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I'm All In: What Poker Taught Me About Life and Business

The photo above was taken in 2010 I believe while I was playing in the World Poker Tour LA Poker Classic at the Commerce Casino. 

I used to take playing poker very seriously. I spent countless hours playing out hands in my head, reading forums and books to go along with thousands of hours spent playing online (before it was deemed illegal). My best stretch was when I was 22 and cleared a shade under $10,000 in 4 months during a summer. I was pretty good but I really disliked the unhealthy lifestyle that came with playing for 8-12 hours daily to make a living.

Poker is a zero sum game. This means that in order for there to be a winner, there has to be a loser. And at times the best play was to target those who would exhibit signs of addiction as those people aren't playing a sound game, mathamatically speaking, This is not something I feel particularly proud of but that's the game. 

And while I no longer play to pay my bills there were a lot of lessons I picked up playing cards.  Many lessons that translates over to life and business. Here are a few of them.

Expected Value (EV)

In probability theory the expected value of a random variable is the sum of the probability of each possible outcome of the experiment multiplied by the outcome value (or payoff). 

Simply stated EV (in poker) is the amount of money you can win or lose on your average bet. It's often explained by flipping a coin, which is an example of neutral EV. What are the odds it will be heads or tails? Over a small sample size it's 70% tails, extrapolated over 1,000 or 10,000 flips, it will be closer to 50/50. 

No one, not even the best players win every tournament, let alone every single hand they play. Whether you play well or poorly, you'll win some and lose some. Good players are profitable over the long haul because they maximize their spots when they're winning and minimizing losses when cards aren't running their way. They focus on making good decisions regardless of the outcome.

This rings true in business. If you continue to put yourself in the best position by playing the positive percentage plays, more often than not you'll be a winner. 

Which leads me to the next point. 

You can do all the right things and still lose

This one drove me insane. How can I be an overwhelming 95% favorite and STILL LOSE!!!

Because like in life, you aren't in control of everything so anything can happen. Yes you should've won, you should've gotten that business because you're better than your competition, but a'las they've decided to go with Joe-Trainer instead. That's completely out of your control and you need to accept the cards of life as they fall even if they're not in your favor. Move on to the next play.

Always Moving Forward

Piggybacking off the last point, even if you don't get the business, you can't dwell on it for long. Continually beating yourself up for mistakes isn't going to help you change for the better. It's only a complete failure if you fail to learn from your mistakes.

There were so many times I made the wrong move at the table which cost me tournament wins and money! I was angry/sad for a bit but ultimately I would reflect on what I could've done differently. There's no point in being upset with something that's now in the past.

Learn from the past, be in the NOW, and always be preparing for the future

Bankroll Management

If I bring in $1,000 and spend $900 of it on going out. I'm not left with much else for anything else. Let alone any unanticipated expenses. 

Knowing how to budget your money is an invaluable skip to learn. You need to stay within your means because you never quite know what might happen. In the case of Poker it might be a few dry months where your cards couldn't hit the side of a barn; in life it could be a car accident or broken appliance you clearly weren't expecting.

It goes without saying again: Always be saving and stay within your means so you can weather the bad times. If you take one too many risks, you might play yourself right out of the game. 

Know Your Numbers

What are the odds of flopping a third Ace when you have two of them in Texas hold em?
Odds of flopping a straight?
How about completing a flush on the river if I only need one last card?

I know these numbers off the top of my head like the back of my hand. I'm not rain man, I just memorized them. But knowing your numbers is just as important in business. 

What's your conversion rate for free consultiations to paid clients?
Run any marketing campaigns? What's your CAC (customer acquisition costs)?
What are your food costs? 

You don't need to know these things at an accountant level, but you should know what's going on behind the scenes. Knowing the lingo helps you communicate with experts and understand what's going on in your business. 

In case you were wondering:
Flopping 3 of a kind 8.5:1 or 10.5%
Flopping a straight about 1%
Completing a flush on the river, assuming you have all 9 remaining cards of that suit, is roughly 18%. 

Understanding basic human psychology

Most people have watched high level poker on ESPN and imagine that pros can detect any facial tick or lean which gives them an edge. While this is sort of true, what great players pick up on are patterns. I would often pay close attention to deviations in patterns:

How did they play after losing a hand?
Does that change if it was "unlucky" versus playing poorly? Do they even think that was a poor play?
Are they more talkative when they're nervous? Do they always take a sip of water when making a borderline decision?

