I’ve been trying to work out how to start this article for months. As many of you know, I do love to find out â€˜stuff,’ which some people rather stuffily call â€˜knowledge.’ When I cover events, whether it’s my local FNM, or a Pro Tour Qualifier, or a Grand Prix, all the way up to the hallowed higher tables of the Pro Tour itself, there are special moments that make me think I have the best job in the world.
Those moments are when I discover what makes someone tick. What makes someone merciless. What makes someone compassionate. What makes someone lose control.
And what makes someone win.
In this article, I’m going to share with you a truth so overwhelming, so powerful, so inarguable, that if you absorb the lessons from today, you are 100% guaranteed not only an improvement in your Magic — which sounds like something most of us are ready to sign up for — but an improvement in any area of â€˜real’ life that you care to apply it.
The beauty of this lesson is that despite me sharing it with the entire world for no cash dollars thanks to the good folks at StarCityGames.com, very few of you will feel the inclination, or more importantly have the willpower, to follow through in order to achieve these better results. Unlike the latest sideboard tech against Dredge, me unveiling my Super-List doesn’t warp the metagame. Unlike the latest Grand Prix Top 8 listings, nothing I say here is going to change what decks people play at their next Constructed event. It won’t alter their pick orders for Lorwyn Block Draft. It won’t change the trade value of Tarmogoyf. And it won’t even, for the most part, stop the outstanding players who already know about this from caning you savagely the next time you play them, even though you’ve read all about this â€˜Secret Weapon’ here.
What I’m going to present to you this week is, if you like, a cohesive â€˜world view’ of how humans behave. Now just so we’re clear, although I’ve read a bucketload of books on psychology, I am not a trained clinical psychologist or anything even close. However, I’ve used this method to achieve most of the major successes I’ve had in my life. I wouldn’t have qualified for four Pro Tours without this knowledge. I certainly wouldn’t be the official Podcaster without this knowledge. And I simply wouldn’t be the person I am without this knowledge to shape me, guide me, and help me make sense of the world around me for fun and profit.
Along the way, I’ll show you â€˜real world’ examples, but also real â€˜Magic world’ examples, so for those of you who simply must have a Swamp reference in every article, I promise there’ll be some actual cards.
So, to business. What is this Big Secret that has you reading my column for the very first time? It’s very simple. Two words.
“â€˜Fess up, Rich… Cogni-what?”
Cognitive Dissonance is a very technical way of discussing the difference between the person that we perceive ourselves to be, and the person that others perceive us to be. It’s also used to define our world view — how we perceive the Universe in action — and how that differs from how the Universe actually is (in so far as anyone would be capable of defining that).
I’m going to come right out and tell you that Cognitive Dissonance is at work in every game of Magic you have ever played, and ever will play. I’m going to go further, and tell you that there are many many games of Magic that you will be involved in where you lost because you chose to lose. And I will go one stage further, and state categorically that there are games of Magic, particularly at the highest levels of the game, where the match has essentially been won and lost before the players even sat down.
Now I don’t know about you, but I do know that there are plenty of people who play Magic better than me. They understand interactions better, practice harder, spot opportunities quicker and more often, build better decks, and a dozen other technical things that just contribute to the word â€˜better.’ So, if there was a way that I could gain an edge over these players that had nothing to do with cards, and nothing to do with manascrew and flood, and everything to do with both of us knowing in advance that I was going to win, wouldn’t that be worth knowing?
Cognitive Dissonance is the key to understanding how you can win games of Magic before your cards are even in their sleeves.
So let’s explore a bit more about CD. I’m going to take you back to the second you were born. What did you accomplish in your first moments? Eat anything? Play Hamlet? Split an atom? Nope, you squealed, hopefully, and had your first go at breathing. Now to be fair, getting that first test wrong can be pretty fatal, and hopefully there aren’t many more such fundamental tests of living waiting for us. But while you’re busy succeeding at breathing, think about all the things you can’t do. Well, let’s be honest, it’s pretty much everything else. Completely reliant on others. Totally incompetent, except for one tiny automatic reflex programmed into you in order to give you the chance to be not quite so utterly pathetic later on. Long before you have any measurable concept of success and failure, you’re a near non-stop creature of Failure.
