Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Do You Play Misery Poker or Quack?

November 5th, 2008 · 37 comments

College WoesPoker

A Swarthmore student recently clued me into an interesting fact about life at this competitive school:

The whole predominant atmosphere here is stress, stress, and more stress. We even have a term called misery poker.

Naturally, I asked her for an explanation. She responded with the following sample dialog:

“I have two midterms, a 10 page paper, and I’m headed to a conference next weekend,” says the stressed student

“Oh yeah?,” replies his bleary-eyed friend. “I’ll raise you all that, and add a lab report”

The winner is the student whose life sucks the most.

Leena Weighs In

This sounded familar. Among MIT undergraduates, misery poker seems to be the standard method for communicating.

But here’s my question: why?

Why do students — especially those at elite institutions — gravitate toward self-pity and mild masochism? Is it a self-defense mechanism? Is it a way of bonding?

Curious, I asked our friend Leena — no stranger to misery poker — for her thoughts.

“I’ve discovered that at challenging schools, the culture goes one of two ways,” she replied.

“Some students want to give you the impression of effortless brilliance. For example, Stanford’s Duck metaphor where they’re all like, ‘I never work! I always play frisbee and still do better than you on everything!’.”

(ed: the origin of the “duck” term is that students try to look calm on the surface while their feet are paddling furiously under the water.)

“The other approach — the MIT approach — is to give the impression that they work harder than you do. For example, ‘I have a UROP and am an officer for three clubs and am doing a double major in two notoriously difficult majors!’”

“Intimidation is key, because you’ve got to do something to feel better about yourself.”

[The sound of Cal sighing loudly.]

Beyond the Pain

Does this sound familar? Do you play misery poker? Are you a certified duck?

If so, I give you official permission to stop. Right now. If you want to feel better about yourself, get a girlfriend. If you want to intimidate people, grow a creepy beard. (Trust me.) Using your day to day happiness as a bargaining chip is not a sustainable strategy.

Here’s what you should do instead…

Build a realistic schedule. Leave time for exposing yourself to randomness. Focus on kicking the crap out of a small number of classes you like, not struggling to stay afloat through a triple major’s worth of misery. Take one activity — not 10 — and push it somewhere innovative. Be a good friend.

You’ve heard this all before from me. But having these recent conversations, I thought it’s worth repeating. As many times as it takes for it to sink in.

What’s your experience? Are your classmates poker players or ducks? Is there another degenerate work culture I’m missing here?

(Photo by Boa-sorte&Careca)

37 thoughts on “Do You Play Misery Poker or Quack?

  1. Annie says:

    Ok, I admit it – I have played misery poker. I initially did it because I saw other classmates do it and did it to “fit in” with everyone else. Later, I did it because that was actually what my schedule was like… The funny thing is, I’ve found a lot of my classmates who do this make up stuff that they have to do when they really don’t have that much stuff to do at all. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t find this out until my second year of college after I had actually loaded my schedule with tons of activities because I thought that’s what everyone else was doing. It’s been an uphill battle trying to only focus on one or two activities but I’ve finally managed to limit myself to one activity this year (fourth year).

  2. Kit says:

    The whole misery thing is like how misery wants company, when you are that feeling down you want to be pitied, and you feel that your pain is greater than others’. People will argue over who has the worst teacher, the toughest schedule, and in general just the crappiest life. It’s not a game you can every win though, because each person’s plight will always be the greatest.

    Personally I prefer other kinds of un-winnable games like ‘I love you more’ and ‘No you’re the best.’

  3. Grad Hacker says:

    “I have two midterms, a 10 page paper, and I’m headed to a conference next weekend,” says the stressed student

    “Oh yeah?,” replies his bleary-eyed friend. “I’ll raise you all that, and add a lab report”

    I don’t know what the problem is, sounds like productive people to me…

  4. divergio says:

    I agree with you, usually, and I am trying to make my schedule closer to what you recommend after four years of burning myself out in undergrad.

    However, I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? Or maybe that is the point, maybe he is so exceptional that his “realistic schedule” includes running a campaign to win over my nation.

    Or maybe this is your point: that graduating from UG shouldn’t be an extraordinary feat, you should instead focus your energies in areas that will actually help you in an amazing way (like running an organization you really care about).

    I’m sure if I read all his biographies and all of your posts I might have a better grasp of the answer, but I’m curious if anyone has some commentary about this.

    Maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats.

  5. Roy says:

    I don’t know what the problem is

    the problem is the ‘bleary-eyed’ student talking to the ‘stressed’ student..we shldnt allow ourselves to define productive as being ‘close to fatigue’…we probly know that feeling quite innately :)..n there’s nothing i’d love to avoid more than being burnt out and losing my perspective on where I exist amongst all this work..lol..seriously..

  6. Jenna Puckett says:

    This resonates with me — I definitely saw that culture at my elite high school and I didn’t even notice it.

    The stupidity of this practice only struck me when I was at college about a year later when I was complaining about my assignments to my roommate, and a former classmate interrupted my bitching to one-up my stress! And then I tried to one-up her –stopping a moment later after realizing that I didn’t need to fall into that trap. How busy you are is not something to brag about!

