To celebrate my 32nd birthday, I started the Hustle Hard Interview Project. Each month for the next year, I’ll be interviewing one Hustler who embodies a skill or a quality I admire. I hope to uncover some gems that bring me one step closer to being a fully-formed adult.
I dare you to sit down to lunch with professional poker player, Vanessa Selbst, and then write about her without including the overused expression “one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.” I tried it myself, but the best variation I came up with was “one of the realest people I have ever met.” So you know what? Overused or not, I don’t care: Vanessa is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.
I remind my 13-year-old daughter, Cal, to live fearlessly and to use her brain for good and not just for easy. To provide a strong voice for those who aren’t in a position to help themselves. And that being brave means living in a way that is honest and bold. Vanessa is the embodiment of these reminders.
At the age of 28, Vanessa is regarded as one of the best poker players in the world with nearly $5M in live tournament earnings (which doesn’t even include her online poker success). That alone is impressive, but add to that an undergraduate education from M.I.T. and Yale. Top it off with a law degree she earned from Yale in January 2012. The biggest accomplishment of my 20’s was making it through with all of my limbs intact and a mostly-functional liver.
EJL: It’s thrilling to know women who are unafraid to be themselves. Have you always been this fearless?
VS: Ever since I came out as a senior in high school, I realized people couldn’t make fun of me for who I was anymore because I owned it. If people didn’t like the fact that I was a lesbian, something wasn’t wrong with me, something was wrong with them. As an adult, I’m working on being even more honest with who I am. I’ve come a long way in becoming a person that I like more just by being able to admit my own faults. That’s made me more confident. How could I be comfortable being anyone else?
EJL: How has your family influenced your fearless attitude?
VS: I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a family who is very supportive. It took me a while to break out of the “go to this school, get that job” treadmill. I was in the Fulbright Program, worked at McKinsey for a while, and then decided I wanted to pursue poker professionally. I don’t know that I could have done it without the support of my mom and my friends. My whole community has been really supportive.
EJL: You were already a successful poker player when you decided to go to law school. What made you decide to back to school?
VS: Even as an upper middle class white woman, I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt disempowered while trying to assert my rights. There are people who are harassed on a daily basis with no recourse. My law degree gives me the framework to address police misconduct and government abuse of authority, and to fight for racial justice and economic equality.
EJL: This makes me think of The Wire.
VS: As hyperrealistic as it is, when people watch The Wire, they still think they are just watching a show. I don’t know if they’re able to disconnect and ignore the references or get insight that the show is what it’s really like for some people.
EJL: I’m amazed that you were able to devote your time to two really big pursuits simultaneously. In 2010, you had the best year of your poker career, and because of your success in 2011, it was the second consecutive year you had over $1M in tournament winnings. I’m still working on patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.
VS: I have a lot of things that I care about, and I couldn’t imagine being one-dimensional. I missed poker so much when I tried to take a break. I’m so lucky that I can do what I love.
EJL: It’s so lucky that you’re good at what you love.
VS: Social intuition helps a lot with poker. You get a sense of what other people are capable of, and I try to understand players to know their level of thought.
EJL: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given, personal or professional?
VS: Always consider all your options. Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to look stupid. I may have the award for looking stupid the most times on television, but I’m unafraid to make crazy plays. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. I used to be a lot more argumentative. Now, even when I disagree with people, I try to think about their motivations.
What a year it’s been. Looking back, I realized that I let fear and feelings of inadequacy control what I did and how I did it. Every year, I choose a word or phrase as a theme. For 2013, it’s:
What would be your word or phrase for the New Year?
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Last week’s giveaway winner: Dennis (you have the number 81 in your email). Please email me at elizabeth at flourishinprogress dot com.