Let’s fast forward a bit, to when you’re off to school, to â€˜learn things.’ We’re mostly past the bit where you can’t control your bladder, and where you can’t aim the spoon or eventually the fork at the circular orifice on the front of your face, and where your only effective methods of audible communication are the coo, the scream, the fart and the vomit. No, we’ve now reached the point at which you are Self-Aware, and are beginning to establish your relationship to the world around you. Think about learning to read and write. How many times did you get the circle at the bottom of the letter â€˜d’ the wrong way round? At a conservative estimate, hundreds. How long before you could actually spell your own name, or even say it? Tying shoelaces? Learning the alphabet? And as we go through school, where â€˜success’ is measured in us being able to complete certain centrally-prescribed tasks, in order to accomplish this we must swim through a veritable crateload of fail, fail, fail.
I’m now going to share with you three of my most personal â€˜fail’ moments. If you want to skip them, you can probably do so without anything too terrible happening, since my point here is largely about how failure is our constant companion through life. But if you have a few moments, welcome inside my head :
1. Being good at entertaining, I was called upon to do not one, not two, but a mighty three readings at the school carol concert. I was four years old. In the first one, I welcomed all the parents to the school. In the second one, I said — and God help me, these are the exact words from 32 years ago — â€˜And now we come to the best story of all. Three shepherds were in the fields, watching over their flocks by night.’ And then, in my final spot, I say, â€˜And now we all stand and sing O Come All Ye Faithful.’ So, of course, I go on for my second line and blurt out, â€˜And now we all stand and sing…’
I walk off stage. I can still see the woolly jumper I’m wearing. It is dark offstage, a counterpoint to the blazing heat from the stage lights. There is a puzzled muttering from the parents. Nobody is standing. I don’t understand. I said my line, why aren’t they doing what I told them? Then my class teacher, who I adored, squats down beside me and tells me that I have said the wrong line. And that I must go out onto stage again, and do my line properly. I do not know how I forced my little legs up those steps and out onto that terrifyingly lonely place. But I did, and said the right line, and all was well.
When you sit down to play Magic against me, part of the person you’re playing against is that little boy who couldn’t even remember three lines in order.
2. Let’s move on. I’m now a teenager, and about to play the Tenor lead in Mozart’s opera â€˜The Magic Flute.’ I am, let’s not be coy, quite good at this performing malarkey by this time, and I can’t wait. However, I haven’t, at 16, managed to handle stress well, and on the Friday before performance week we have a hideous rehearsal. I am soooooo stressed it’s untrue, and as I storm out after four hours of unremitting artistic hell I say, out loud to the sky, â€˜I’m never performing in this production after that.’ Four hours later my appendix has burst and I am in an emergency ward waiting for surgery. Six days later I sit in silence in my bedroom as 200 family, friends, and acquaintances go to my school and watch someone else play the role. I am told by my doctor that a stressful evening could completely undo their emergency surgery, and that I simply may not go.
When you sit down to play Magic against me, part of the person you’re playing against is the teenager who couldn’t even make it to the first performance.
3. And finally, the most shameful moment of my existence. I’m 20, and my fiancÃ©e Helen is visiting us. She, quiet soul that she is (and yes, we’ve been together almost 17 years now) is more than happy to read a book upstairs while Mum and I watch the big soccer game on the TV. Dad calls me out to the kitchen, where, as he has done for what seems like my entire life, he is reading the paper. He asks me where Helen is. I tell him. He tells me that ignoring her is no way to treat a lady. After 20 years of feeling I’m not a good enough son, I explode. I tell him exactly what I think of him. I swear at him for the first and only time in my life. And two days later, the most wretched I can call to mind, I clumsily put a hand on his shoulder and apologise, and he breaks down, sobbing, before saying, â€˜I’m sorry I’m less of a father than you deserve.’
