ReThinking with Adam Grant
Knowing when to quit with world poker champion Annie Duke
January 3, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. Today's conversation is with Annie Duke, World Poker Champion and decision-making expert.
Annie's the bestselling author of Thinking in Bets and a new book: Quit. If anyone knows when to fold, it's Annie. So I brought her to the Authors@Wharton series I host to discuss when to grit and when to quit at work as well as at home.
[00:00:45] Adam Grant:
Hello everyone. Welcome to Authors at Wharton. [applause] So delighted to have Annie Duke. Annie, welcome.
[00:00:56] Annie Duke:
Thank you for having me. I would just like to, before we start, point out that, uh, my research assistant on the book is sitting right here. [applause] So, so, uh, that's, this is Antonio. Big hand for him.
[00:01:09] Adam Grant:
So Annie, are you a quitter?
[00:01:11] Annie Duke:
Total quitter? I'm a quitter and a gritter because obviously, like, you can't succeed at something if you haven't stuck to it. So obviously, I was very successful in poker, for example, so I stuck to it. Uh, but I'm also like a humongous quitter and I think that's a little bit the point, right? That one or the other isn't a good thing to be. You need to be both.
[00:01:31] Adam Grant:
Okay. So if I'm not thrilled with this conversation halfway through, I can just walk.
[00:01:36] Annie Duke:
Just go. Walk out the door.
[00:01:37] Adam Grant:
Good. I’m glad I have the author’s permission.
[00:01:39] Annie Duke:
I will endorse, endorse.
[00:01:41] Adam Grant:
Excellent. So, take us back to the beginning. Why did you get interested in quitting? I know that you were doing a degree at, I don't know, some Ivy League school in Pennsylvania—
[00:01:51] Annie Duke:
Some, some, some school in Pennsylvania.
[00:01:52] Adam Grant:
And you dropped out of our Ph.D. program here at Penn. Why did you quit?
[00:01:56] Annie Duke:
Okay, so I did five years here across the way in Solomon at, uh, in the psychology department. That means I'd already done all the work for my dissertation. I've passed my qualifying exams. In fact, I was on the job market.
[00:02:09] Adam Grant:
You’re insane. But go on.
[00:02:10] Annie Duke:
Well, uh, there's two lessons here. So, um, I got sick, and I ended up in the hospital for a couple weeks, and it was right when I was supposed to be giving all of my job talks. Uh, first of all, I had to cancel those, ‘cause you know, those are seasonal anyway, so I'm gonna have to wait until the next year ‘cause I'm just at that point not healthy and, um, need money. So I was, uh, on a fellowship. I didn't have it anymore. You know, my dad's a school teacher, so he wasn't really gonna be able to help me much.
That's when I started playing poker and I loved it. So Penn at that time was really kind of, uh, one of the very first, what you would call cognitive science programs, right, where it was very interdisciplinary. We were really thinking about how those disciplines spoke to each other in terms of how the human mind interacts with the world and processes it, and models it.
And here I'm sitting at poker and it's just like a real life, you know, fast-paced, high stakes version of what I was studying, and I just loved it, and I ended up not going back and defending.
Um, so first lesson is sometimes you're forced to quit. It's not voluntary and uh, it forces you to explore options that you otherwise might not explore. And while it doesn't always work out, sometimes it does. And I think there's a really important lesson in that, that we can talk about, about opportunity costs, uh, and how you can neglect that if you weren't forced to. Uh, but the other thing is that the thing about quitting is it's about reversibility, and even decisions to quit are reversible because just as of about two months ago, I am now enrolled as a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania. Woo. [applause]
[00:03:47] Adam Grant:
We just, we just had to wait a few decades.
[00:03:49] Annie Duke:
Just had to wait a few decades, and I should defend my dissertation sometime at the beginning of 2023.
[00:03:58] Adam Grant:
We're definitely excited for that. So talk to me about the early experience of poker. Poker is, I think, the quintessential game for understanding when to, when to quit. And so, talk to us about how you learned those lessons.
[00:04:12] Annie Duke:
So in poker, there’s sort of what you would think of traditional quitting, which is like, I'm playing in a game, and I get up, and I cash out, and I leave. That's sort of what we would generally think about in quitting. But in game theory, we talk about loss cutting.
Cut, cutting your losses is a form of quitting. In poker, that expresses as folding your hand. And when you look at what is it that separates the elite players who really are, like, great and making money at it from, uh, the amateurs, it’s how good are you at exercising that option to quit. So what you'll see is a, a few things is… The first is in a game like Texas Hold’em. You get dealt two cards to start, and what you'll see is that professional players will play about 15 to 20% of those two cards, starting combination. So this is like right off the bat. Before you've seen any other cards, they're folding somewhere between 75 and 85% of the time. That is a lot of quitting, right?
