Three Things Rounders Can Teach You About Following Your Passion

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been thinking about the movie Rounders lately.

I’ve been thinking about making it as a freelance writer, too. And making it as an author. And my day job.

Have you been there too? There’s this thing that you do, and this thing that you want to do, and this other thing that might be better than the thing you’re doing now, but you;’ll have to take time away from doing what you want to make it happen?

Much as we’d like to, we can’t have everything we want. But how do you figure out what you should do next? And / or for the rest of your life?

Turns out Rounders, a 1998 movie about poker and the people who play it, has a fair bit to say on the subject.

WARNING: Spoilers follow. If you’ve not seen Rounders… Well, I suggest you go see it!

Rounders is the story of Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon. Mike’s a law student and former rounder – poker player – who struggles with his passion for the cards, his relationships with his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) who wants him to succeed at law and his best friend Worm (Edward Norton), a fellow rounder who has reasons of his own for wanting Mike back in the game.

Just what can it tell us about following our passions?

Divorcing Skill from Passion can End in Tears

Mike (Matt Damon) and Jo (Gretchen Mol).

Mike’s girlfriend Jo has stuck by her man through a lot, especially when he wiped his college fund out of in a bad game of poker. She’s lost him in the intervening nine months to the shift work driving his friend’s delivery truck. She’s watched him pick himself back up after his dream of making it to the big time was shattered.

When Mike comes home one night and tells her that he managed to get an “in” with a senior judge thanks to his poker skills, Jo is understandably concerned, but not just because it might be the start of another downward spiral. Jo tells Mike that if he’s making connections through poker, then the people he’s supposedly bonding with may never see him as anything better than a cheap hustler.

That, perhaps, is the heart of the problem with Jo and Mike’s relationship. Though they might love each other, Jo, at the very least, fails to grasp Mike’s passion isn’t in the law. While she may be correct that the root skills – bluff, reading people, calculating odds – are similar, she’s wrong to believe that their application can bring the same satisfaction – to Mike, at least

It’s sad that Mike only manages to explain this to Jo by inserting his foot square in his mouth, telling her that sitting down at a poker table to play was the first time in months that he felt alive.

No matter how much the people around you might not get it, no matter how many times they tell you that “the skills you have from your hobby have so many practical applications,” there’s a reason why you keep putting your free time into your hobby instead of what everyone tells you will be of more benefit – because when all else fails, it’s what brings you joy.

Still, you do need to make ends meet until such time as you can truly get paid to play.

So what can you do?

For starters, keep on with your hobby. Keep those regular hits of joy coming in; they’ll tide you over on the grind.

For seconds, take a good, honest look at your life and how you’re spending it. Make sure also that between your ‘day job’ and your hobby, you’ve left yourself enough time to just be with the people you love.

For thirds: There’s a temptation to put your spare time toward finding or creating a job that utilises some or all of the skills you’ve honed in your hobby, but that doesn’t directly address the passion of your hobby.

Be careful where that temptation leads you. You might discover that you’ve invested time that could have gone toward your passion into something that may pay more, but that eats more of your spare time (especially if you’re aiming at become self-employment) and doesn’t produce as much joy.

Like Mike, you may find yourself doing your new thing with only half your heart, feeling like you’re somehow cheating yourself when you sneak in time on your real passion.

If your day job pays the bills and doesn’t take an unhealthy toll on you, put your time toward your passion instead of trying to fix something that ain’t really broke.

And for fourths and finals, really, really be honest with yourself and those you love about your passion. If your family and friends try and talk you into redirecting your time and effort elsewhere, especially toward something that has superficial similarities to your hobby, listen – always listen first – and even give their suggestion a go, but if you decide their path isn’t for you, stick to your guns. It will save you all a lot of time and heartache.

Choose Who You Help Wisely

Mike and Worm (Edward Norton).

Why wouldn’t Mike be there when Worm got out? They came up together, sons of the blue collar maintainers of a white collar school. They ran scams together. Hell, Worm wouldn’t rat on Mike when Worm got busted after the pair rigged a college ball game. Worm even got expelled for keeping mum.

It’s easy to judge Worm on the fact that he’s just getting out of jail. The guy’s endured a lifetime of arse-kicking from his drunkard father on down.

Of course Mike should have his back, right?

But Worm not only drags Mike back into cards but also runs debts up under Mike’s name. On top of that, he keeps rigging the game whenever Mike tries to bail him out.

It becomes increasingly clear that Worm doesn’t have Mike’s back. It takes a beating from a whole roomful of cops (who then take every cent Mike and Worm have, hours before the deadline on Worm’s debts) before Mike gets the message.

