Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Wins Between Our Losses

You know when times are kind of challenging, but you’re fighting the good fight, and then some things start to go right and you win a few small victories, and you feel pretty good about yourself? When you see memes like this:


 . . . and think “Yeah, that’s right! I’m not giving up, I’m not discouraged, and I’m playing the hell out of my hand right now!”

This post is not for you.

(not right now, anyway)

Go enjoy your victories.  Celebrate them, roll around in them, delight in the fact that your skill and cleverness in playing your hand has pulled the chips in your direction. You are fantastic! You are working hard and it’s paying off! You deserve the breaks you’re getting!

(But maybe bookmark this for later. Not that I’m suggesting that this lucky streak is bound to end or anything, but, well, you know, life.)

The rest of you, the ones who see those memes right now and roll your eyes, or mutter to yourself, or narrowly resist the urge to click this window closed and quit reading this. . . this is for you.

Let’s talk about poker.

Yes, poker. The card game. Texas Hold’em, to be specific. For those reading who may not be card players, I offer a (very simple) overview to the game: Each player is dealt two cards (which are kept secret from the other players) and five communal cards are dealt face up to the table (in baby steps: 3 first, then 1, then the final card). Each player makes the best 5 card poker hand that they can (they must use their two “pocket” cards, and can use any three of the shared cards on the table). So if we consider this image below, the person seated across the table has pocket Ace-King, and their final hand would be two pairs, kings and tens (ace, king of spades, king of diamonds, ten of spades, ten of clubs). The player seated closer to use would have a full house, the winning hand (king-clubs, king-hearts, king-diamonds, ten-spades, ten-clubs). Got it? 

Poker, a game that requires skill and intelligence, but also incorporates chance, is a pretty solid parallel for many aspects of life. Almost all of the aspects, really, if you’re willing to think outside the box and really stretch your metaphor-making muscles. I’m going to narrow my view to special needs/AAC parenting, but if you think a bit wider the points that I’m about to make can apply pretty broadly.

When you’re new to the world of AAC, you are a new poker player. You have found yourself with a seat in an upcoming tournament, and there’s no backing out. You’ve never played before . . . actually, until yesterday you had never even heard of the game. So now what?

You read and research. You watch YouTube videos of other players, read poker blogs, and lurk in online forums where strategy and game play are discussed and analyzed. You learn the odds, and how to play in a way that will optimize the likelihood of your success.

And then the day of the tournament arrives, and it’s time to play. You’ve put in your time researching, and you know the best practices of playing poker. You have learned from the work of some of the top players in the field, and you are ready to get in the game. When the tournament director calls “Shuffle up and deal!” you are nervous, but confident.

You play conservatively at first. You fold a few hands, kind of hanging back. You’re in the game, but you’re starting slow, watching and learning. At the start of the next hand you check your pocket cards and see a pair of aces (it doesn’t get better than that, folks). You have the cards that you need and you know how you should play them. You bet smartly. Other players fold, and you are left facing only one opponent, who has pushed all in (bet all of her chips). You both turn over your cards and see this:

You have a pair of aces, your opponent has ace-ten. The likelihood of you winning this hand is 92%.  It’s time for the communal cards to be dealt. First the flop:

Now you have 3 aces, while your opponent only has a pair of aces. The likelihood of you winning this hand is 98%. The next card is dealt:

It's still 3 aces vs. a pair of aces. The likelihood of you winning is 91%. Final card:

You end the game with 3 aces while your opponent has beat the (formerly staggering) odds and has a straight (ten, jack, queen, king, ace).

You lose.

You had the right cards, you played smartly and boldly, you made the same correct decisions that anyone in your position would have made, and you lost anyway. Because, in poker, sometimes you lose anyway. 

It’s a game in which a poor hand can, indeed, be played well and triumph in the end.  But it’s also a game in which you can play your heart out---skillfully and cleverly and artfully---and then get beat. Beat from behind, beat by a hand that was overwhelmingly favored to lose, beat badly.

In fact, this is called a bad beat. A bad beat is a situation in which you have the cards that mathematically should have won, but they didn’t. It’s almost like the term a “bad break” but also fundamentally different : a bad break is something that you haven’t worked for and that occurs totally by chance. For example, if I know that Maya needs an AAC evaluation and I’m hoping that we are assigned Sarah (who is fantastic) but we are assigned Britney (who is awful), that’s a bad break. But if, during the evaluation, I present Britney with 40 pages of research about why I think a certain system would be most appropriate, and I have letters from doctors and therapists to support my ask, and Maya can demonstrate competency on the desired system, but Britney chooses to ignore this information and recommend something different? That’s a bad beat. I worked shrewdly and tenaciously to make all of the right moves, and I should have been successful, and I got beat. A bad break feels unfortunate, a bad beat feels unfair. 

