For two decades, ANNIE DUKE was one of the top poker players in the world. In 2004, she bested a field of 234 players to win her first World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet. The same year, she triumphed in the $2 million winner-take- all, invitation-only WSOP Tournament of Champions. Prior to becoming a professional poker player, Annie was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study cognitive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Annie regularly shares her observations on the science of smart decision-making (applied to much more than poker) on her blog, Annie’s Analysis, and has shared her poker knowledge through a series of best-selling books, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone: Mastering the Most Difficult Hands in Hold’em Poker (both co-authored with John Vorhaus). Annie’s latest book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, focuses on strategies for great decision-making.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
First, seek out dissenting opinions. Always try to find people who disagree with you, who can honestly and productively play devil’s advocate. Challenge yourself to truly listen to people who have differing ideas and opinions than you do. Stay out of political bubbles and echo chambers as much as possible. Feel good about really hearing those who disagree with you. Try to change your mind about one thing every day.
The fact is that when two extreme opinions meet, the truth lies generally somewhere in the middle. Without exposure to the other side, you will naturally drift toward the extremes and away from the truth of the matter. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Because being wrong is just an opportunity to find more of the truth.
Second, stay flexible and be open to opportunities as they come your way. Most of the successful people I know did not know exactly what they wanted to do coming right out of college, and they changed their focus over the course of their careers. Be open to what the world brings your way. Don’t be afraid to change jobs or careers, no matter how much time you have already put into something. There is no urgency to have it all figured out. And feeling like you have it all figured out can make you stuck and close-minded to change.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I have generally become better at saying no to just about everything, but particularly to obligations that make me travel away from home. The strategy I have implemented is to imagine it is the day I have to leave and think about how happy or sad I am on that day. Then to follow that by imagining it is the day after and I am back home and to ask myself: Was the travel worth it? Am I happy to have said yes and done what I did? By doing this kind of “time traveling,” I am better able to imagine the downside of the things I don’t like (being away from home, the hassle of traveling) and weigh that against the upside of what I am considering (giving a keynote that gets a great response from an audience, doing a charity event and feeling really good about the money raised).
I can achieve the same thing by imagining similar offers that I have accepted or rejected. Am I happy I accepted or happy I rejected the offer? This is a great technique for thinking about any decision, whether it is a small one like whether to accept a dinner invitation or a big one like whether to move to a new city. Doing some mindful time travel helps you get perspective.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
In poker, you do a lot of failing because you lose a lot of hands. There are two ways to fail in poker. First, you could define failing simply as having a losing outcome, like losing a hand. But one of the lessons poker teaches you is that this is an unproductive way to define failure because you can win a hand by making very poor decisions and lose a hand while making very good decisions. So you can put all your money in the pot with a mathematically dominant hand and still lose because the rest of the cards that are dealt don’t go your way.
If you define failure as merely losing, then you will think failure is just an outcome. And you might try to adjust your play to avoid losing even though your decisions were great (or repeat poor strategies just because you won executing them once). This would be the equivalent of deciding it is wise to run red lights because you made it through one safely a few times. Or to decide not to go through green lights because you got in an accident once doing that.
Poker has taught me to disconnect failure from outcomes. Just because I lose doesn’t mean I failed, and just because I won doesn’t mean I succeeded—not when you define success and failure around making good decisions that will win in the long run. What matters is the decisions I made along the way, and every decision failure is an opportunity to learn and adjust my strategy going forward. By doing this, losing becomes a less emotional experience and more an opportunity to explore and learn.