I’ve known Maria Konnikova for several years—how we met, I don’t recall. She’s the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Confidence Game (Amazon, Bookshop) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Amazon, Bookshop). Her latest book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (Amazon, Bookshop), just hit the shelves.
I do love a self-experiment. While researching The Biggest Bluff, Maria became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings—and inadvertently turned into a professional poker player.
When she’s not writing books, Maria is a regular contributor
to The New Yorker
, and her writing has won numerous awards. She’s also the host of the podcast The Grift
, a show that explores con artists and the lives they ruin.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Maria about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Maria: Daily morning yoga. I always start my day with an Ashtanga practice, and it sets the perfect tone for everything that comes after. I’m in a better frame of mind, more calm and mindful and centered. My body is more limber and ready for the day. I’m ready to take on the world!
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Just how important it is to focus on experiences—to learn to savor and fully take in everything around you. I think I let a few too many things pass me by when I was younger. I was always in one rush or another to reach some milestone. Now, I try to plan ahead as little as possible and just take it day by day, fully experiencing each and every one.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Most people are baffled by my takeaways on deception. They are convinced it’s possible to tell, reliably, if someone is lying or not. It isn’t. I’ve spent years on this, first in the world of con artists and, more recently, in the world of poker. We tend to be no better than chance at figuring out if someone is telling the truth or not. Our brains simply aren’t equipped to spot falsehood (Is that person really happy to see me? Did they really miss my party because they were busy, or was it just an excuse? Think of how many white lies we encounter daily, and how much of a drain to our self-esteem it would be if we picked up on each one). And that can be a troubling thing.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
It took me a long time to start exercising daily. I hated going to the gym, and it never stuck. It’s not until I found a routine that I could get behind on every level, yoga, that I found I could stick to it. Philosophically, I see that it does much more for me than just keeping me fit, so it’s very easy to keep going. I want to do it, and miss it when I don’t. It doesn’t seem like a waste of time, the way that running on a treadmill always did. For me, it was all about finding the activity that actually suited me.
Ha. Rebel, all the way. I knew that before, but I just took the quiz and I think I may be as Rebel as they come. I’ve never been able to work in an office—and had five (!) jobs my first year out of college before I realized the corporate world and I simply weren’t meant to be. And don’t ever try to tell me what to do. It ain’t happening.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
For my new book, The Biggest Bluff,
I spent more time on the road than I ever had before. In 2018, I traveled for a total of about eight months. That’s a lot of time away. So, I had to be incredibly mindful of making sure I was still leading a healthy lifestyle. At home, I cook almost all of my meals (all, these days). So, eating well is tough on the road. I try to only eat food where I see every ingredient. If there’s sushi and sashimi at my destination, I’m all set. Otherwise, it can get tricky. But I try to book hotels with either kitchens or, at the least, good fridge space, and I go shopping first thing, to get healthy snacks, lots of fruit, and the like. I also travel with my own oatmeal and travel teapot! I also always pack a travel yoga mat, so that I make sure to keep my daily practice no matter where I am. The hardest thing is sleep and time zone changes. When I flew to Macau, I don’t think I ever really adjusted. I do my best to follow good sleep hygiene practice, but this is the toughest thing for me to get right.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
It was more of a slow lightning strike. The inspiration for my latest book was a series of life setbacks—a sudden autoimmune condition that left me unable to leave the apartment; the sudden death of my grandmother; multiple people in my family losing their jobs at once. It made me realize how much of a role chance plays in life. It fully opened my eyes to the extent that things we think we control are actually far outside our abilities to direct.
Is there a particular quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
The quote I used to open my first book, Mastermind
, is one that has guided my life ever since I first discovered it. It’s from W. H. Auden, one of my favorite poets. “Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences. As Ortega y Gasset said: ‘Tell me to what you pay attention, and I’ll tell you who you are.'” It seems endlessly relevant.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
The Little Prince
. From the moment I first read it as a child, it took my breath away. And I’ve returned to it many, many times since—in Russian, the way I first read it, in French, in English—throughout my life, taking new lessons each time. It’s a masterpiece—and a master guide for how to live your best life.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Yes. Two. First, that writing is easy and you don’t have to work hard. Second, that writing shouldn’t be well compensated, because, come on, it’s art! It should be free. Writers need to eat. And writers should be paid for their work. And there’s no myth more dangerous than that of the starving artist who must starve to create.
Author photo courtesy of Neil Stoddart and PokerStars