When you sit down to play Magic against me, part of the person you’re playing against is the soon-to-be-married man who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and destroyed the dignity of his father with one ferocious sentence.
Welcome back, those of you who opted out of the â€˜Catharsis with Rich’ segment of the article. Nobody died, although you did miss a really juicy piece of tech for Shadowmoor Standard. Yeah, up a bit, that’s right. Oh well, too late now…
If you take a moment to look inside yourself, I’m sure that you too have powerful memories of when things went wrong. Those memories go towards defining our self-image. And here’s a deceptively obvious truth for you to grapple with:
Right up until the moment we can do a thing, we can’t do that thing.
Why is it that adults find it harder than children to speak a new language? Sure, there are technical facial-muscle reasons and so on, but at its heart, the question is one of attitude. See, adults have had an entire 30+ years of â€˜failing’ to speak French, whereas an 8 year old is probably barely aware of their non-French speaking as a â€˜failure’ at all. As humans, we invent astonishingly intricate reasons as to why we shouldn’t try something new. Our internal discussions as to whether we should try scuba diving on holiday, or lose the accountant and fill in our own tax return, or eat mushrooms for the first time, would put Machiavelli to shame. At war within ourselves is an innocent and good desire for new experiences, fighting desperately against a mighty volume of past experience that suggest that we are going to fail, fail, fail. Because, truthfully, we are going to fail, fail, fail.
Consider this: Michael Phelps is one of the greatest swimmers in human history. There are roughly 6 billion people alive right now. Scientific estimates suggest that in total there have been about 60 billion people that have ever lived. Phelps may be the greatest swimmer out of that 60 billion people.
Michael Phelps can swim at between 3 and 4 miles an hour.
That’s the best we humans can do?
How about this: The New England Patriots became the first 16-game regular season Perfect Team in the National Football League this past season. The media labelled their final few games the Quest For Perfection. Tom Brady, quarterback and central figure for the team, said that Perfection wasn’t how they were seeing it. And they were right not to. They let in hundreds of points during the season. They threw the ball away many times, they fumbled it many times, sliced kicks, missed tackles, and ultimately didn’t even win the Super Bowl. Arguably the greatest team of all time, and they were surrounded by failure on a daily basis.
And let’s try this on for size: I drove to a 2HG event today, and got there in a tin box on wheels faster than any human could possibly have done without mechanical aid. Indeed, had I attempted to walk or run to the tournament today, I would have got there a week on Wednesday, weather permitting.
Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.
It isn’t just what we do.
It’s who we are.
Deep breath boys and girls, because we’re about to enter into some serious headspace.
As humans, we thrive on positivity. That could be provided by a number of sources. It could be provided by a standard recognised figure of authority, such as a teacher or a parent. It could be provided by a figure we choose to invest with authority, like the coach on the sports team we play for, or a trusted friend who we believe has expert knowledge in a given area. It could be provided by a â€˜random’ source, the unexpected person who stops you in the street and compliments you on something you’ve done, or even something you’re wearing. Whatever. Or, it could be provided from within, where you allow yourself to be congratulated internally on a job well done. When the live webcast went off-air in Kuala Lumpur, I was honored and humbled and thrilled by the fact that so many people who I like and admire took the time to say well done. It meant a huge amount to me. But it would have been entirely hollow if internally I wasn’t aware that I’d done okay.
Now here’s the thing: we like to be right. Being right is a comfortable feeling. It feeds our desire for understanding of the world, and our place in it. You know the expressions â€˜to set the world to rights’ or â€˜setting the world straight again’ or â€˜suddenly all was right with the world’…? These all stem from our desire to fit in, and grapple with our sheer tinyness in the grand scheme of things. And what better way of feeling that all is right with the world than ensuring that our self-image is an accurate one?