Foot-stompingly, heart-breakingly, tears-of-frustration unfair. Upend the table, send the chips skittering across the floor, and quit the game unfair.

So then what? What happens after a bad beat?

Or, to take it over to AAC, what happens when you are pretty certain that you have the “right” AAC system and the “right” implementation strategies, and you’re not having success? What happens when you are targeting motivating and meaningful vocabulary, when you are modeling skillfully and often, when you are keeping things light and fun and positive, and your child seems uninterested or unable to participate? What happens when you see and hear other families with the same materials that you have, making the same implementation decisions that you are making, and they are sharing win after win, while you aren’t winning at all? 

You keep playing.

If you need to, you sit out a hand. If you have trouble not taking it personally (because you’re new to the game or because you’ve had a string of bad beats recently and it’s just. so. hard.) then you take a walk and have a cry or punch a wall or something. And then you sit back down and ante up. And you play.

And before I talk about why you keep playing, and how to recenter your mindset a bit, I’ll let you in on a secret. That bad beat hand that I described above, the one with the pocket aces? That really happened (mostly, anyway-I simplified the intro a bit, but the cards are real). Watch the whole thing unfold below:

I’ve watched this video an embarrassing number of times. At first I just enjoyed the shock and chaos after that king landed. Then I watched again to see Annie Duke’s celebration and apologies (if only life’s bad beats came with a “you don’t deserve that” acknowledgement and an apology). And then, I watched again, several times, and focused on Paul Wasicka. The loser. The victim of a big, bad beat. After the crowd quiets a little the camera swings over to him, sitting and smiling, and he speaks. Did you catch what he said?

“It’s not over yet.”

It’s not over yet comes easily to some people, myself included. I’m generally stubborn and sure-footed, more likely to stand my ground and fight back than to retreat and lick my wounds. But his demeanor, the zen-ish, probably-a-little-shaken-but-also-doing-just-fine smile . . .that does not come easily. When I see someone try something that I’ve suggested, to be met with greater success than I myself am having, little seeds of jealously, anxiety, self-doubt, and frustration sprout and take root.  If I don’t complain aloud, I certainly complain internally.  (Shockingly, this complaining does nothing to improve my situation.)

To recenter and move forward in the most clear-headed, non-emotional way possible, let’s consider this tag-team quote, which comes from Howard Lederer and Annie Duke (siblings and professional poker players). 

First, let’s take a look at that “If” because, in our shoes,  it’s an important word. When recovering from a bad beat, it makes sense to analyze your play. Step back and self-evaluate: are you really applying best practices? Is there anything that you could have done differently? After your self-analysis, reach out for help (or just for confirmation). Call on someone who is more experienced and has a generally good degree of success, and ask for their input. Are you using the correct materials, and the correct approach? Is there anything that you need to adjust?  Walk your way around that “if” and examine it from every angle until you’re sure enough to stomp it down. 

Now you’re left with “You’re making good decisions.” Yes. You are making good decisions. You suspected it to be true, and any doubts that may have sprouted after the bad beat have been stomped back down with expert confirmation (or you’ve made appropriate revisions to optimize the correctness of your decisions). In the game of poker, some things are left to chance. In AAC implementation there is a large amount chance, due to about a hundred variables that are just not in our control. The oscillating health of the AAC users that we are supporting, fatigue, sensory and attention challenges, access challenges, sporadic interest, environmental issues, lack of consistent support at school, and other things that we probably don't even perceive . . . we can work our best to understand the elements at play and seek to minimize the chance associated with these factors, but we cannot control these things. What we can control is the decisions that we personally make about implementation, advocacy, and support. And although you may not have much to show for it right now, you are making winning decisions. The best thing for you to do is keep playing. Which brings us to this:

We are playing the long game, folks. In poker, in life, in advocating for our children, in implementing an AAC system and supporting autonomous communication . . . the game is long. We cannot expect that each day (week, month, year) will feel victorious. I would guess that poker players who expect to win every hand are more likely to be shaken by a loss, while those who take their seats expecting to play several winning and several losing hands will have an easier time brushing one off and moving forward. In the video clip above, Paul Wasicka actually says “It’s not over” twice: once before the flop, when he had a 92% chance of winning the hand . . . and again after he lost. He’s playing the long game. He knows that the loss of this hand, while currently crushing, won’t matter at all if he’s able to win the overall game.