Whereas amateurs are playing over 50% of the two card combinations that they're dealt. And so that's like a really big distinction where amateurs are quitting much less than professionals are even right off the bat. But then as you get deep into the hand, what happens, you're betting you have money in the pot, right?
So now we're starting to build up some debris that makes it very hard for us to let go of things. Uh, and what you'll see is that pros are pretty good at just sort of folding, because given the new information I have, and that's two forms, the new cards that have come down, that tells me something about like how my hand is relating to the cards or how I think it might be relating to my opponent's hand and for example, like you might have upped the ante and sometimes they tell me things are not going well for me, that means that if I continue to bet money going forward, I am not gonna be betting with a positive return on investment, and I ought to just fold my hand.
That is how a professional thinks about it. They're actually very good at sort of making those calculations. What does an amateur do? I have too much money in the pot to fold now. Um, sometimes they’ll say, “well, it would've been too painful for me to see that I would've won the hand.” But what that means is that they'll continue, and they actually will have a saying, which is “Any two cards can win.”
And I always say, “But you should add onto that ‘not enough of the time to be profitable.’” So they're just sticky. They’re just much stickier than professionals. So people talk about, uh, poker skill is like, you know, do you raise, do you do whatever? And it's like literally no. Like if, the one thing that pros really do way better than amateurs is they just fold a lot.
[00:06:39] Adam Grant:
Well, that, I mean, is amazing that it's that simple, right? To go from amateur to pro, to quit more.
[00:06:45] Annie Duke:
Well, there's other things involved. Like obviously there's takes skill for me to be able to map your actions onto, onto what your cards are. Uh, there you have to memorize some game theory, optimal tables, like there's some other stuff involved, obviously.
Uh, but this folding thing is actually really important. So much so that when people get what we would call stuck in a game, uh, which is the same as like if you were losing money in a stock you know, you can be losing money in a poker game. So we call it being stuck. Um, what you'll see from even people who have all those other skills is they'll start getting sticky, uh, you know, for that feeling that “I've gotta get all this money back that I lost.”
So even professionals can be subject to these forces, right? So in order to be truly great, you have to sort of play the same whether you're winning or losing, and that's actually quite hard to do, but the great players are better at doing that.
[00:07:32] Adam Grant:
When we first met, I was struck by the fact that every world poker champion I've crossed paths with has advanced training in psychology or behavioral science. It’s like, cause you, Maria Konnikova, [inaudible]
[00:07:43] Annie Duke:
Is that like a, is that like a selection bias?
[00:07:47] Adam Grant:
It might be. I mean, maybe you're just drawn to the game, but I am curious about… I think we're all familiar with heuristics and biases and how they, they lead our decisions astray. And oftentimes, that kind of sends us in a tailspin of escalation of commitment to a failing course of action when we should have pulled the plug, but we didn’t.
[00:08:03] Annie Duke:
[00:08:03] Adam Grant:
Um, hard thing is to recognize that in the moment, and I think one of the things that's amazing about your poker career is you were able to take that knowledge you had in your head and put it into practice in real-time when the stakes were extremely high and you're under a lot of pressure. So how?
[00:08:17] Annie Duke:
Oh gosh. Okay. So first of all, I just wanna say… I think this is really important to acknowledge about any bias reduction strategies is I was bad at it. I was just better than other people. These biases really do have an, a really deeply adverse effect on decision quality. Two strategies that were really helpful was, one, I would set a loss limit.
Um, and so this is a pre-commitment contract. In, in the book I ref—I call broadly this kind of tactic, uh, to use “kill criteria”, which is to say, I understand that in the moment when I'm losing in a game that I will not be particularly rational. So I don't wanna be like those people who had all sorts of skills, but because they were stuck in the game, they started playing really badly.
So if I know that I'm subject to that problem, then I'm just gonna get up and quit. Um, and I kind of figure out how much money am I willing to risk based on, uh, is it an amount of money that I could reasonably expect to win on a good day? Because what I don't wanna do is feel like I'm chasing something that isn't reasonable for me to get back the next day.
So that's an example of a kill criteria, which is there's some set criteria. In this case, let's say, you know, I've lost $2,000, um, and once I hit that mark, I have to get up and walk away. So, and then the third thing was to make really good use of quitting coaches. In other words, be accountable to others for my behavior. Make those commitments out loud.
So I didn't just set a, a kill criteria or a loss limit in my head. I shared it with people, and they knew that this was my goal in order to follow along with this. Uh, and that made me much more likely to follow through on that, to have outside help.
[00:09:54] Adam Grant:
So let's bridge from poker then to a lot of the quitting dilemmas in the room.