Worm simply doesn’t know how to approach the world any other way he does – give it nothing but contempt and then run when it kicks back. And much as Mike may be the closest thing to a brother Worm has ever had, Worm simply doesn’t trust any way of doing things other than his, nor does he really care about the wreckage he leaves in his wake – including Mike.

In a way, Mike and Jo have the same problem.

Both have an idea of the person that they’re trying to help that doesn’t match that person’s true nature.

Jo sees Mike as a potentially great lawyer who’s better than hustling his way through life; Mike sees Worm as a good friend who just needs a break. In the end, though, neither of them are right, and both of them do the same thing once they realise it: Get out of a bad situation.

The ideal of getting paid to play has at its heart the idea of helping others make fun, which means you’re going to be spending your time and, yes, your money on other folks. I doubt you’ll ever have to learn just who’s worth your time and effort in a manner anywhere near as painful, but there’s always the possibility that you’ll take on some work for a person who’ll keep asking for more and more of said time and effort without really valuing it.

So keep your eyes open and your wits about you, and if you find yourself stressing out, you might need to ask yourself: Are you pouring your effort down a hole?

And if the answer’s yes, try and talk about it with your client, but also remember that sometimes, cutting your losses and refusing to help further may be the best way you can help your client.

Let Your Dream Drive You, But Not Blind You

Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) and Mike play their final hands.

That big dream of Mike’s that got shattered by the bad game of poker I mentioned earlier? Well, it was to go to Las Vegas and compete against the best in the World Series of Poker.

When Mike goes to Teddy KGB’s illegal parlour with thirty grand that fateful night, he’s keen to show everyone on the local poker circuit that he has the chops to hang with the best. Instead, Mike loses the whole of his stake. Tuition, case money, possibly his rent. If it weren’t for his old mate Knish and his delivery truck, Mike would have been screwed.

The problem wasn’t Mike overestimating his skills; we discover later on that he had good reason to think he could beat Teddy’s table. The problem was that when Mike went up against Teddy KGB (played with scenery-eating gusto by John Malkovich), he was too caught up visions of sitting down with the kings of poker in Vegas’ legendary castles to notice Teddy setting a trap for him.

After Worm cuts and runs, leaving Mike saddled with a debt of fifteen grand to Teddy, Mike hatches a desperate plan. Armed with a loan of ten grand from a kindly college professor, Mike heads back to Teddy’s place. As the money is still his until sun-up, he uses it to buy into another game with KGB.

This time, Mike is right here and now, and though Teddy goads Mike back to the table after he wins enough to pay Worm’s debt and half of what he owes the professor, he spots Teddy’s tell and uses it to rattle the mobster so well that he winds up walking away not just clear of all his debts, but also up by the thirty grand he lost nine months ago.

So is having a dream worthless?

Of course not. Having a dream is a sign that you believe enough in yourself to entertain the possibility of making it come true, the idea that you can make yourself better than you are now. Our dreams are what keep us going through the tough times.

That said, though, you need to make sure that your dream is carrying you forward, not away. It’s sometimes easy to kid yourself into thinking that you can bring your dream closer by cutting corners, or even assuming that it’s a given, just as Mike did that first night at KGB’s.

So hold onto your dream and nurture it. Let it recharge your mental and spiritual batteries in the quiet times, when you’re stopped, instead of a carrot you tie to a stick and hold out in front of yourself to keep you moving.

You’ll be so busy looking at the carrot that you won’t notice the turn in the road. Keep your eyes open, and even if a particular move away from danger might seem to take you away from achieving your dream, make the call that your knowledge and guts are telling you to make, not the shining vision of the goal at the end of the road.

Dream big, but keep the choices you make on the way to realising it the same size as what you’re doing right now.

In the Game of Bluff, Be Honest with Yourself

Mike, bruised and bloodied but unbowed, heads for Vegas.

It’s easy to say “the game of poker is the game of life.” People have been using that phrase with their favourite sport in the place of ‘poker’ since sport was invented.

But Rounders has a lot to say about life and finding your direction. In the end, it’s when Mike stops fooling himself about being out of the game, about being a lawyer, about being Worm’s friend (and, perhaps, about loving Jo) that he finally gets it all together and finds the guts to be what he is, what he loves being – a damn good poker player.

There’s a phrase that the bloggers I like and follow coin when talking about making dreams a reality:

Don’t wait for others to pick you. Pick yourself.

At the end of Rounders, that’s what Mike does: Trusts in his skills and ability to see him, through the here and now while he makes his way toward the future he wants.

Will he make it to the World Series? Will he win? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing we can be sure of: He’ll be happier finding out than he’ll ever be doing anything else.

And that’s no bad way to live.

All images taken from Rounders and are copyright Village / Miramax.


Rounders on Rotten Tomatoes

Seth Godin on picking yourself