8 Lessons in Critical & Adaptive Thinking from Playing Cards at Grandma's House

As a boy, Sundays were at grandma's house. As soon as the dinner table was wiped clean, we played card games. Later, as a young policeman with a hectic court schedule, I often opted to stay by her house - quieter and closer to the station than where I was living. Inevitably, she and I played cards. I learned more than the rules of the game.

Critical thinking is the ability to pick apart a problem or opportunity from many perspectives (think: critic!). It requires one: gather information from a variety of sources, crunch the data into useful intelligence, apply concepts and principles, analyze variables and relationships, predict potential outcomes, and develop theories or hypotheses. 

In many ways, adaptability is the capacity to think critically in the pursuit of solving complex problems or seizing new opportunities.  

Adaptability is an organism's ability to timely and appropriately respond to change. It requires maintaining an awareness, processing new intelligence, synthesizing strategies, and implementing an option...among various alternatives that all lay within the bounds of established rules.

I look back at those memories of playing card game after card game with my family. There were undoubtedly many lessons in critical thinking and adaptability that arose over a shuffled deck of playing cards: 

The rules are only a start. The rules of the game define the objective and the bounds. They give no hints as to planning, strategy, or tactics of good play. If all a player does is follow the rules (which she must!), she isn't setting herself up for success. The rules merely define the limits.

Pay attention! One must maintain awareness of what is going on outside his own hand. Each card played or dealt changes the landscape of the game. It's change and intelligence. It helps the players calculate probabilities, forecast options, and make decisions. Information is king. 

Keep your options open. A player should keep as many possibilities open as possible...until she must commit. When she closes an option, she should do so based on statistics and analysis. But other times, she's just gotta flip a coin and pick. Maintaining options requires one keeps an open mind to the future.

Value generalists...and wild cards. Wild cards are always valuable in your hand; they always fit in somewhere. But overlooked are those cards that have multi-use...like those that can be used for a flush or a straight or a pair...depending on what turns up next. These cards have great value and broad use, despite what their face value might portray! 

Balance risks. In some games, getting caught with points in hand is balanced with being able to score high. A player should continually balance the risks of winning and losing. Sometimes he should go for it all; sometimes he should play more conservatively. Battles win wars. 

Focus on process over outcome. Players with good processes win, but not always. Others' hands and the draw pile add unknown and unknowable variables into the mix. The "luck factor" will only take a player so far; a good, consistent, disciplined, non-linear process will take her much farther! Process influences outcome. Get a good one. And don't flaunt wins when they come via luck.

Play what you're dealt. It sounds cliche, but you gotta play the hand for a chance to win. Do the best with what you've got; sometimes you'll catch a break. And if you don't get lucky, at least minimize your losses. And be sure not to squander a good hand through complacency! 

Learn from mistakes. My grandma wasn't the sort who let little kids win the game. She saw no value in everyone getting a trophy. Instead, she would work with us on how to make better decisions -- on what cards to save, to discard, or to play. The lessons came either as hints during the game or as explanations after the game (on why or how certain decisions were made). They were debriefs or after-action reports. This is where the real learning took place! 

Playing cards with my family at grandma's house forced me to think critically and adaptively. Unfortunately, these above lessons were not reinforced in formal education settings. Not in grade school. Not in prep school. Not at the university. Not in police training. 

These were life hacks learned from those seated around grandma's kitchen table. Sadly, not all of those people are with us anymore. Gratefully, the lessons are.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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