Returning From the Threshold of Misery

written in Career, Culture, Leadership, Teams

I’ve been a poker player for over a decade now, and even though the landscape of the game itself changes rapidly, there’s a number of lessons that have stayed the same over the years. The one I’m musing on today comes from Mike Caro, who wrote an eponymous book that is famous in the poker world, “Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells.” I highly recommend it, even for non-poker players. The basic premise of most poker “tells” is that people act weak when they are strongest, and act strong when they’re weakest. When someone glares menacingly at you from across the table, they probably are bluffing. When they give a little sigh and frown before making a big raise, they probably have a strong hand.

Beyond observations on common behaviors at the poker table, Caro also dispenses advice on observing your own psychology and state-of-mind, and how to maintain discipline in the face of your own personal emotional responses to the vagaries of chance. The principle that has stuck with me, that I see present in far too many software developers, is Caro’s Threshold of Misery. Here it is, in Caro’s own words:

The full name of MCU is Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. I take the life strategy part of that seriously, and in my teachings there are many overlapping themes between poker and everyday endeavors.

Few concepts have resonated with students more than Caro’s Threshold of Misery. I continually receive letters, e-mails, and face to face thanks from both poker players and people in the “real world,” telling me how much this simple truth has meant to them.

Here’s how it goes: Suppose you’re a small- to medium-limit player, and you can envision yourself comfortably losing a maximum of $1,500 today. I’m not suggesting that you’ll be happy about losing that much, just that you can comfortably handle it and that anything more will begin to feel uncomfortable.

Okay, now you find yourself down $500, then $1,100, then—before it registers—you’ve zoomed past $1,500 and are losing $1,800. You’ve entered dangerous territory. And it gets worse. And worse. Hours later, you find yourself losing $4,530. Now, your mind is numb. I believe that most people at this point can’t mentally comprehend added losses. It all feels the same. You’ve crossed Caro’s Threshold of Misery, which is the point at which mental and emotional pain is maximized and anything further won’t register.

(Text from Tip #15 in Super System 2)

The Threshold of Misery is that point when things have become so bad, you simply cease to care when they get worse.

How many times have things gotten so messed up for you that it simply doesn’t matter any more?

  • “The car isn’t worth much after that accident, but it still drives so why bother with maintenance?”
  • “I’ve already overslept by 2 hours, so I might as well take the rest of the day off and try again tomorrow.”
  • “I’ve already had 3 drinks and will have to take a taxi home, so I might as well keep drinking.”

I’m sure you can find situations in your own personal life where this applies, but how about in your career as a software engineer? Just off the top of my head, I’ve heard these statements made by otherwise responsible, senior professionals:

  • “I should refactor this massive if/elsif block, but that’d take hours, so instead I’ll just add this additional conditional and close the ticket.”
  • “Writing a test for this code is nearly impossible because of how the object relationships are intertwined, so I’ll do it later.”
  • “Adding this JavaScript library will save me an hour of coding, and while it is an additional 200Kb, the page is already over 4Mb in size so it isn’t a big deal.”
  • “The data model is such a mess, we need to sort it out someday, but for now let’s just add another column to the table.”

These sort of unprofessional choices are often made not from ignorance or malice, but simply from someone who has crossed the Threshold of Misery. It’s not just individuals who can stand teetering on the edge of simply not caring anymore, but teams and entire organizations can find themselves without the desire to do the right thing.

This is the unfortunate environment where you’re likely to start losing your best engineers. When people begin to feel that nothing they do matters, that whether they succeed or fail is of little to no consequence, they will either cease to make any effort towards doing the right thing, or will go find a new place where what they do matters – either a different project, team, or company altogether.

You must be aware when you cross the threshold, because beyond it decisions don’t seem to matter. This is true in real life, too. When romances unravel or businesses fail, you might cross the Threshold of Misery and stop caring about making critical decisions regarding other things. That’s because the pain is already maximized and anything else that goes wrong can’t add to the agony.

We become overwhelmed and numb to the pain we’re experiencing. We give up. We’ve all seen or felt this.

  • A bootcamp student, feeling far behind and lost, unable to express their confusion, with no access to tutors or mentors.
  • A senior developer with decades of experience, thrust into a new problem domain in which they have no prior professional experience, with sky-high expectations placed upon them and unreasonable delivery dates. They work late nights and weekends, struggling to keep up.
  • A designer, receiving the umpteenth round of “I don’t know, it just doesn’t ‘pop’.. let’s start over – what would Apple do?” notes, the same vague and unactionable feedback as always, delivered to them hours before the product is due to ship.

Are these people in the best situation to do their best, most professional work? What incentives are motivating them – success, or fear?

Listen closely. At these times, in poker and in life, the secret is to keep performing as if you care. Remember that, although you can’t emotionally feel the importance of making quality decisions at the moment, there will come a time when you will feel that importance and be grateful for the good decisions that you make now. Yes, you’ve crossed the threshold and decisions don’t seem to matter. They do still matter, and anything that suggests otherwise at this moment is an illusion.

When someone has recognized that they have crossed their own Threshold of Misery, and they are trying to do something about it, HELP THEM! Help them dig out by supporting their efforts to change, whether simply their own habits, or the organizational environment that forced them to such a place. An engineer who is at or past the Threshold of Misery is looking for any kind of evidence that what they do matters. You’ve got a very short window of opportunity to help them to accomplish something meaningful; if you don’t, you’re likely going to lose them.

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