[00:09:58] Annie Duke:
[00:09:59] Adam Grant:
Um, we've got undergrads who are quadruple majoring, um, who, who are taking seven classes. Clearly need to walk away from some of those.
[00:10:06] Annie Duke:
Ooh. Don’t do that. Yeah, don't do that.
[00:10:07] Adam Grant:
We have, we have MBA students who are wondering already: should I drop out of investment banking or consulting recruiting? Um, we have executives who are wondering if they should quit their jobs. Um, where do you start on assessing that question?
[00:10:21] Annie Duke:
Oh gosh. Okay. So, here’s the dilemma that we have, right? Um, grit gets you to stick to hard things that are worthwhile. That's a really good thing. But, uh, the problem with grit when taken too far, which is our tendency, is to stick to hard things or not hard things that aren't worthwhile.
Why? Because we just have a really strong bias against quitting as adults. Uh, there's decades of science that shows that we don't like to walk away from things, and we'll do all sorts of rationalizations to convince ourselves that it's still worthwhile to continue. All right, so first rule of thumb is if you're thinking about quitting, it's most likely, usually, not always, but usually past the time that you should have quit.
[00:11:09] Adam Grant:
Wait, should we not be applying this to romantic relationships?
[00:11:13] Annie Duke:
No. We should actually. Uh, so part of it is actually, if we take a romantic relationship and, and things have not been going well, and you're unhappy and you're unencumbered and you're thinking about quitting, what's the thing that stops you from doing it?
Well, there's usually two things that stop people from doing it. One is “I’ve put so much time into it already.” Um, but that's like a poker player saying, “I have so much money in the pot, like I've put so much time into it, I don't wanna have wasted my time.” But that time is gone. I mean, this is just the sunk-cost fallacy, and what should matter is, is the next month or the next two months or the next year, uh, gonna be the actual waste.
So we don't wanna sort of take what has already been spent, um, in order to motivate us to continue to spend more when it's not a worthwhile endeavor. Right? So, so the first thing is like, “Oh, I put so much time in it.” And the second is, “What if I switch and I'm still unhappy?” So I, I actually talked to a woman that kind of shows these two things, and she had contacted me because she was struggling with a quitting decision.
Um, she was an ER doc. Uh, she loved emergency medicine, um, and she had been promoted to be an, a hospital administrator. Unlike the ER work where you finish your shift and you go home, uh, the administrative work carries, like follows you home and it's interfering with her life, with her children. Uh, you know, I kind of said, well, “What’s preventing you from quitting here?”
Uh, and she cited both things. She said, “Well, you know, but I've put in so much training and so much time into, you know, my work.” So that was that sunk-cost problem. But then she said something really interesting, um, ‘cause she had another job offer. She said, “What if I take that job and I don't like that one either?”
So I said, “Okay. So let's imagine it's a year from now and you stayed in this job. What are the chances that you're happy?” And she very quickly said 0% because this is something she'd been mulling over for three years. So I said, “Okay. Um, so if you take this new job, uh, maybe it's not gonna work out. I understand that you're afraid of that. What are the chances that you'll be happy in this new job?”
And she said, “Well, I've interviewed there, it seems okay. I guess it would be like 50/50.” And I said, “Okay, just question: is 50% greater than zero?” And like a light bulb went off for her, right? Because I, I just was showing her these forces that are causing you to stick in this thing that you're miserable in aren't the right things to be thinking about, right?
Like, you just have to think about: if my goal in life is to be on roads that, that make me happier, then staying on a road that is surely—like a dead certainty—gonna keep me unhappy doesn't make any sense. And even though the other road is more uncertain, it’s the type of uncertainty I should be seeking because I'm more likely to find happiness there.
Anyway, she, she quit the next day, uh, wrote back to me, said, you know, it was all good. Her supervisors were really understanding. They actually felt like they had failed her, not like she had failed them. Uh, and last I knew she was very happy. So that's one way you can think about quitting to help you.
[00:14:12] Adam Grant:
So talk to us about the situation where you quit and then you aren’t happier. Because it seems like, I, I always think of Hemingway on that, that you can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.
[00:14:23] Annie Duke:
[00:14:24] Adam Grant:
And I worry a lot that sometimes they're trying to change their circumstances when they should be changing their actions.
[00:14:30] Annie Duke:
Right. So look, I don't want you to just quit just ‘cause it came to your mind. Uh, in general, there's two things that you wanna do. When we talk about kill criteria, what you wanna do is set a limit on how long can I continue to, to sort of endure the situation that I'm in. How long is, is this status quo okay with me, right?
So let's say that you set a deadline of say, three months. Uh, and now you say, “Okay, so let's imagine in three months that I decided that, uh, things had changed enough that I wanna stay.” So write down, like, what are those things? What are the signals that I'm seeing that tell me that things have turned around in some way that's satisfactory for me? And then likewise, what are the signals… What are the things that I'm seeing that would tell me that, uh, no, this is a persistent state that I'm in and I should not be sticking around for this? Right?
