Choose Your Table Wisely
A subtle constraint on work & life
My favorite year of college was the year I didn't attend college.
I took a year off to work on a startup while still living on campus. I enjoyed all the perks of college: community, parties, all-you-can-eat omelets, but I didn't have to endure the worst part: classes.
In the evenings, I hung out with my college friends. But during the day, I was at a startup accelerator, spending time with people older than me and further in their careers.
When I shut that company down and went back to school, my perspective on the typical problems of a college student had radically changed. Everything seemed so small, so insignificant. I couldn't relate to my challenges from a year ago.
When I went back, the old games weren't interesting anymore.
They no longer felt worth playing.
In poker, there's an important concept called "table selection." Your success is not just determined by how good you are but also by the table you choose to play at.
You can't win as much money if you sit at a table with small blinds. You'll get cleaned out if you sit at a table with players much better than you. To have the best result, you need to find a table where the stakes are high enough to be worth playing and where you have a chance of winning against the other players.
Poker is a fantastic visual for this concept since the results of good or bad table selection are so visceral. But we're all choosing which table we play at every day of our lives, in almost everything we choose to do.
When you compare your car to someone else, you're sitting down at the "best car" table. When you strive for more Twitter followers, you're sitting down at the "Twitter influencer" table. When you start a business, you're sitting down at whatever table is determined by the type of business you're trying to create.
Table selection determines the scope and difficulty of your success. Sometimes you have hyper-competitive tables with low stakes and low potential levels of success. Dropshipping commodity goods on Amazon might be a good example, or competing for $50 freelance writing gigs.
Sometimes you have tables with high potential levels of success, massive stakes, and almost no competition. I'll put Varda in this category. There isn't much competition yet among space-factory businesses, and if they pull it off, it could be one of the biggest companies in the world. The stakes are very high, though. They could also end up incinerating a ton of money.
As a creative, the table you choose to play at is among the most important decisions you can make. You could focus on $50 gig writing, building a productivity blog, or writing the next Harry Potter series. Those are all vastly different tables with vastly different potential outcomes. You better choose carefully.
Table selection also determines some of your happiness.
The "keeping up with the Joneses" effect is a symptom of table selection. If you compare yourself to your neighbors or people who are "near" you in whatever you index your life on, you will find countless ways to make yourself feel insignificant or behind.
Dan Wang explores how this phenomenon drives college students crazy in his essay on "College as an Incubator of Girardian Terror":
"It's hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus. Most 18-year-olds are not super differentiated from each other. By construction, whatever distinctions any does have are usually earned through brutal, zero-sum competitions. These tournament-type distinctions include: SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad; and so on, culminating in gaining admission to a particular college.
There's very little external intermediation, instead all competitive dynamics are internally mediated. The prizes are so obvious. The big companies that come to career fairs soothingly assure high-status jobs; the speakers at convocation tell us that we too will become as successful as them one day; our peers hold leadership positions at clubs, get internships at exciting companies, and earn those chances to have lunch with the university's president.
The lack of external mediation explains why objects of desire on campus can be seen to have such high worth. And why certain leadership positions on campus are heavily fought over, even though they don't seem to have much influence. It also helps to explain why so many people enter into only a handful of fields."
When I took that year off from college, I broke out of that competitive environment, and suddenly, the games felt silly. When I was sitting at the "college student" table, winning the competition for leadership of a club seemed extremely important and very high stakes. But when I stepped away and sat at other tables, I saw how juvenile that focus was.
We see examples of this kind of narrow, hyper-local competitive thinking all the time, and depending on what level you're playing the game of life, you may or may not pick up on it. It's easy to snicker at the HOA Karen, who thinks it's SUPER IMPORTANT for everyone to perfectly manicure their Hydrangeas. But you certainly have conflicts that would make someone else snicker.
Where are you comparing yourself against people overly similar to you instead of setting your sights on a bigger table?
What small table are you sitting at that you should have moved on from ages ago?
I play pickleball with a group of friends on Fridays. A few weeks ago, we had seven people, and an older guy was hanging around waiting for his group.
We invited him to play, and he destroyed us. I think the game ended with a score of 11-2. He was incredible, but he was also just within reach. I scored a couple of good points on him, and I didn't feel like it was utterly hopeless. Maybe he was going easy, or perhaps he was just at that perfect skill level when he could push me to try my best.
Either way, that's the kind of table I love looking for. One where you have some chance of winning, but not unless you try your hardest. And one where the stakes and potential winnings are much greater than you could achieve at a smaller, easier table.
This is, of course, the secret to good deliberate practice. You always need to be a little outside your comfort zone if you want to keep learning and improving.
It's why the "you always want to be the dumbest person in the room" advice is mostly good, but only mostly. It's great to be the dumbest person in the room so long as you can keep up. Otherwise, you'll look silly.
It's a core component to achieving success, whatever your yardstick is. If you pick too small of a table or stay there too long, you'll hamstring yourself. It doesn't matter how good you are if you're playing the wrong game or against the wrong people.
And it's essential for understanding our feelings of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and tension with others. If we can recognize what table we see ourselves competing with them on, it's easier to let those feelings go and decide if that's even a table where we want to play.
We're all stuck on campus in our own ways. Magnifying little problems and challenges that would seem laughably insignificant if we stepped out to a more meaningful perspective.
The table you choose sets the boundaries for your success and happiness. Choose wisely.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love next week’s. Sign up to get it in your inbox.