Lessons in life: Become the student

TAGs: Editorial, Lessons in Life

Lee Davy continues his Lessons in Life column with a look at a chapter called ‘Become a Student’ from the Ryan Holiday classic: Ego is The Enemy.


Lessons in life: Become the StudentEveryone has Got One as Sonya Aurora Madden once sang, and they don’t get much bigger than those resting in the minds of a large slice of the poker community.

Like most sporting arenas, Ego is rife. People strut like peacocks. Expensive man bags, Gucci loafers, and Grandfather clock size wrist candy. The big I Am stare downs. The mouthing off. The back to front baseball caps and Chips style shades.

Ego keeps you at the table when it’s way past your bedtime. Ego keeps you asking for more. Ego keeps you giving more. Ego is the reason people develop mountains of makeup that would make Estee Lauder blush. Ego keeps the TV viewers glued to the screen.

With that in mind, I thought a few quotes from Ego is the Enemy author Ryan Holiday may help us pluck a few feathers out of that fabulous plumage.

Past Conditioning

Our past conditioning is generally holding the wheel as we career down the supersonic highway of life. Our authentic self is locked in the trunk with a dirty pair of pants in its mouth.

I once won $10,000 playing online poker. It was tax-free, and more than double my monthly wage. When the money lit up my account, I thought I was the nuts. Looking back now I think I was just plain nuts – I quit my job to play professionally.

“You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.” Ryan Holiday.

I was going through a massive shift in my perception of life. I had one foot in the past conditioning camp, and another dug in the authentic self camp. So I wasn’t entirely living a lie.

“The pretence of knowledge is our most dangerous vice because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.” Ryan Holiday.

Poker books, online training courses, personal coaches – I ate the whole buffet. I played at every opportunity; spent hours reviewing my game, and the truth hit me like a rattle thrown by a baby. I had just gotten lucky.

“It’s impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” Epictetus.

Working on the live tournament circuit, I would see the same faces winning all the money. I would lavish praise in my articles celebrating their brilliance. My poker friends laughed. They were all fish swimming in a barrel full of luck.

One by one, these bastions of the game started to disappear. The ones who remained had either done the work or found a backer with too much money to burn.

There is a brazen confidence in poker players. But it cuts both ways. If you aren’t doing the work because your results are massaging your ego when it’s all down to luck, you will bleed to death.

Plus, Minus and Equal

“The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.”

Before I quit my job to play poker, I set a 12-month goal to earn $45,000 through the game. I decided one of my income streams would be coaching.


I had only logged a few thousand hands of online poker and got lucky to win one tournament.

What did I know about poker?

As it turns out, I knew more than the people I was coaching. I never got above my station. I never taught them principles that I didn’t understand. I taught them the basics, and as I did, I improved the security of my own.

When it came to finding a coach, I decided the best approach would be to Google the very best online poker players and ask them to teach me. I ended up at BlueFirePoker learning from Phil Galfond. I got lucky. The best players aren’t the best coaches. Remember that.


“The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback but actively solicit it, labour to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great.” Ryan Holiday.

Ask any successful pro in the world to define the greatest learning tool, and they will tell you to find someone better than you and talk hands with them. I agree, but make sure they are authentic.

It’s easier to agree than disagree. Often, when talking hands with your peers, or people who are not getting the results you are, they will side with you, agree with you, and put butter in your mouth knowing it will never melt.

Find someone who knows their stuff and isn’t afraid to deliver the truth.

Without effective feedback, you will have wasted all of your mistakes.

Find a Wing

“Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barrier – technology has done away with that. There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.” Ryan Holiday.

Think of a sport and the dominating athlete. I guarantee, no matter how special they are, they will have a coach that’s not as proficient in the art as the person they are coaching.

“The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed – one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can’t be hacked; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t they drop you.” Ryan Holiday.

It doesn’t matter how good you think you are. We build bad habits in the same way we manufacture the good ones. We repeat the same behaviour until it becomes automatic.

In poker, there is a real danger to allow success to get to one’s head. Suddenly, the metric of playing every hand optimally goes out of the window. The belief that one can ride the variance overrides sensibility.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Don’t hire a coach and then drop him or her when you start winning regularly.

Never stop learning.

Find a wing and climb under it.

Never allow ego to become the enemy.


views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of