    Sometimes this misery poker is competitive, not just a way of connecting with similarly stressed friends.

    My question: Why does this culture evolve at elite schools?

  7. Greg says:

    What a bad habit to develop! For those not playing the game, it looks like whiners and complainers. This can impede one’s progress in the professional 9as well as social) world.

  8. Kate says:

    “I have two midterms, a 10 page paper, and I’m headed to a conference next weekend,” says the stressed student

    “Oh yeah?,” replies his bleary-eyed friend. “I’ll raise you all that, and add a lab report”

    I don’t know what the problem is, sounds like productive people to me…

    Grad, I agree with you. Those are typical things that student shouls be doing.. I guess the difficulty most face is figuring out how to effectively manage those activities in a timely fashion, something Cal tries to teach us.

  9. Kate says:

    Maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats.

    I think extraordinary sacrafices, are required for great accomplishments, like the American Dream of owning your own business. One of my parents sacraficed everything for it, and the result has been well worth it.

  10. Lawrence says:

    I can be honest that I played duck many-a-time, only because it makes me seem really awesome while I am struggling to swim in my papers the day before they’re due. Why is it that students at challenging schools try to be better than what they really are?

  11. Grad Hacker says:

    Maybe I should have been more clear:

    I don’t know what the problem is, sounds like productive people to me…

  12. Kyle says:

    Oh my, I hate this game. I recently started sitting on the other side of a class to ignore a girl who loves to do just that. In fact she likes to take it to another level!

    This girl is very negative about her performance on exams. She will complain about the difficulty of an upcoming test, then she will continue to pronounce that she will fail it. This will occur for up to two weeks proceeding the exam. She also gets very stressed out before the test and during our second midterm, I started to mirror her emotions. I lost sleep and scored 5 points lower than I did on our previous exam. I fed into her negativity! Once I realized what was happening, I stopped sitting net to her in class (easy to do in a 700 seat class). I feel bad but I it is a professional decision, not a personal one. What do you think Cal… should I resist friendship with classmates from now on?

  13. Study Hacks says:

    This is an excellent discussion. Let me weigh in on a few points from above, while I continue to digest the rest…

    The funny thing is, I’ve found a lot of my classmates who do this make up stuff that they have to do when they really don’t have that much stuff to do at all.

    This is an interesting twist. It fits well, however, with the poker analogy, because these students, in effect, are bluffing. For misery poker players, detecting bluffs is probably a key skill!

    I don’t know what the problem is, sounds like productive people to me…

    Grad Hacker, you’re getting soft, they’re not obsessively talking about lack of sleep, they’re not working in the gym….

    However, I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? Or maybe that is the point, maybe he is so exceptional that his “realistic schedule” includes running a campaign to win over my nation.

    This is a very important question; one I’ve thought I lot about. I’m working on a post about this. If it comes together the way I like expect to see it soon…

    Why is it that students at challenging schools try to be better than what they really are?

    Leena’s theory is that most students at elite schools harbor the secret fear that they don’t belong, so they are more obsessed than others about boosting their projected ability.

    I feel bad but I it is a professional decision, not a personal one. What do you think Cal… should I resist friendship with classmates from now on?

    Not to be harsh, but: “yes”. Your social group has an enormous impact on how you approach college life. Find a few Zen Valedictorian types to add to your circle and you’ll be surprised how different the world will start to seem.

  14. Lalit R says:

    I’ve lived the lifestyle of misery poker for about 2 years in my UG college life. I have a feeling that for me it provided a relief from anxiety AND reinfoced the ideals I had been informed of when I was a kid.
    My school is not an elite school but has a handful of students who are able to harness the slow lifestyle, big fish in a small pond effect, save time on transportation/other city issues and go to elite schools.

    Adding on, big question for Cal, I’m not advocating working long hours and working yourself to death…but one often hears about people who are completing big projects (such as first year phd students) or some big project they are passionate about – one often hears about them staying up a lot and doing a lot of work but not facing burnout. Is it just their perspective towards their project that saves them? Or maybe we’re just not hearing about their burnout stories?

  15. Jirka Lahvicka says:

    However, I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? Or maybe that is the point, maybe he is so exceptional that his “realistic schedule” includes running a campaign to win over my nation.

    I think he won because he DID build a realistic schedule. Especially in the final weeks and days of the campaign, McCain made sometimes twice as many campaign stops and often looked tired – however, he wasted a lot of time in unwinnable states (i.e. Pensylvannia, Iowa). Obama campaigned where it had big impact and managed to find time to talk to his daughters every day. He was just much closer to the zen valedictorian ideal and demonstrated that it works :-)

  16. supergirl says:

    *cue ‘It Sucks To Be Me’ from Avenue Q*

    Really, though if someone’s stressing out you should be giving them words of encouragement, not making them feel worse by belittling their workload as so-much-lighter-than-yours. That’s just rude.

