How Blackjack Helped Save My Mom

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a blog. For most of September, October and November, I was traveling. Then the last few months, I’ve been busy trying to figure out my next move in life.

So busy is one excuse but the real reason is that there is a blog that I’ve wanted to write that is so personal that I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to write it and that dilemma has turned me into a procrastinator.

Well here goes nothing.

A subject I speak about in my talks and discuss extensively in my book  is avoiding cognitive biases. One such bias called omission bias rears its head often in blackjack.  Wikipedia defines omission bias as “the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral than equally harmful omissions (inactions).” So basically it’s our natural inclination to favor inaction over action.

In blackjack, it’s the average player standing on a 15 against the dealer’s 7 hoping against hope that the dealer has less than a 10 in the hole and will need to draw a card and bust. Even though the statistically sound decision is to hit (draw a card), many players will stand not wanting to be the cause of their own demise.

UCLA professor Bruce Carlin published fascinating study on blackjack, where he found the average player makes four times more mistakes at the table based on inaction or conservatism versus action or overaggressiveness. People like to delay the inevitable.

So what does this have to do with my Mom?

Rewind back to the morning of September 14th. I was in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, about to give a speech at an event for Miller-Heiman. I got a strange text message from my sister Yvette, asking me to please call her.

I did and she was crying hysterically. “Mom had a stroke,” she said over the phone to me.

I collapsed and began weeping. I have faced some difficult times in my life. In my mid 20’s, I dealt with the death of a close friend, my grandmother and my fraternity big brother all in the span of one month. I, myself, had a near fatal sickness when I was five. Originally misdiagnosed with Reye Syndrome, I faced a two week bout with spinal meningitis, luckily ending up unscathed.

But this was wholly different. This was my mom.

I went downstairs and battled through an hour speech to 300 people, wearing my best happy face and basically ran out of the room when I was done. I raced back to San Francisco and made preparations to return home to Worcester MA that night to be with my family.

When I got home, it was clear that my mom was in bad shape. She could not speak, barely recognized me and could not move her entire right side. During the first few hours I sat with her she was getting worse and worse, starting to look lethargic and unconscious.

The doctors informed us of an important decision. Given the size of the clot in her brain, we had two choices – do nothing and hope the blood eventually resorbs or operate on her brain and actively suck the blood clot out of her brain. The staff was actually divided on the right action. There was no clear data that operating would help and in fact the decision to operate on the brain of a 73 year old woman may have been a fatal one.

The only data before us was that only 22% of patients in a similar situation to my mother would live past 60 days. I sent a copy of my mom’s CAT scan to my good friend Omar Amr, an ER doctor. He immediately stressed to me how bad this stroke was and after performing some diligence recommended operating despite the obvious risks.

It was at this point that I remembered the lesson of omission bias in blackjack. Just like the average blackjack player who knows that hitting 15 against a 7 is the right decision, I was starting to believe that operating was the “right” decision. But just like the average blackjack player, I didn’t want to be the one that forced my mom to bust.

As I sat with my family, I thought about what I would have done at the blackjack table. “If we think operating gives mom the best chance of leading a high quality of life going forward, we need to do it regardless of the risks.”

My father and sisters agreed and we told the surgeon to operate as soon as he could.

I’m not sure if I can describe the next six hours as we sat and waited for my mom to come out of surgery. We tried to go eat and tried to be “normal” but soon after trying to spend some time at home, we found ourselves back at the hospital waiting for the surgeon to come out of surgery.

Finally, at around 10 PM, Dr. Richard Moser, who we have come to know as the miracle worker, emerged with a smile on his face. He reported that the surgery could not have gone better and he expected a speedy recovery or at least a speedy beginning to a recovery.

I’m happy to say that he was right. The next day we looked at the scans and almost all of the blood was gone from her brain. A few hours after the anesthesia started to wear off, my mother started to return to life – slowly, of course.

Now less than six months from that fateful day, my mom has many of her facilities back. She can walk without incident and has actually started working out a few times a week with a physical trainer. Her speech has come back and although she struggles at times to say exactly what she means (don’t we all), she has come a long way in a little time.

I’m incredibly proud of my mom for her recovery and equally as proud of my father who has worked tirelessly to help her to get to where she is. I will forever be grateful to Dr. Moser who performed a miracle and gave my mom a chance when many surgeons would have been scared to even try.

It’s funny because people always scoff at the idea that blackjack or gambling can teach you anything about business or real life. But the next time you are faced with a difficult decision hopefully this lesson of avoiding omission bias will help you do the same.


4 Comments on “How Blackjack Helped Save My Mom

  1. Nice post. Glad you are back to writing. Your topic rings true in business and sports too. When given a choice or opportunity, we need to act and go after our goals and choices and be confident, not sit back and let someone else make a choice for us, or worse, take our choice by acting before us. Glad to hear about your mom and I wish her a continued speedy recovery.

  2. I listened to your presentation last Friday in Phoenix and felt that this personal story was what really drove home the point of omission bias. I have had to make similiar decisions with my father and it spoke to me personally. However, the lessons you impart on a business level are so compelling, I am going to campaign for you to speak at our company conference. I wish you much success on your future endeavors. I can’t wait to read your book!! Namaste…

  3. Glad to hear she is recovering. This was exactly the post I needed to bring home the point of ommission bias. I am assessing my next move in the small business I run and have been spliting hairs trying to figure out my next move. Thank you and good luck and health for your family.

  4. Awesome story. We also really see this phenomenon occur in NFL coaching decisions imo. NFL coaches constantly err on the side of caution when deciding whether to punt or go for it on 4th down situations. Only the rare coach with tremendous job security and personal convictions in the data(Belichick being the best example by far) makes the correct decisions on a regular basis imo.

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