It comes down to understanding how people normally act and if or when there's a change, deciphering what it means. When dealing with clients who are resistant to change, knowing how to pick up on non-verbal cues has been an invaluable skill to have cultivated.

Implied Odds

This is calculating the odds of completing your hand and the future bets you would collect if you do. You need to take stock of the percentage chance you have to complete you hand versus the amount of money already sitting in middle of the table. 

Simply stated: Calculating risks is a little more cut and dry in poker since it's all math. But the same basic principles apply where you need to take stock of what an investment of time or money will cost you, and whether or not it's going to be worth doing. If you make decision"x" what will be your return on investment? And how long will it take for you to break even?

Poker is a game that's easy to learn but hard to master. There are only a few of the lessons I've picked up from this game. I believe poker is a fantastic training camp for those looking to cultivate skill necessary for business and critical thinking. 

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Ball is Life...Until You Have to Pay Your Bills

Tim DiFrancesco of the Los Angeles Lakers w/Jordan Clarkson

Tim DiFrancesco of the Los Angeles Lakers w/Jordan Clarkson

Question I received: "Gary, I really want to get certified as a trainer. I've been lifting since high school and I'm thinking about quitting my job as a pharmacy tech. I really hate it and want to leave as soon as I get certified. I love basketball, so I definitely want to train mostly athletes." 

First off I told him it was great that he figured out what his passion was, but also that it would be a long road ahead with a huge pay cut. If he was happy taking a pay cut to become a trainer then by all means full steam ahead and I would be more than happy to give him resources to be the best trainer he could be. But if he had responsibilities and things to pay for, that he may be better off as a part time trainer initally on his days off to really see if he enjoyed training and working with others for a living.

As a pharmacy tech or any health field background, becoming certified as a trainer isn't a big stretch. The science part should come easy, but those experiences won't cover coaching people. It's easy to train your friend who is young and healthy, but what do you do with the former athlete who has a surgically repaired ACL or bum hip? What happens when you get a difficult client that doesn't seem to take your advice on proper nutrition?

I brought up the point that he's currently employed with a steady job, by leaving the comfort of that job to become his own boss to "train athletes" right out the gate; he would be in for a rude awakening. Some trainers believe that within a year they'll be working with high level athletes. The problem with that naive line of thinking is this:

You've worked with ZERO athletes, what makes you think a million dollar body is going to take a flyer on a rookie trainer? 
(hint: the answer is none)

If he had only mentioned he wished to train athletes in the future I wouldn't have come at him hard with the truth. I've had the opportunity to meet plenty of well intentioned people who like this individual, they quit their jobs to "follow their passion" only to fall flat on their face after going independent. Wishing to be your own boss and actually cultivating all the skills required to succeed are two completely different things.

I've learned this: 

You cannot live wishing to be an entrepreneur when your skill-set and mindset haven't been cultivated to be one

Remember when you're out there on your own, there are zero guidelines on what to do next and how to spend your time. For many the risk of the unknown and leaving something "steady" is not worth it and I would advise this person to seek a different JOB instead of taking a weekend course to change industries cold turkey. 

Some simply can't get organized enough to get a business off the ground. Other's aren't wired to think on a deeper level strategy-wise.  I used to think "what do I need to do? I want to work but I don't know what to do!" If you really don't have any clue what to do, go get a job. I mean there are so many resources and you still don't know what to do!? I.E: Google it! 

It got to the point where I would pester my wife with "so what should I do?" which is an asinine thought considering I was supposed to be my own boss.
(Note: I knew what to do, I was being lazy and didn't want to own up to doing the work)

Being your own boss is a skill too, one that you may not have been born with. You can still be your own boss but to temper expectations if you don't end up rising to the top of your industry. You'll earn 45K instead of 1 million dollars each year.

It boils down to being happy > everything else. 

Ultimately he wrote back and said thank you for my input and that he would be getting certified to start training part time and see if it might be something he wished to pursue full time. He mentioned it hadn't occurred to him that it would be THAT difficult getting in front of ONE professional athlete. I gave him some more resources, said he should try his hand at  working at the high school level and left it off with an open invite anytime he was in Los Angeles to drop on by and I would love to host him for an hour at the gym.

Ball is life...until you have to pay your bills. 

