forward?" It allows us to take this just mental breath and have a signpost that allows us to redirect course, rather than continuing to dig ourselves into the hole. So understanding that these emotions are guiding us or setting us astray all the time. If we have a more cooperative attitude towards them, we can usually find a path forward that feels safe, that feels aligned.
You mentioned this approach in poker, which is to try to become a robot. I talk about this in a beast of a post called "Play To Win." This is where I see a lot of younger players going astray. These days, poker is primarily guided by computer models. So you see players try to do the equivalent of memorizing this ten-thousand-page book, and then execute these strategies as if they were just a computer. But the problem that they face is they are not a computer, they are a person. And no person can execute perfectly. So you need to be able to take these emotions, these human aspects into account if you want to be realistic about what you can do.
Justin (46:52): Yeah. And to an extent, something that might've been frustrating at first, you know, through your example of how you initially really launched into poker with your hiring freeze at Ford, could potentially turn into something in a serendipitous moment in a positive way. So once again, it's—Of course, now you gotta allow yourself to soak in the emotion for a little while, as long as that needs to be, and then once again, like you said, chart out, "Okay, what is now the best path forward?" Or, what's an opportunity that may be presented itself now that this thing occurred?
I like your advice just in general around skill acquisition, the advice of staying in the game, and that so much of skill development or process improvement in general is just a long-game scenario. It's just staying in there and continuing to iterate and learn through the process and going through the loop.
It was kinda fascinating. You were talking about your, I think, prior, you know, twenty-something self, and I think this came up whenever you were asked about what you would do differently. But essentially you came down to this way that you would probably play in a more sustainable way, and the fact that you would optimize—Maybe not optimize, but you would highly incorporate the concepts of fun and curiosity in your poker play. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Do I have that right?
Chris (48:08): Yeah, I think you do. I think that the most important value is curiosity, and that solves a lot. If you're curious about other people, if you're curious about yourself (what's working, what's not working), if you're curious about the world and what's going on versus—You know, thinking of the opposite is judgment. Judgment is wishing things were different than they really are, or trying to shape the world and feeling resistance. So I find that curiosity is this acceptance. Like, "Hey, let's figure out what's going on, and if I know it's going on I can work with that." And hey, if I understand this thing is not working very well, I can do something about it. I can course shift. Versus judgment of, "Oh, I should be better at this," and, "Ah, I'm gonna figure this out, because this is bad." So I've found that a lot of my early self was motivated by this sense of scarcity that—It was kind of operating from this place of fear, of I didn't want to become this way, and running away from the things that I don't want. And it was almost like this dark energy, or you know, like going to the Dark Side, in Star Wars terms.
And what that really leads to is just this sense of you're always trying to prove yourself, you're always performing from others, it feels very competitive and transactional. You see other people's success and you feel like it's coming at the expense of yours. You feel a little bit of jealousy. And I just—Despite all of the outsize success that I was having in poker and otherwise, I never felt satisfied. I always felt like, "Okay, once I reach this next level, then I can finally take my foot off the gas and relax and worry about things like happiness and fulfillment." And then I would reach that level, push the goalposts out a little bit further, and just recognize that, hey, if you were operating from this lens of competition, you'll never be satisfied. There will always be someone who's better, more successful, more good-looking, you know, better shape, whatever it is. And as I've tried to mature over the years trying to reorient myself to what I think of as integrity, which is I want to run my own race. As Naval Ravikant would put it, I want to operate off of my inner scorecard, to play a single-player game where I alone determine what means a good life, how I acquire points, that type of thing.
So trying to shift from this approach of, "All right, I don't want to become all these things, I don't want to be a failure, I—Oh, those other people look like they're really successful, why don't I try to do that," versus, "Oh, I have—I can do whatever I want. I've already won the game, 'cause I'm here, I'm alive. Like, things are pretty great. Given where I am and I can do anything, what do I want to do? Things are already great in terms of my productivity, in terms of my health, in terms of my relationships. Are there any opportunities for things to go even a little bit more great that I can be curious about?" We've touched on it, but this really was the genesis for me of this core way of living life, is to just treat everything as an experiment.
The great thing about an experiment is that there's no possibility of failure. You have this hypothesis. "Hey, if I do this thing, I think I will have this result." It gives you permission to try and to be curious about what happens. "Oh, that was a complete disaster. That didn't go how I thought." Well, that's not a failure, that's just an unexpected outcome that we can learn from and try something a little bit different last time.
