A poker champion says negative thinking can actually fuel success when it comes to decision-making — here's how
- Annie Duke is a decision strategist, poker champion, and bestselling author of "Thinking in Bets."
- Her new book, "HOW TO DECIDE: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices," looks at how to make better decisions.
- In it, Duke uses her expertise in poker and cognitive psychology to create a framework for making tough and overwhelming decisions rationally and strategically.
- She shares a contrary perspective on the power of negative thinking when it comes to preparing for and addressing failure before it happens and why it's the key to success.
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Everybody remembers the scene from "Star Wars" when Darth Vader uses the Force to nearly choke to death the commander of the Death Star. Vader's understated line, "I find your lack of faith disturbing," made the scene so famous, but it also overshadowed a neat twist on an entire genre of self-help literature, the power of positive thinking.
Measured by popularity, if the body of positive thinking literature were a movie franchise, it would be the equivalent of "Star Wars." Positive thinking was a self-help force back in the 1950s, when Norman Vincent Peale was close friends with Eisenhower and Nixon. It was an empire in the 1970s, when Peale officiated Donald Trump's first wedding. In the twenty-first century, it reawakened with books like "The Secret."
An explicit part of the positive-thinking literature is that imagining success will cause (or help) you to succeed. Implied — and occasionally explicitly stated — is that if you imagine failure, that will cause (or lead) you to fail. "The Secret" goes so far as to offer the causal mechanism for this relationship between thoughts and outcomes: Your thoughts have a magnetism that attracts the things you imagine to you. Imagine your partner proposing and it will happen. Imagine getting caught in a traffic jam and that, too, will happen (pro-tip: That's just wacky).
Darth Vader's force-choke demonstrated a contrarian point of view: the power of negative thinking. And not just literally. Vader choked the commander for insisting that Vader's obsession with retrieving the stolen plans to the Death Star was a waste of time because the Death Star was impenetrable.
What Vader was really doing was choking the guy for being a cheerleader for the power of positive thinking.
Vader understood the power of negative thinking — that combing over the plans to imagine how the Empire might fail against the rebels, was the (actual) secret to success. (That was, of course, exactly how the rebels succeeded. They combed over the plans to find a single vulnerable point that Luke Skywalker launched a missile into, destroying the Death Star.)
The broad decision lesson? If someone can make you fail by combing over your plans, you should be combing over your own plans in the same way.
Premortems: Waze for your decision making
Think about it like this. Would you be better off planning a route using an old paper map or an app like Waze? The paper map shows clear roads and no obstacles. Waze looks ahead to see where there is heavy traffic, road closures, or an accident, helping you navigate around the obstacles in your path. If you want to create success, that seems more sensible than using a paper map.
What you need is Waze for decision making. You need a tool that harnesses the power of negative thinking to help you imagine the ways you might fail to achieve your goals in order to address those obstacles before you encounter them.
A premortem is just such a tool.
We usually conduct post-mortems, examining the patient after they've died to figure out why — or, in the business sense, trying to figure out why a decision failed after the fact. Of course, by then it's too late to prevent the failure.
Wouldn't it be better to examine the patient before they've died? Premortems allow you to do just that. When you conduct a premortem, you imagine a future in which you have failed to achieve a goal or a decision has worked out poorly, and look back from that future to identify why that failure occurred. Research shows that this fresh perspective helps identify 30% more obstacles that might lie in your path, allowing you to more successfully navigate your way to your goals.
When you do a post-mortem you've already experienced the failure — you're already stuck in traffic — and now all you can do is how to deal with it and, possibly, figure out what you can learn from it. By doing a pre-mortem, you can spot the obstacle in advance, you can see the traffic before you get caught in it, allowing you to choose another route or leave extra time.
You can't rewrite the past. That's the limitation of post-mortems. Pre-mortems allow you to rewrite the future.
Addressing obstacles you've identified
There are three main strategies that will help you prepare for and address those points of failure once you know they might stand between you and your goals.
- Identify choices and behaviours that will stymie your plans, then figure out ways to discourage making those losing decisions. If you are trying to eat healthier, a premortem might identify a likely point of failure — the break room. The break room is often filled with free junk food that you'll have trouble resisting. Having identified that obstacle, you can commit to avoiding the break room altogether. Or you can do something as simple as declaring to a coworker that you are trying to eat healthier to create accountability and increase friction on your way to the breakroom. You can also decrease friction by packing your lunch, keeping your desk stocked with healthy snacks, or by scouting the healthiest choices near your office and keeping those menus handy.
- Avoid emotional reactions to negative developments. When things don't turn out as we'd hoped, the emotional parts of the brain get activated and we all know the types of decisions we make in that kind of emotional state are rarely good ones. Poker players call this going on tilt. In the wake of bad outcomes, we can all get emotional, increasing the chance we compound the problem by making bad decisions in reaction to the downturn. A pre-mortem gives you the chance to create an advance plan for how you'll deal with an obstacle when you encounter it. Planning ahead means that you are not only better prepared for those downturns but you are also less likely to go on tilt. It switches your mindset from, "I can't believe this happened" to, "I knew this was a possibility and I already have a plan."
- Identify hedges. A hedge is something that you can pay for that mitigates the cost of encountering a potential obstacle. Buying fire insurance is a hedge. Paying for a tent to be set up in case of rain at your outdoor wedding is a hedge. A premortem reveals the bad luck that might lie in your path and frustrate your success. Having revealed that bad luck, you can actively look for ways to hedge against it.
I'm not recommending Darth Vader's leadership style. Force-choking your employees is going to get you a lot of HR complaints. But as he rightly pointed out, imagining failure is actually the road to success. Be more like Darth Vader and less like Norman Vincent Peale. Whatever downsides there were to Darth Vader's leadership style, when it came to negative thinking he actually had it right.
Annie Duke is an author, corporate speaker, and consultant in the decision-making space. Annie's book, "Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts" is a national bestseller. As a former professional poker player, Annie won more than $4 million in tournament poker before retiring from the game in 2012. Prior to becoming a professional player, Annie was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Annie is the cofounder of The Alliance for Decision Education, a non-profit whose mission to improve lives by empowering students through decision skills education. She is also a member of the National Board of After-School All-Stars and the Board of Directors of the Franklin Institute. In 2020, she joined the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative.