The Opportunities That Come When You Learn to Think in Bets
I want to dive into negative self-talk.
But before I do, I need you to understand a few things about how we form beliefs and make decisions (like the beliefs that fuel all the awful, terrible things we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the crummy decisions that can lead us to make).
I read Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke across many bars and restaurants on my solo trip to Austin. Annie was a professional poker player and during her career, she was the leading money winner among women players.
After reading Thinking in Bets, I understand why Annie was so successful…
Keep reading the full post below.
She knew the power of skepticism and uncertainty.
She understood the cognitive errors we all make in forming beliefs (and acting on them).
She acknowledged the role of luck and randomness in the outcomes of every decision we make -- and noted that when we're successful, we tend to chalk it up to our own skill; when we lose it's down to bad luck. (Hello, overconfidence bias.)
That's how most people process outcomes, anyway -- but Annie included a footnote that explained a small majority of the population, almost always women and often women who suffer from depression, struggle with the opposite cognitive bias.
They tend to attribute good things that happen to them to luck and blame themselves and their inadequacies for everything that goes wrong.
When I read that, for a split second it felt like everyone in the coffee shop I sat in went silent and turned to look as a bright neon sign popped out of nowhere and started flashing an arrow pointing down at me.
Even though that, of course, did not happen, I couldn't help but to sink a little lower in my seat with the weight of recognizing myself in that footnote. Consider me called out -- and newly aware of this bias that I need to acknowledge moving forward.)
Annie also points out that most of us form beliefs based on subconscious reactions and deep-seated emotions. We hardly ever develop our beliefs based on careful reasoning and critical thinking, and we rarely bother to question or challenge or fact-check those beliefs once we accept them.
Once we start challenging our own opinions, Annie writes, "we’re more likely to recognize that there is always a degree of uncertainty, that we are generally less sure than we thought, that practically nothing is black and white, 0% or 100%."
Thinking in Bets isn't about how to play (or win at) poker. It's a deep dive into how we think -- and how all the ways we think can lead us astray.
The problem with the way we form beliefs is that it leaves us vulnerable to making terrible decisions, because we're acting on faulty or incomplete information.
And once we have our beliefs, we tend to succumb to a number of other biases that impede our ability to make good decisions. We tend to be very certain about what we know.
Want to test this out for yourself? Get someone to ask you, "Wanna bet?" the next time you make a declarative statement like, "I'm positive the Red Sox won the World Series 5 times in the last 15 years."
If no one (including yourself) challenges your belief, then you'll likely continue to believe you're right. And you might feel rather bad about yourself when you find out you're wrong (because the Sox have won 4 times in the last 15 years as of 2018).
Imagine saying, "I know the Red Sox won the World Series 5 times in the last 15 years," and someone else immediately piped up with, "Wanna bet?"
You'd likely start recalibrating your claim and, hopefully, challenging your own belief because now there are stakes to the game. Questioning your beliefs is a great trigger for beating many of the biases that interrupt good decisions.
This is the value of thinking in bets.
By learning to think in bets, you might start making statements that sound a little bit more like, "I think the Red Sox have won 5 times in the last 15 years."
If you took this a step farther, you might also consider probabilities and say something like "I'm about 60% sure the Red Sox have won 5 times in 15 years."
Once you start reducing your own certainty, you make it easier for yourself to do the necessary work of digging deeper to get to the objective truth before acting on it. You move away from being Right or Wrong, and start moving into being less wrong or more right.
This is important because it's cognitively more painful for us to be "wrong." If we give ourselves the space to be less wrong, we're more apt to seek out the actual truth of the matter -- because finding the truth no longer puts us at risk of being absolutely wrong.
That work of truthseeking is extraordinarily valuable. The more accurate and closer to the truth your belief is, the better equipped you are to improve the quality of your decision-making and make it more likely that you'll reach better outcomes.
But what does any of this have to do with negative self-talk?
A lot, if you start applying these ideas to all areas of your life (instead of just challenging your sports knowledge). What happens if you take this healthy skepticism around how much you think you know, with absolute certainty, and apply it to negative self-talk?
As I read Thinking in Bets, I came across this list. These are the questions Annie suggests asking as you examine your own beliefs:
I read this and immediately wondered, "What if I took all these questions and applied them to every shitty belief I hold about myself?"
That question made me stop, put the book down, and think about the potential impact of questioning every terrible thing I tell myself, about myself (that I then accept as "true" or "right”).
I'm so skeptical about almost everything else in my life. My favorite question is "Why?" followed quickly by the first question on that list above: "How do you know?"
This habit of challenging every belief that crossed my path exasperated my parents and landed me in trouble for "back talk" from teachers when I was a kid.
My skeptical nature -- my refusal to take just about anything at face value and my need to dig deeper to fully understand the reasoning behind something and how someone came up with whatever statement they're making -- has almost gotten me fired from jobs and left me in hot water in relationships where the other person felt I was not being inquisitive, but argumentative.
So why on earth would the only beliefs exempt from my fierce scrutiny be the ones that happen to be the negative, confidence-eroding, cruel beliefs I hold about myself?
I only need to get a few questions into this list to make those beliefs crumble so fast, to see there is no way they can hold up under skeptical inquiry.
This is my new practice, and by new I mean really new. So new that I can't report on the results yet because even though I've started poking at my negative beliefs about myself, they're stubbornly clinging to their places in my brain.
When it comes to dismantling beliefs for good, I don't think being skeptical about them for a few moments will do the trick. This is going to be a process.
After all, I didn't form the beliefs in an instant. I formed them by repeating a thought, like "I'm not good enough," countless times, over and over and over again, until I stopping consciously thinking it and just let it become subconscious truth.
If rational, reasonable thought always won out over irrational, illogical beliefs -- well, life would be a whole lot easier to navigate in general.
But as humans, "rationally" and "logically" are, sadly, not our default presets. That doesn't mean we're doomed to stay trapped by our inaccurate, incomplete, and irrational beliefs... but it does mean it takes work to overcome them.
It takes constant reminding that our default ways of thinking, forming beliefs, and making decisions are not necessarily the best ways.
It takes healthy doses of skepticism to combat false, faulty, or incomplete information.
It takes commitment to seeking and understanding the actual truth.
None of these things are easy, but when I think about the potential benefits -- making higher-quality decisions that produce better outcomes, for example, or finally dismantling the BS beliefs I've held about myself for years -- the work required seems well worth the effort.
My new commitment is to reference that list of questions often; to proactively apply those questions to all the cruel self-talk that runs through my mind and all the negative beliefs I hold about myself... and then to keep doing it.
To be as fiercely skeptical about that subset of my own beliefs as I am about everything else.
I hope you'll do the same when it comes to your own negative self-talk. We can all benefit from being less certain of our own beliefs -- especially when they only serve to hold us back and keep us down.