FACT: We are surrounded by failure, our own failure, throughout our lives.
FACT: Much of our society is predicated on failure, especially where competition is concerned. In most U.S. sports, for example, the idea of an â€˜honorable draw’ is abhorrent. We want winners. And we want losers. Marketing is predicated almost entirely on failure. They call it â€˜aspirational’. I call it fear of failure. If you drive the new TLX Turbo 450 you will be a Real Man. If you don’t have Nappycare Diaper-Wipes, you’ll be failing your newborn baby. If you don’t start our Funeral Savings plan, you’re betraying your family. Drink Omega12x4y Orange Juice, or risk ill-health. We are absolutely surrounded by negativity. And what TV do we love to watch? Reality shows, where nobody cares who stays on and succeeds, but everybody cares about who’s getting kicked off the show. 15 weeks of failures, followed by 1 winner. And why do we buy into this culture of failure?
Because failure makes us comfortable. Failure reflects who we are. Failure reflects who we expect to be. Failure is the default setting for the modern human condition.
FACT: Given the choice between Failure and Success, most people will subconsciously choose Failure. Failure is more forgiving, failure is more normal, failure demands nothing of us. Success is abnormal, it is heady, dangerous, terrifying. It, pardon the jargon, removes us from our Comfort Zone. I know, I know, it’s a horrible phrase, but by God it’s illuminating. Where would you rather be? A place where you’re comfortable and relaxed? Or a place where you’re under stress and uncomfortable? Unless you’re some kind of masochist, the first place is infinitely preferable.
So, now we’re getting near to the climactic truth about Cognitive Dissonance, and a climactic truth about Magic, and a climactic truth about Life. Here it comes:
For almost everyone, our Comfort Zone is rooted in Failure. When we are removed from our Comfort Zone, usually due to the â€˜threat’ of Success, we subconsciously do all in our power to return there. Yes, that’s right:
When confronted with the possibility of Success, most of us will embrace Failure.
We. Will. Try. To. Lose.
Because our overwhelming life experience that began with our first inability to feed, wash, and clothe ourselves, and continues with our inability to create world peace, or pass our degree, or work out the correct manabase for TEPS, is based on Failure.
We lose, because we want to.
That’s a pretty headscratching thought to leave you with, so I’m going to offer up a glimmer of hope, before showing you how a proper understanding of CD, both your own and others, can lead to an infinitely more richly rewarding life than you can possibly have imagined. And I promise to show you how players like Steve Sadin, Tom LaPille, and Patrick Chapin, the three â€˜Mental â€˜Mericans’ (perhaps not so coincidentally writers on this very site) are using profound understanding of their own and other’s CD to Succeed.
But here’s that glimmer of hope I promised you.
When my father died in the Summer of 2005, I promised myself that I would do all in my power to end up performing in The Booth at a Pro Tour within five years. Via English Nationals, and European Grand Prix, and Pro Tour Podcasts, I accomplished that goal in Kuala Lumpur. But how? What about all that failure that makes up Rich Hagon? Oh don’t worry, they were all there in KL. With five hours of live talking to do, where any moment could be the one where I blurted out something so catastrophically stupid that I’d be yanked from the Booth forever, my constant companions were with me. The four year old who couldn’t remember his lines. The 16 year old who didn’t even reach the start line. And the 20 year old whose thoughts and thoughtless words almost destroyed another human being. And yet, despite a lifetime of Failure, I — by most vaguely objective indications — Succeeded. And the reason is very simple, and here it comes boys and girls, so brace yourself, because this is the money shot right here.
I gave myself a gift.
A very precious, rare gift.
I gave myself — here it is:
Permission To Win.
Next week, I’ll show you how to invert your fundamental Cognitive Dissonance, and give yourself Permission To Win too.
As ever, thanks for reading.