How to Win the Game of Life

To win at poker, consistently make the right bets on the right cards. Winning in business -- and in life -- is exactly the same.

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By Steve Tobak

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If you flip a coin 20 times and it comes up "heads' each time, the odds of getting another "heads' on the 21st flip is still 50-50. In a pure game of chance, past results have no effect on future outcomes. There is simply no way to change that.

But when a game includes strategy and you're competing against others – as in poker – that's an entirely different story. Chance or luck still plays a role, but better players who consistently make the right bets on the right cards do win over the long haul.

It's the same in business … and in life. Success and happiness are both about making the right moves, making the right decisions, over and over again. That's all there is to it, like it or not.

Look, we all need a little inspiration sometimes. And I know how easy it is to become addicted to all the feel-good fluff that's plastered all over the Internet. But the implication that any of that stuff helps to make you successful – or happy, for that matter – is simply untrue.

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Over the long haul, winning in business – and in life – is exactly the same as winning in poker. There are no differences. The rules of the game may be simple, but winning is by no means a slam-dunk. This is how you do it.

You can't win if you don't play the game. And by "play," I don't mean a game or two, here or there. You have to be in the game consistently for a long, long time to win. There's no quick fix and no shortcuts. If you try to win big with a few quick high-risk bets, there's a very good chance you'll lose your shirt and everything else.

It's a game of attrition and you have to persevere. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and that's how you have to play it if you want to win.

Learn how the game is played. In poker as in business, there are rules, strategies, nuances and lessons to learn. The thing is, everyone knows the rules. Reading will only get you so far. The only way to outperform your competitors is from real-world experience. Pay attention. That's how you figure out what works and what doesn't. That's how you develop your own skills, strategies and tactics.

There simply is no substitute for the lessons you learn the hard way. You gain confidence from winning and wisdom from losing. And over time, you develop your own unique way of playing the game.

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It is a zero-sum game. Every poker match has winners and losers, but the game always nets out to zero because you're playing against others. Granted, markets are elastic. They can grow over time. But every sale, every transaction has one winner and a bunch of losers. Competitive markets are essentially zero-sum games.

You have to win if you want to be successful, and the only way to do that is to be consistently better – to make better decisions and have a better product or service – than your competitors.

Blow your reputation and you're out of the game. Get caught cheating in poker and you're done. Word gets around and you're out of the game. That goes for anything.

Your work ethic is your reputation. If you're known for playing clean, for being a good sport, for showing up and meeting your commitments, you get asked to play again and again. Opportunity comes your way. If not, you've got to find another line of work. End of story.

Never bluff yourself. Short-term success can be a dangerous thing. When you start to think the deck is stacked in your favor, that you're lucky, that you can't lose, that's when you make risky bets you shouldn't make. That's when your ego writes checks that the laws of probability can't cash.

You can sometimes bluff others, but never bluff yourself. No matter how successful you are, never forget the odds. Never forget your limitations. Keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. Keep it real.

The most important thing to remember is this: To win at poker, make the right bets on the right cards over and over. Winning in business and in life is exactly the same: consistently make good decisions. Simple as that.

Related: How to Evaluate Your Startup Like a VC

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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