And then what you should do along with that is think about what would be the inputs to get you to the good outcome, right? So that's gonna stop you from just sort of sitting and letting the world happen to you. Uh, maybe you have to go talk to your supervisor. Think about, uh, talking to other people in different functions at different organizations to see if you know, is it a matter of the role or is this kind of your, are you just generally dissatisfied so you can sort of figure all that stuff out through setting these deadlines for yourself that include these very clear criteria of what would cause you to do X or Y.
Um, and then go get outside help. Go find somebody who is the right category of person to help you with the decision. It might be a… It might be a therapist. It might be a really good friend who really has your best interest at heart. Give them permission to really tell you the truth, which means that they may say to you, “Look, you know you're gonna carry your baggage with you wherever you go.” Maybe that's what they're gonna say to you.
Or maybe they're gonna say to you, “Look, you've been talking to me about quitting for the last year. I'm really tired of hearing it. This is ridiculous. Quit and go get another job.” But whatever it is like, get, tell them that it's okay to tell the truth. It's gonna help you to create checks for quitting for the wrong reason, but it's also gonna help you get unstuck if that's the problem as well.
[00:16:29] Adam Grant:
I noticed you didn't say go to your parents. Was that deliberate?
[00:16:34] Annie Duke:
Well, your parents could be the right category, but your parents are a little bit you, so it's a little bit depends on your relationship with your parents. You know, I mean, I, I tend to think that getting someone who's, uh, less invested in you is probably better.
[00:16:48] Adam Grant:
My other favorite approach in this kind of situation is, is to actually flip the roles and say, go find someone else who has a similar quitting dilemma.
[00:16:55] Annie Duke:
[00:16:56] Adam Grant:
Give them advice, and you'll generally find the advice that you give to others is the advice that you needed to take for yourself. We know that one of the—
[00:17:02] Annie Duke:
[00:17:02] Adam Grant:
—the psychological differences between advice-giving and decision-making is that in decision-making, we're in the weeds, we're considering way too many specific dimensions, whereas when we give advice, we zoom out, we focus on the big picture, and we're able to contextualize what really matters.
[00:17:15] Annie Duke:
Yeah. Yeah, I, I agree. Those can all be incredibly helpful.
[00:17:20] Adam Grant:
Okay. So talk to us about the aftermath of quitting decisions. Um, I think it's really easy to evaluate them on the basis of whether we got what we expected. Um, but I read a book not too long ago called Thinking in Bets—
[00:17:33] Annie Duke:
[00:17:33] Adam Grant:
—which you wrote.
[00:17:34] Annie Duke:
[00:17:34] Adam Grant:
It said “We should be aware of resulting”—
[00:17:37] Annie Duke:
[00:17:37] Adam Grant:
—“and not judge our choices by the outcomes they get.”
[00:17:39] Annie Duke:
Yeah. Okay. So here's the problem, is that if you have a very large sample size, then uh, if you get a result, you can say something about the quality of the decision. The other thing is that if you take luck out of the equation, uh, then uh, you can judge a decision by the quality of its results.
So, as an example, if we played chess, and you won, uh, that would mean that you made better decisions with me than I did. So we know that everything's moving, uh, by an active skill, right? The outcome actually does tell you what sort of the quality of, of how you applied that skill was. Uh, but there's very few things in life that are actually very chesslike. Um, most things are much more poker-like, so there's lots of hidden information. The cards are face down, and obviously, there’s the element of the random deal, uh, which is different than chess.
And when we get to that situation, uh, let's say that you and I played, um, an hour of poker. Let's say that you win. Um, if you don't see the game, you actually can't say who played better. So, uh, so that's the, that's the issue that we have, is that it's actually, we make this really big mistake, which is we work backwards from the quality of the outcome to get to the quality of the decision when we're talking about small end situations with luck and hidden information, whenever there's uncertainty that can exert itself on the outcome.
Uh, it's a simplifier. Um, it's kind of what we do. So that's a really bad error because it causes us to sometimes think that we made a bad decision when it was actually quite a good one. And it sometimes causes us to think that we made a very good decision when it was actually quite a bad one.
When I was growing up, uh, people would talk about how they drove better when they were drunk, um, and it was ‘cause they got home safely. You know, I mean this, so this is a very good example of, like, where resulting can really go wrong. Like you sort of invest with your gut, and then you get a good outcome. Maybe because the market just goes up, and then you think that somehow you have a system.
