For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed playing games. I have definitely spent the most amount of time on the strategy card game Magic: The Gathering. I discovered this game in the mid-1990s at the age of twelve and I have never really stopped playing. The most intense period of playing occurred during my undergraduate years and in my first years as a PhD student. At that time, I was sufficiently good to travel around the world and compete in so-called Pro Tours. These days, my game is so-so. In this post, I’m going to discuss some concepts and attitudes that these types of games help people develop.
Magic is a game requiring skill but where chance also plays a significant role. Games are played between two players. The better player often wins, but far from always. This distinguishes Magic from games such as chess, which don’t include any element of chance. This also sets Magic apart from games of pure chance, such as many children’s games where the only thing that matters is being lucky when rolling a dice, drawing a card or the like.
The best Magic players in the world win 65–70 percent of their games. Even if they do everything right. Players talk about this in terms of variance. This means that the outcomes vary. In the short term, variance may strike hard. Luck can be more decisive than skill. In the long term, the opposite is true. In order to be successful in playing Magic, it’s necessary to learn how to manage this.
The key is to focus on playing well. That is, making decisions that offer you the best chances of winning. If a given move gives you a 60 percent chance of winning while the alternative gives you 40 percent, the choice is simple. Regardless, the outcome will frequently not favor you even when you play correctly. Most players find it difficult to handle this. People easily become result-oriented and evaluate their games based on the outcome – rather than on whether or not they made the right decisions.
Successful players adopt a different perspective. They focus on their own decision-making process and their own actions. The goal is to play as well as possible. In this perspective, the outcomes don’t matter. The player knows that short-term results are influenced by variance, while they are due to skill in the long term. Paradoxically, someone who really cares about achieving certain results should not concern him- or herself with these. It is better to focus on the process. In time, results will also materialize.
This approach is applicable far beyond Magic. For academics, perhaps the clearest example concerns different forms of applications. In such cases, it’s extremely easy to just focus on the outcome. When things go well, it is easy to believe that this is the result of your own efforts. When things don’t go so well, it’s more common to talk about these things in terms of a lottery. As far as I’m concerned, I look upon these things more like Magic. Skill matters, but the level of variance is great. Hence, it’s important not to focus on the outcome but to focus your efforts on what you are able to influence.
You can control when you start working on your applications. You can control how much time you spend on writing and revising them. You can control how many colleagues you ask to read your drafts and to what extent you take their comments into account. You can control how many funding bodies and foundations you submit applications to. You can control how well you read the instructions and then adapt your texts to these.
A seasoned player pays attention to all of the above. But he or she is more indifferent when it comes to the outcome. The player is aware that the result depends on his or her own efforts but also on many other factors. You take responsibility and strive to improve the things you are able to influence. You ignore the rest.
Who, then, tend to adopt this approach? Well, here is one last twist. It is clear that those who become strong players are typically extremely competitive. Since they care so much about winning, and if they really want to reach the top, however, they have to learn to evaluate their efforts based on parameters other than their immediate results. This is difficult. But focusing on what you can influence and accepting the element of variance is incredibly powerful, not least in academia.