Fit Pros: Quit Being the Personal Trainer from 2007

"Man Instagram is stupid!"

"Only kids use snapchat!"

"Ain't nobody watching your videos!"

"Social media is a waste of time"

These are things I hear from the same people who still work, market and train their clients like it's the year 2007 instead of 2017. 

I get an advantage by working in a shared space where I get to observe various styles and philosophies that run the gamut. This allows me to see, in my opinion, what works and what doesn't. There are very few secrets in our building as a quick google search will show you what each person is up to. 

Are they running google adwords? Yelp ads? Groupon? Thumbtack? Facebook ads?

You then take notice of:
Did they increase business?
Did said clients stick around past the introductory period? 

Some trainers are able to bring in people, presumably either free or at a really discounted rate, but after one month I never see these individuals again. This leads to the biggest take-home as a professional.

Success leaves clues

You have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Use them in that order

The biggest learning opportunity is right in front of you. You can always peruse the internet but there's nothing better than to watch a live case study. I would not listen to a professional who isn't successfully retaining clients. I will however observe them.

Some professionals teeter right on the line of success and failure, I did for a long time. What are they doing well that I might not be. You should always be looking around for an opportunity to grow as a person and professional.

Don't You Have Any Other Interests?

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I recall a conversation with a fellow trainer in our facility who said something along the lines of 

"All you talk about is training and food, don't you have any other interests?"

Of course I do.

I love sports, cats, and I'm even growing an interest in the geopolitical landscape. My biggest "outside" interest which I suppose ties into fitness and food is a burning desire to improve society on a much larger scale.

But all those things take a back seat to what I'm currently focus on. 

I live, breathe and sleep exercise, nutrition, cooking and all that my business entails. 

Here's the thing, if you're happy with the current life you have as a trainer, office worker or salesman; then don't change a thing. Keep doing what you're doing and feel free to mock me and my lack of diverse interests. 

But if you want to make big changes. Make big moves. And you're still late, wasting money or unfocused; how on earth are you ever going to get there?! Your actions don't map out your words. You my friend are, pardon my French, full of sh*t.

I can say this because I once was as well. I would talk a big game, say I'm going to make a lot of money and make a difference in this world. And how is that going to happen by waking up at 10am and barely working a few hours. Hell I watched more TV than I worked!

I've cut out Basketball (which pains me), poker, and "hanging out" because I don't have time for these things these days. This is the classic "I don't have time" excuse. Making more time often comes at the expense of the softball team or the bowling team or the book club; something you've decided to occupy your time with. It should never come at the expense of family time. This feels right to me, while it may be "unhealthy" to you. Whatever the case may be: YOU need to DO YOU.

Every moment, every minute of my life is consumed by the burning desire (you might say obsession) to be the best.

Every morning I wake up not content wanting to be the best version of myself, but to be
The Best

Day in the Life

Question: "I'm an aspiring trainer getting my certification and have been following you for some time now on social media. I was wondering what's a day like for you?"

My day often beings anywhere from 5am to 6:30am where I roll out of bed and make the same breakfast I've had for years.

3 eggs, 2 pieces of toast and 14oz black coffee pour over. While eating I'll answer any e-mails or I'll study for 25 minutes.

After I get cleaned up and changed I head out to the gym for my morning sessions. While in the car I no longer listen to music instead I'll have on a podcast or a book from audible. This is the plan so long as I don't carry a passenger where I'll play music and not subject them to my books and podcasts.

My morning's fluctuate from one client to as many as four depending on the day. Most mornings I'm free after 10am where I get to workout about 90 minutes. If I don't have any clients immediately after I will head home to eat lunch and get some work done on my computer.

This work ranges from:

  • Creating content
  • Outlining posts for all social media platforms for the week and what needs to be documented for them
  • More Reading/watching a video on whatever it is I'm currently studying
  • Programming
  • Recipe testing
  • Research for future business development

If I have any time before I have to get cleaned up and head back out to work I'll try to bask in my cats love or lack thereof. 

They love me...I think

They love me...I think

I'll usually start working with clients about 3:30-5pm until about 8:30-9:30pm again depending on the day. I'll slumber home and warm up my dinner which I've usually prepped ahead of time. I'll put it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes while I shower. Again bask in my cats love before doing little more work again on the computer or study for 30-40 minutes. In bed by 10-10:30pm.

Lather, rinse, repeat the next day.