This becomes a really big problem with quitting, partly because this problem of quitting interacts really badly with something called omission-commission bias. Uh, which is also has to do with status quo bias. So the status quo, the path we're already on, when we continue on it, it goes under omission, meaning we perceive it as making it sort of not doing anything, right? Like sticking with the status quo. Like we don't think that we wake up every day with an active, fresh decision to start that thing again today, we're just kind of on that path and going along.
Uh, but when we're thinking about switching. I wanna quit my job and go to a new one. Maybe I wanna break up and see what happens after that, that would be a commission. In other words, I’m, uh, we perceive that we feel that psychologically as an active choice to stay change from the status quo to something new. So this is where the regret problem happens that really interacts badly. So we're very, very tolerant of bad outcomes that occur from just things we're already doing, but we are very intolerant of the anticipation of something bad that might come from switching.
So that actually creates a huge bias against quitting. But what if I'm miserable there, too? So you see this recruitment of loss aversion for the commission that isn't being recruited in the same way for the omission, but that also works in retrospect also. So, you know, as we sort of stay in the same job and don't have a great outcome, we're, we're more tolerant retrospectively of that than if we switch and get a bad outcome. We feel that regret more, uh, intensely and that then becomes resulting, right? And so the, these are the things that we're trying to avoid.
[00:21:16] Adam Grant:
Let's go to some audience questions. So we have a, a bunch that have come in and—
[00:21:23] Annie Duke:
Oh no. What you're, what? You're laughing.
[00:21:25] Adam Grant:
Uh, would you beat Annie Duke at poker? Would, would Annie win? No, you wouldn't win because I have the wisdom not to play against you.
[00:21:33] Annie Duke:
There you go.
[00:21:34] Adam Grant:
Okay. First serious question. Alex wants to know. Annie advises when to quit. Adam advises to think again, how do these two ideas coexist and who's right? Why are you people so competitive?
[00:21:44] Annie Duke:
[00:21:44] Adam Grant:
Can't we both be right?
[00:21:47] Annie Duke:
[00:21:47] Adam Grant:
What do you think, Annie?
[00:21:48] Annie Duke:
So I, I, I mean, I don't think that the two ideas are in competition at all, because I actually talk a lot about quitting beliefs and reevaluating your beliefs, right? So, one of the things that I, that I say, I hope pretty clearly in the book is that you, you believe something, you're on a path that sort of is your system, um, and that we don't do enough reevaluation of that. So when I talk about forced quitting, for example, my having to be forced to quit my graduate program, that's when I thought again, right? That's when I started to explore more. And I say you shouldn't have to have an act of being forced to do it in order to think again and start to do that exploration.
So beliefs are very much, like, things we do. Uh, they are our possessions or part of our identity, and we always need to be reevaluating that stuff, right? Like we are clinging to those things too much, and we don't look at what the alternatives are, the other things we can do. And when you do think again, sometimes you decide to stick and sometimes you decide to quit.
So I'm not sure like… I mean, if I, if you win, I win and if I win, you win. I think. But I'd like to hear your thoughts on it actually as well, ‘cause maybe I'm just trying to make nice. But…
[00:22:56] Adam Grant:
You might have to rethink that.
[00:22:57] Annie Duke:
[00:22:58] Adam Grant:
Um, I, no, I think we're in violent agreement here.
[00:23:01] Annie Duke:
[00:23:01] Adam Grant:
I think what's most important is the process of questioning your intuition.
[00:23:06] Annie Duke:
[00:23:06] Adam Grant:
Um, I think we, we both subscribe to the idea that you shouldn't trust your gut. You should test your gut.
[00:23:11] Annie Duke:
[00:23:11] Adam Grant:
And that's when you begin to discover, okay, is this, is this a situation where it makes sense to grit, or is it a situation where it makes sense to quit? And I think a lot of the rethinking we do doesn't necessarily give us a clear answer, um, but it allows us to be a little bit more informed about the question and the different trade-offs that we're making.
[00:23:27] Annie Duke:
Yeah. I, I agree.
[00:23:29] Adam Grant:
All right. Next question. Oh, we have a bunch of questions. Okay. Uh, how do you respond to social pressure of “Don't quit yet”, and how do you fight the urge to cave?
[00:23:40] Annie Duke:
We have this issue of, um, internal and external validity. So internal validity is we don't wanna see ourselves as having made a mistake. So this is part of the problem with quitting, is that we feel like if we quit, it means we made a mistake in the first place. Um, and so that, that's all occurring internally. It also happens to occur externally. Like what are the ways that, uh, we think that other people might view us? And that can either be stories that we tell ourselves in our heads, which generally will align with the things that we're worried about ourselves.
But it could also be, for example, in a leadership capacity, leaders can lead in a way that exacerbates that issue of feeling a lot of, for example, career risk if you quit. Um, so a simple example because leaders very often will, will, um, manage the outcomes is it causes people to stick in projects too long, uh, to continue developing products long past the point that you should walk away because they know that they're gonna be interrogated if they let it go.