AAC implementation is a long, long game. After system selection, acquisition, and initial programming come exposure, motivation, modeling, enticing, teaching, supporting, modifying, and more programming. There is no shortage of language goals, either, with expanding vocabulary, expanding utterance length, targeting the many functions of speech, moving up the hierarchy of grammar, etc. There is always another thing-to-be-considered, there is always another hand to play.  And progress . . . it’s often inconsistent, slow, or unpredictable. We spent years (literally, years) modeling spontaneous, complete sentences without seeing similar production from Maya, until one Tuesday night, when suddenly she was creating spontaneous complete sentences. On that night, as I listened in awe, I no longer cared one bit about the three years of not hearing long, spontaneous sentences. I didn’t lament the time and effort that I had put in, or the months that we suffered the repeated bad beat of zero “progress” despite smart decisions and concerted effort. That night we won an important hand and collected a huge pot (the “pot” is the sum of the chips bet during a hand.)

Let’s talk about the pot for a moment.

A poker game will be comprised of many hands and the size of the pot will vary each hand (depending on how many people play the hand and how much they choose to bet). When a player is deciding to play a hand, they ideally create a mental ratio by comparing the pot size to the size of the bet that they need to stay in the game (this is called pot odds). (This is a little mathy, but stick with me, I’ll rephrase.) Generally speaking, if your odds of winning the hand are greater than or equal to the pot odds, you should stay in the game. Here’s a simple explanation from my statistician friend:

If you have a 20% of winning your current hand, you would expect to make your hand 20% of the time, or one in 5 hands. If the pot odds don't suggest you would recoup your money in 5 hands, you wouldn't consider it worth the bet.
In plain, non-numerical language, Annie Duke explains it like this, “The amount of the pot determines how sure you have to be that your hand is good.” As the size of the potential bounty increases, compared to a relatively small amount to risk, the more mathematically encouraged you are to play. Because you are paying in so little and standing to win so much, you can win only very occasionally and still break even or move ahead. For example, if it costs $10 to stay in a hand and you stand to win $100 in the pot, you could lose nine consecutive hands (-$90), win the tenth (+$90: the $100 pot minus your $10 bet), and break even. You could lose 90% of the time in that scenario and still be in decent shape. Ninety percent! That means that losing anything less than 90% of the time will have you actually increasing your chip pool over the course of the long game, slowly but surely.  If it doesn’t cost much to stay in the game and the pot is very large, your hand doesn’t have to be all that strong for it to make sense to play.

The wins between our losses just have to be big enough to keep us moving forward.

(And we have to stay in the game and believe that a win will come, eventually.)

In considering AAC implementation, the pots tied to each hand are pretty damn large.

Spontaneous, autonomous communication. Speaking to anyone, anywhere, about anything. Making jokes, being bossy, tattling, directing, asking questions, commanding, requesting, teasing, sharing feelings, telling stories, self-advocating, having access to all of the words. If you were silenced tomorrow, how much would it be worth to you to regain your ability to communicate? The pot is huge.

The bet isn’t that big. It’s showing up, modeling, continuing to learn about AAC. It’s practicing our implementation and advocating for more people in our children’s lives to use AAC with them. It’s teaching our teachers and therapists about total communication. It’s tiring. But it’s not a large bet, compared to what our children stand to win. (Yes, our children.) Because as personal as this feels, we’re not really the ones who truly have chips on the line.

We’re all playing as proxies. I sit at the table and play for Maya, because she’s not yet able to play for herself. I’ve learned the game to play in her place, until she might be able to take the seat herself, to direct her own AAC use and the support that she needs to continue increasing her skills and fluency. While I am emotionally tied to her winnings and losses, I have nothing on the line. I’m playing with her chips, trying to manage them as best I can. It’s a huge responsibility. I am doubly crushed by bad beats---once, selfishly, in a “but I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to do and this isn’t fair!” way, and then again in an “I’m sorry, Maya, I’m trying my best and we’re not winning right now.”

Not right now.

Not yet.

But maybe in this next hand.

Shuffle up and deal.

Related Links
Dealing with Doubt: Radiolab podcast segment that introduced me to the concepts of bad beats and pot odds.
Big Think interview with Annie Duke