I gave one example of moving to New York. There were a lot of scenarios where I moved to New York knowing very little about it and completely hated it, or decided that, oh, those things that I thought were important to me, when I had them, I didn't actually want them.
This has happened a few times in my life, where I had this fairytale notion of success, and I was given a glimpse of, "Hey, I actually have this, and oh, that isn't what I want." And what a tragedy to run as fast as you can towards a goal that you don't actually want to achieve. That even your goal becomes a hypothesis through this experimental framework of, "I think I want this, but I won't really know until I have some form of it in my life." So this thing that I think I want in the future—How can I be living some aspect of that right now, to make sure that I'm at least directionally correct?
So this experimental framework has been so powerful for me, because it removes a lot of the day to day, just, fragility of, "Am I doing what I want with my life? Should I be doing something completely different?," and more, "All right, I'm gonna commit to this thing that is my best guess about what I want to do for this experimental period." A month is a good safe default, but if it's something that takes a little bit longer to see some results, ninety days is a good result as well. "And I'm gonna commit to doing this thing the best I can for this period, and at the end of that time, thirty days, ninety days, I have permission to stop completely." I can do the equivalent of retirement, sell all my investments, and then sit with my pile of money and time and say, "All right, I can do that if I want to do that, or I can do something completely different. What do I want to do?"
I think the end of a lot of these experiments is to double down or stop completely. If it doesn't go so well that you want even more of that, that's a signal that, hey, maybe you should stop and try something else. But no matter what, you can't fail with it, because you've tried your best, and that way you have no regrets. So trying to live in this sense that I'm continually placing these small bets, and then like I was running an experiment, tracking results. Seeing if the things that I'm doing are leading me to where I want to be. That allows me to move quickly. I can have very tight feedback loops, I'm learning quickly through this. My trajectory is just more steep. It becomes a hockey stick, because when I fail I fail fast and when I'm successful I double down on that. And when you apply that to every dimension of your life, your health, your relationships, your career, it gets really interesting really quickly.
So that's something that I really would want to instill into my younger self, is my younger self was very perfectionistic, very afraid of being found out as a fraud, very afraid of doing something and failing at it. Particularly failing publicly. And I would write a letter to myself and say, "First, no one's paying attention, and second, like, fail more. Fail as many times as you can, because that's what's going to lead to ultimate success."
Justin (55:24): Some really thought-provoking thread there, and a lot of things resonated with me that I'm gonna have to sit with for a little bit, but enjoyable conversation, Chris. I have had a pleasure getting to research you and then having this follow-up conversation. If people resonate with something that you said today, where is a good place for them to connect with you, learn more about what you're doing, especially over at Forcing Function?
Chris (55:46): Thank you, Justin. I had a lot of fun. I feel like we had so much more ground to cover—
Justin (55:51): We do.
Chris (55:52):— And I just wanna acknowledge and appreciate the time that you put into preparing for this and saying some of the things that are very near and dear to me in not only ways that I agree with, but putting better than I have before. So you know, thank you for creating this platform and for offering this value to others who I think are really benefiting from it.
If something that I've said today resonated with you and you want to know more, I would love to point you to a few resources that we've created that I think could support you in achieving your goals and finding a life of freedom, happiness, and purpose. So, my consultancy is Forcing Function, and we have a number of wonderful free resources at forcingfunction.com. Articles, templates, exercises, interviews that you can check out and explore any number of the topics that we talked about today, and more importantly install them, take action on them in your life and start to see some of those results.
Two resources in particular I like to point people to. First is a workbook that we created called Experiment Without Limits, which is ninety pages of my top recommendations in all of the areas of performance that we've found are most important in my work with peak performers. So, how to set goals, how to design systems, how to optimize your time, energy, and attention, accelerate your learning. They're step-by-step exercises that you can follow as well as prompts to help you uncover what you want and the best way to go about getting that. So you can download that for free at forcingfunction.com/workbook.
We also have a test that we love to share—a big challenge that I have all of the time is, given all of these wonderful things that I could do to improve my performance, what should I do next? And that's why we created this test called the Performance Assessment. So, it's twenty questions that if you take them will illustrate, "Here is the next best thing that you could do to take yourself to the next level." So you could take that test for free at forcingfunction.com/assessment.
The final thing that I would share with you, just because the time of when I think this episode is going to come out, is that we have our flagship program, which is my group coaching program called Team Performance Training, where I teach a small group of founders and executives in a number of really interesting companies my systems for becoming an elite performer. So you'll be surrounded by other really smart, ambitious people, and each week I will tell you one of my essential lessons for accelerating your career, becoming someone who's able to get things done more often, more consistently, and, more importantly, create a life that feels aligned for you.