Well, why did you fail? Why'd you shut this project down? Right? So that, what they, that what makes them wanna do is push against a dead certainty that there is no other choice but to walk away. ‘Cause then they don't get interrogated in the same way. So this is a little bit what your friends are doing to you in those kinds of situations. Because a lot of times when you're getting that kind of social pressure, it's because they're in it with you. And honestly, if you quit, what does that mean for their choices? So, uh, that's why you have to find people who aren't in it with you. Like, go find a mentor who doesn't have the same kind of debris into the decision. And then what you'll find is that once you actually do quit, they tend to be pretty kind to you about it, so…
[00:25:16] Adam Grant:
Okay. Some of these questions are, excuse me, a great fit for the lightning round. So—
[00:25:19] Annie Duke:
[00:25:20] Adam Grant:
We’re gonna go there. Are you ready?
[00:25:21] Annie Duke:
[00:25:22] Adam Grant:
Okay. Best resource to learn poker.
[00:25:26] Annie Duke:
I wrote a book called Decide to Play Great Poker. So that's a really good one. But, um, that's more about how to think through the game. But there's all sorts of solvers which give you game theory, optimal play, and I would suggest that you go find yourself a poker solver after you sort of get the general gist of the game. So read my book. Go find a poker solver. You’ll be pretty good to go.
[00:25:46] Adam Grant:
We’ve, we’ve overlapped in, uh, I think a few professional sports teams. Can you give us the probability that the eagles are gonna finish the season undefeated?
[00:25:55] Annie Duke:
Well, it, I mean, you should bet agains it, So, uh, just by math. So what is there, are there, are there 12 games left or 11 games?
[00:26:02] Adam Grant:
[00:26:03] Annie Duke:
10 games? No, they've played five, right? So there's 11 games left, is that right?
[00:26:06] Adam Grant:
[00:26:06] Annie Duke:
Oh, they've played 6.
[00:26:06] Adam Grant:
6, 10 left.
[00:26:07] Annie Duke:
10 left. Okay. So, I don't know, what do you think the probability in a given game is that they win on average?
[00:26:13] Adam Grant:
I mean, probably as good as we look right now. 70%.
[00:26:17] Annie Duke:
Great. So multi—go 70 times 70 times 70 times 70. Do that 10 times and uh, you'll get the probability. It's pretty low. So just on the first two 70 times set is that they win the next two is only 49%. So let's start there. Right? So that's just a conditional probability you have to multiply out.
[00:26:36] Adam Grant:
I was so hoping you would demonstrate how you think about that question. Here's an interesting one. Um, given that chess is higher skill than poker—
[00:26:43] Annie Duke:
No it's not.
[00:26:45] Adam Grant:
Sorry. Results are more dependent on skill than poker.
[00:26:47] Annie Duke:
[00:26:48] Adam Grant:
Is what you said.
[00:26:49] Annie Duke:
[00:26:50] Adam Grant:
Yes. Um, why would one choose poker?
[00:26:53] Annie Duke:
Because people will gamble with you. So the problem is that if, would you, would you bet money playing Raphael Nadal in tennis?No. Like, would you bet money playing Gary Kasparov in chess? Of course not, right? Because you know what the outcome is. So here's the really great thing about cognitive bias if you're a professional poker player is people will bet money against the best players in the world because there's a luck element.
So they feel like they have a shot, and there's something called self-serving bias. And self-serving bias goes like this: when things go well, it's ‘cause I'm awesome, and when things go poorly, it's because, you know, because I got unlucky. So, uh, an example of this right now is if I win an election, it's because I won. And if I lost on the election, it's because I got cheated. Okay. So that's just sell serving bias like on a really big national scale. Okay, so—
[00:27:47] Adam Grant:
I was not gonna ask you about your Apprentice days, but go on.
[00:27:51] Annie Duke:
I didn't say it about anybody. I was just saying in general that might, hypothetically, that would be an example of self-serving bias. So if you come in and you're an amateur and you're playing against a pro and you lose, what do you do? You say, “Well, I got really unlucky”, and you can do that because you’ll remember this one hand where, like, you had a better hand in me and maybe you were 60% to win, and I just happened to hit a good card, which by the way is gonna happen 40% of the time. That's like Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It's a lot.
But anyway, so you'll remember that, and you'll say, “I just got unlucky”, and if you beat me, you'll think it's because you're great, and, and then you'll come back the next day because there's enough variance. So in things like poker, variance is your friend. If you're good at the game, it's your friend, because people will actually bet money against you to play in a way that they wouldn't in other games.