    Re Obama: Obama did run a pretty innovative campaign, and probably beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries due to focusing on a limited number of realistic options, but I wouldn’t apply that to the general election. That was won on sheer manpower and the resources necessary to run a billion offices in each state. Of course, he wouldn’t have had that without the groundwork from the primaries, so you could well still characterise it as zen.

  17. divergio says:

    Haha, I really don’t want to kick off a political debate. Certainly strategic campaigning choices are necessary to win an election.

    Obama was just the first person to come to my mind. Any other number of important leaders who have truly challenging jobs could be substituted.

    When trying to “go zen” I really start to see my own limitations. I feel I can’t get much done without being really stressed out, so I’m not sure what to do. I can see how a UG student or company worker could apply some of these principles to make his/her life more stress free. In the case of a grad student or entrepreneur (or politician or CEO), however, it is hard to shake the necessity of working yourself almost to the point of breaking in hopes of having some amazing insight or beating your competitors to market. In those cases it seems like just barely getting by (and not doing a “good, solid job” like you could if you had fewer things to do) is good enough, as long as you can make the breakthrough to save yourself.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    Is it just their perspective towards their project that saves them? Or maybe we’re just not hearing about their burnout stories?

    Big projects requires a large amount of work in aggregate, but, if done properly, not on a daily basis. Therefore, they don’t have to cause burnout or undue stress. Take me for example. I’ve written two books. One while an undergraduate and one while a graduate student. These didn’t cause burnout because they rarely required more than an hour or two of work in any given day.

    Of course, he wouldn’t have had that without the groundwork from the primaries, so you could well still characterise it as zen.

    Running a campaign is one of those activities that, by default, requires lots of stressful hours. It’s almost built into the definition of doing well. But to the people who do it, I’m sure it’s worth it.

    In the case of a grad student or entrepreneur (or politician or CEO), however, it is hard to shake the necessity of working yourself almost to the point of breaking in hopes of having some amazing insight or beating your competitors to market. In those cases it seems like just barely getting by (and not doing a “good, solid job” like you could if you had fewer things to do) is good enough, as long as you can make the breakthrough to save yourself.

    See my post today about exceptional effort…

  19. I have a really simple reaction to those MIT peeps:
    “You have chosen it yourself, don’t you?”

  20. Elley says:

    Not to be harsh, but: “yes”. Your social group has an enormous impact on how you approach college life. Find a few Zen Valedictorian types to add to your circle and you’ll be surprised how different the world will start to seem.

    I see why someone who isn’t (yet?) a “Zen Valedictorian” would want to associate with a Zen Valedictorian.

    Why would a Zen Valedictorian want to associate with someone who isn’t a Zen Valedictorian?

  21. Study Hacks says:

    I have a really simple reaction to those MIT peeps:
    “You have chosen it yourself, don’t you?”

    Being thrown into this environment, as an 18-year-old, can be scary and confusing. No one sits you down and lays out your options, so, out of fear and lack of better options, you find yourself following the herd…

  22. Study Hacks says:

    Why would a Zen Valedictorian want to associate with someone who isn’t a Zen Valedictorian?

    They know where the good parties are at?

  23. Rose says:

    If you want to intimidate people, grow a creepy beard. (Trust me.)

    If only that were possible for me. :) Instead I will just have to practice bluffing at misery poker.

  24. Ben says:

    The sad irony of misery poker is that the time, energy and emotional expended in it’s playing would be better directed to just doing what has to be done.

  25. dan says:

    I come from the top school in the Philippines and surprisigly we also play the same game. I’m actually friends with students who belong to at least one organization and are academically loaded as well but they keep their busy schedules to themselves. There are others (my classmates) who literally brag their exams to my face (even when I’m not asking). SO, as much as possible I do not associate myself with these kind of people. Their negativity is contagious…

    I guess being really busy is an acceptable excuse for others. They probably think that failing an exam or subject when you’re really busy with other stuff is understandable.

  26. Dylon Chow says:

    I’m a Swarthmore student, and nobody here really takes misery poker seriously; it’s more of a way to vent about how much work you have. We play it in my math class every week and it’s just a way to have some conversation.

  27. hazbin says:

    As a 61-year-old consultant, writer, researcher I can tell you guys, unequivocally, that misery poker is ok if it is just a way of talking but a terribly unproductive approach to adult life. The most difficult and important abilities once you become busy and productive are how to PRIORITIZE, how to SAY NO, and how to be HONEST in your promises (“I’d love to write that Foreword, but could not do it unilt the fall at the earliest.”) No one is impressed by people who work hard and act stressed if they fail to deliver good work on time. Start moving away from quantity to quality! (And remember, in the real world, no one cares if you went to Swarthmore or Podunk, only that you have a can-do attitude and are productive and imaginative in problemk solving).

  28. Muhammad Umar says:

    I love learning! Midterms and papers are fun! YEAH!
    Love to learn and enjoy the hard work! Yeah enjoy learning piles and piles of knowledge! No need to quack and intimidate… just help others to achieve and say I wanna achieve too!! Let’s study hard and Let’s achieve! YEAH LET”S ACHIEVE!

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