So, if this is something that's interesting to you, I encourage you to learn more at teamperformancetraining.com. You can sign up for the waiting list there and potentially submit an application when those open. Our next cohort, the applications are opening on September 13th.
Justin (59:01): Awesome. And somebody that's a self-proclaimed high performer, I downloaded the workbook a couple days ago. I'm about a third of the way through, and it's really enjoyable. So if anything I would highly encourage people to go download that and really work through that piece to it.
Chris, my final question for you. If you had the opportunity to teach a sixteen-week class to a group of graduating college seniors on a topic that isn't normally covered in the classroom, what would you teach and how would you teach it?
Chris (59:25): I love this question, because yeah, the things that we learn in school aren't necessarily the things that we need most in life.
Justin (59:33): Great.
Chris (59:34): My—I have to give an honorable mention to two things that I imagine others have mentioned before. First would just be plain financial literacy. The earlier that you can learn how to have more positive cash flow, and as you start to earn money how to best get returns on that, as well as returns on the way that you are spending. The things that you are investing into, that they are actually bringing you fulfillment and happiness. I think that would be something that I would have loved to learn early on.
My second honorable mention, I think, would be just called The Art of Adding Value To People. So how do you have a positive attitude in your actions, how do you be someone who takes initiative, who has follow-through, who has a sense of curiosity about the people that you meet? Something that I try to embody is like, everybody that I encounter is a future best friend, is a future collaborator. And just approach every interaction from that. So I would love to try to talk about how to create this mindset where you are someone who's positive within every interaction, and that everyone sees interacting with you as a positive.
But the class that I think that I am most qualified to teach, that I've been playing around teaching for a while, so maybe this will be a nice nudge to finally go out and create this class, would be called How To Think Like A Poker Player, which would be talking about some of the concepts that I talked about today. With the benefit of experience of playing two million hands of poker against some very, very smart individuals, what have I learned that translates to life? So this could be anything from how do you recognize a good bet, to how you can move quickly, to how do you become self-aware, be able to manage and leverage your emotions, as well as just understanding other people, what they need, how to work with them, negotiation. Everything is a negotiation, that type of stuff. Analyzing your competition. To things that are a little bit more mindset, like being process-oriented rather than results-oriented, understanding social dynamics, making sure you're playing in the right games, when to stop playing in that game and move on to a different game, developing your skill in a different way, basic statistics. I think if there's like one class that anyone should take, it'd be statistics. Try to accompany this in approaching life as a game. Because games are fun and playful, and if you understand the rules, there's a lot of creativity that you can work with.
That would be what I would try to share and to teach. How do you think like a poker player, so that you can take this lens and apply it to everything to win in whatever game you choose to play?
Justin (01:02:15): I would love to be in that class. That would be so much fun. You mentioned a lot of really great things in that class. So maybe sometime in 2023, we can have you back on for a part two, and we can unpack that class a little bit more. That would be a lot of fun. But once again—
Chris (01:02:26): Let's do it.
Justin (01:02:27): Chris Sparks, forcingfunction.com. Chris, it's been a pleasure having you on the podcast.
Chris (01:02:32): Thanks, Justin.
Justin (01:02:33): Thanks for tuning into the episode. Here's what you can expect next on The Struggle Is Real.
Interviewee (01:02:38): And I feel that constant striving and arrival mindset was really preventing me from seeing some things that I was doing in my day-to-day life that gave me a lot more insight into what actually made me happy, what opportunities maybe I was missing. When I think back to the hike, that moment of everything is temporary and just being okay with that gave me more presence to see what I am actually doing. In a lot of ways, that was physical for me. It was just, "Don't get trapped in, like, your physical elements. Too hot, too cold, et cetera." And I'm trying to apply that to my mental state and when I think about things like, "Okay, I have to do this, this, and this, and then someday in the future I'll be happy." Well you know what, think about the fact that everything is temporary. What I'm doing right now, it doesn't always have to be leading me towards this just checkbox where sometime in the future I'll be happy.
Justin (01:03:29): Hey, everybody. If you liked this conversation today, be sure to subscribe so you'll be notified about new episodes. If you wanna connect with me, send me a message on Instagram. I'm @JustinLeePeters. You can find show notes with links to everything we discussed today at tsirpodcast.com. I'm your host, Justin Peters. Thanks for tuning in.
Here are some great episodes to start with.