[00:28:37] Adam Grant:
Okay. This makes me wonder, is this one of the few times when you could actually benefit from gender bias? Was it easy—
[00:28:42] Annie Duke:
[00:28:42] Adam Grant:
Was it easier for you to hustle people because they underestimated you as a woman?
[00:28:46] Annie Duke:
Absolutely. But the flip side of that was the things that people were, would say in a situation where there is no HR department. So you know, you had to focus on the good stuff and sort of try to push away the bad stuff that was happening.
[00:29:05] Adam Grant:
Um, another question related to that is, do you have recommendations for how to get other people to walk away from their biases?
[00:29:14] Annie Duke:
Uh, so I actually do, particularly in the, in the case of quitting. So, one of the things that's really hard is that people always feel like they can turn it around. Um, that's a little bit has to do with over-optimism, but it also has a little bit to do with wanting to rationalize a way this moment that you're facing of failing, going from failing to having failed… That’s a really tough moment for all of us, right? Like, the minute that you abandon the cause is the minute that it can never work out for you. Like you're never gonna finish the marathon or get up the mountain or have success in that particular job, or, you know, whatever. Right? So, so that's a really tough moment for us.
So when you go to somebody, let's say you see that they’re like, there’s a project they, that they should shut down or a job that they're really unhappy with. When you go to them and you say, “Geez, it seems like things aren't going well”, they're gonna tell you they can turn it around. And my advice is agree with them because they haven't given you permission to do otherwise.
So if they haven't given you permission, you know, you don't wanna be that person's like, “You should really break up with them.” You know, and then you're, they're like, “What?” And then they're not your friend anymore ‘cause they didn't give you permission to say it. So I'm not recommending that. So you just say things like, “Things aren't going well,” and you're like, “I know, but like I'm thinking about it, but I really think I can turn around.”
Agree with them. But then what you do is you say, “So, like how long are you okay with this?” So you sort of flip that script on the kill criteria. How long are you okay with this? And they'll tell you like, “Oh, I think I can take this for like, you know, three more months.” And you say, “Great. Well like, okay, so I'm there with you bud. You know? That's awesome.”
So what do you think it looks like in three months? Like, what does success look like? What, what are you, what are the benchmarks you have to hit or, or how things might, things change? What are the things that would tell you that nothing's changed enough for, for you to still stick with what's going on?
Write those things down. Figure them out. Say, “So what do you think you could do that would help you to get to those outcomes?” Uh, write that stuff down and say, “All right, I'll see you in three months, and we'll talk about it.” And that will help people get to the decision faster.
Now, I wanna be really clear that you see it in that moment, right? If, if you, you know, if they were objective, you're probably being pretty objective. It would be correct for them to quit right then, but they're not gonna do it. So instead, what you're trying to do is save them time. In other words, if you don't have this intervention, this might go on for a year or more, right?
And that's something that we have to think about. It's not a waste of those three months. It's a savings of however long past those three months they would've stayed in it. And it also maintains your relationship with them, which is also really good.
[00:31:37] Adam Grant:
Yeah. At that point, at the three-month mark, I just wanna ask, “Can I record this conversation and play it back to you so that you can hear we had the same conversation three months ago?”
[00:31:45] Annie Duke:
Sure. Right, exactly. And that's what you're trying to avoid because that's, otherwise, that's what happens is, “Oh, can we turn it around?” And they say yes. And then you see them in three months and it's the exact same thing. And you're like, “Oh my gosh, this is on rinse and repeat.” And that will go on for a really, really long time.
So by doing this, you can kind of short-circuit it, you know? And that, that's something that I think is really important, you know, and, and it's like… Ron Conway from SV Angel, who is one of the most successful angel investors. This is a strategy that he would use with his portfolio founders. You know, it just to, because what he would say is like life is so short and these people are so brilliant and the fact that I can see that they're working on something that isn't gonna work out is it's criminal because they're so smart. They could go do something that would actually change the world, and if he could get them there a little faster, he just felt like it was such a huge win. And I think that's how we have to approach these kinds of problems.
[00:32:33] Adam Grant:
I wanna get your take on the morality of quitting. Um, I think we, we talked about peer pressure a little bit earlier as a bad thing, but excuse me, I think there are certain situations where other people are counting on you, and that's an important commitment or responsibility. Like when do you say those are, those are meaningful responsibilities and I should live up to those commitments?
[00:32:52] Annie Duke:
Yeah. So, um, the commitment to your children, to your parents, commitments to friends, a commitment to your work to stick around for a certain time. You obviously have to honor those commitments from a moral standpoint, right?
Like, one of the things that I just, partially as a poker player, really hated something called retrading, which is you make an agreement, you make a commitment, and then I come back and try to change, change the rules on you all of a sudden. So you have to honor those, and that goes into what are your values, right?
What are the things that you've committed to? What are your values now when it comes to your own personal decisions, like Federer, Serena, you be you. But what I think is really interesting is just in the case for, uh, ourselves that we want to butt up against a dead certainty to the point where, like, at the point that we're willing to quit, it's, it's kind of no longer a choice anymore because we have to be so sure that we, we can't turn it around before we're willing to walk away.
This is how people die on the top of Mount Everest, obviously. Um, that for people that we think that we're getting some benefit from, like Serena or um, or Federer or whoever, when they quit before we're sure that they have to, we also get really upset, right? So we can take Seinfeld, Barry Sanders, people are still mad about that.
[00:34:09] Adam Grant:
Lions fan here! Ruin, ruined my childhood.
[00:34:13] Annie Duke:
Right? Like, what are you doing, right? But the thing is, like Seinfeld, I think expressed it really well. So we kind of mock people for sticking around too long. Like you should, you know, if you hear the talk about Tom Brady, uh, the other day, or, or, or Aaron Rodgers, you can see this feeling of like, “what an idiot. Why are you still playing? Now you've really jumped the shark.” Ugh.
So we're putting people in that position if they stick around until it is actually certain that they don't really have a choice, that it's time for them to walk away. We're a little bit like, “Oh, you're so dumb. Why didn't you quit before that?”
But when they do quit before that, we get mad because we really would rather get the certainty that there's really no other choice. But what we have to remember is that they have values too. Things that they value, and maybe they don't wanna be there for the decline. Maybe they're, this is the, they know that they're on the top of the world and they can feel for themselves, like, I don't wanna be here when it starts going bad.
And that's their value. And they're allowed to do that because they don't actually have a commitment to you. I'm sorry to say.
[00:35:11] Adam Grant:
[00:35:12] Annie Duke:
[00:35:21] Adam Grant:
We’ll try to fix that in the future. Annie, in closing, is there a piece of quitting advice you haven't given yet that we would all benefit from?
[00:35:19] Annie Duke:
Yes. Uh, okay. So the piece of quitting advice I, I would give is that, uh, again, thinking in advance, what one of the things that we know is if we collect all of this cognitive debris that makes it really hard for us to quit, what we should do is approach projects to reduce that co—cognitive debris. And I think one of the best mental models to help you do this is called Monkeys and Pedestals.
It comes from, uh, I know right? Astro Teller. Um, who is the CEO of X, which is Google's in-house innovation hub. Um, his official title is Captain of Moonshots. Um, and he's thinking about this all the time ‘cause they're doing really big bets, right? They wanna, uh, their motto is “10x better in 5-10 years to commercialization.”
Uh, but even Google has limited resources. So they're trying to make sure that they're really spending their time on this stuff that really might change the world and quitting all the other stuff really quickly. Okay? So he's obsessed with this idea.
Um, so monkeys and pedestals goes like this. If you have decided you wanna make money, uh, by training a monkey to juggle flaming torches while standing on a pedestal in the town square, uh, you should not build the pedestal first. You should see if you can train that monkey to juggle. Why? Because what's the point? Like, literally like there's no point in building the pedestal if you can't train the monkey to juggle the flaming torches, ‘cause the unknown, the thing that you're trying to prove out, the hard part of the problem, the bottleneck in this particular system or the reverse salient to be like super nerdy, um, is whether you can actually get that, uh, monkey to juggle, right? The pedestal you should only do after you've already figured out that hard thing first. Uh, particularly because you already know you can do it. So when you do do that, it's actually the illusion of pro—progress, but you've put effort and money and time into it that starts to collect like sunk-costs so that if you do that first and then you butt up against, “Oh, this monkey's really hard to train”, you'll keep going at it even so.
Uh, I think, uh, approach your projects, say “What are the monkeys?” Identify those first and make sure you're tackling those before you do what everybody does in project planning. ‘Cause you know, this happens. People say, “Well, what's the low-hanging fruit? Let's do that first.” Those are pedestals. That is the wrong way to approach problems.
[00:37:30] Adam Grant:
Well, Annie, I think it's safe to say that no one in the audience quit on your insights and no one, no one is going to give up on the book either.
[00:37:37] Annie Duke:
I hope not.
[00:37:38] Adam Grant:
They’re gonna make it all the way through. Um, thank you for joining us tonight. I think the next time you come to Penn, it will be as Dr. Duke. Look forward to it.
[00:37:47] Annie Duke:
Yes it will be, it will be Dr. Duke. Thank, thank you. I clap for you too.
[00:38:00] Adam Grant:
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant. Our team includes Colin Helms, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn DeLuna. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
[00:38:20] Adam Grant:
I think every blurb you had on this book had to be edited because we all wrote “It's important to know when to fold ‘em” and had your editor was like, “Wait, the other blurber said that too.”