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Every decision carries risk. We don’t always think in terms of risk, and maybe that’s why we’re prone to making irrational decisions. But what if we worked on keeping risk at the forefront of our minds?

Annie Duke discusses how her decades-long poker career helped her develop decision-making strategies based on the idea that all decisions are bets. Being immersed in the game enabled her to observe how people make decisions in a setting where every choice leads to a clear outcome—winning or losing money. That’s what a bet is: a decision with quantifiable risk. In our guide to Thinking in Bets, you’ll find out how to work around your biases, objectively evaluate your beliefs, learn from your past, and ultimately get better at making good decisions.


  • You got unlucky.
  • You didn't have any good choices.
  • There was information you didn't have.
  • You decided the potential reward was worth the risk.
  • You didn't make the best possible choice, but you didn't make the worst choice, either—you picked something in between for reasons that made sense to you at the time.

None of these factors means that your process was bad or your decision was “wrong.” And if all the choices available to you carry a degree of uncertainty, a chance of failure, you can learn to evaluate which one is the least likely to fail. By thinking about not only whether you're unsure, but also how unsure you are, your guesses become more educated.

Avoid Resulting

“Resulting” is a poker term that refers to our habit of judging a decision based solely on the outcome it produced. It’s dangerous because it can lead you to believe you have to change your strategy based on one bad outcome. What if the bad outcome was due to luck, rather than the quality of your decision? In that case, changing your strategy won’t help in the long run; it’ll just make you confused and erratic.

Making good decisions isn’t just about achieving the best outcome: It’s about having a decision-making process that is sound regardless of what the final outcome is.

Before you blame a negative outcome on poor decision-making, analyze the factors that led you to make the choice you made. You can’t control your luck, but you can control your skill and the soundness of your thought process. Make sure that you:

  • Considered alternatives
  • Took steps to lower your risk
  • Thought through all the possible outcomes

Being a good decision-maker means staying rational in the face of losses. You won’t always be right, but you can always be working toward objectivity and away from emotional or biased decision-making.

Separate Luck From Skill

Before you can learn from the outcomes of your decisions, you have to figure out how much of the outcome you can attribute to skill, and how much of it was due to luck. If an outcome is the product of forces that you don’t control, like luck, then it might not be able to teach you anything. But you’ll find that most outcomes are the result of a combination of factors, some of which you can control, like skill. You can think of outcomes as existing on a spectrum between luck and skill, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

If an actor can’t land any jobs, he has to figure out if it’s because he needs more training—an issue of skill—or if he just hasn’t found the right role yet—an issue of luck. Or if it’s a little of both. To move his career forward, he’ll have to learn to tell those factors apart and address them. Duke calls this sorting process “outcome fielding.”

How you sort an outcome is a kind of bet, just like your decisions and beliefs. If you attribute an outcome to skill, you’re betting you can learn from it and thereby adjusting future decisions (other bets) in a way that will impact future outcomes. It’s a chain reaction. That’s why it’s important to get better at outcome fielding and get it right as often as you can.

Look Into the Future

"Mental time travel" is a strategy where you consider how past decisions turned out and imagine future outcomes when making a decision in the present. You ensure that you're actively learning from your past. And you keep your long-term goals in mind even when it comes to decisions where possible benefits or consequences might not be immediately obvious, as is the case with many decisions we make, like relocating or changing careers.

You can mentally time travel into the future, the past, or a combination of the two.

Traveling into the future might involve imagining the consequences of your present decision for your future self, in detailed and specific ways. What are the positive impacts that working out regularly could have on your life? What could be the negative impacts of not staying fit?

Traveling into the past can involve calling on past regrets. Usually, regret isn’t all that helpful, because it occurs after the fact. But if you conjure up the regret of a similar past decision, it can help guide you toward making a more rational choice in the present moment.

One form of mental time travel is “scenario planning,” an exercise where you imagine all the possible outcomes of a decision—all the possible futures—and try to guess the probability of each of these outcomes occurring. Just by weighing the possibilities and confronting your uncertainty, you’ll be more likely to make a more rational decision. Why?

  • You'll have a chance to prepare for negative outcomes and not get taken by surprise.
  • You can set up barriers to your own irrational tendencies.
  • Your emotional response to either a failure or a success will be moderated—you're less likely to self-flagellate if things don't go your way, because you braced yourself for that result in advance.
  • You’ll avoid the trap of resulting, because you'll have weighed the merits of the decision well before the outcome happened.

Relying on a Group to Hold You Accountable

Self-critique is an important skill, but other people can help you see your blind spots. They bring their own unique life experiences to the table and give you the chance to view ideas from angles you hadn't considered before.

But first, you need to find someone who’s willing to have those discussions with you. Not every person has the bandwidth to provide you with serious feedback on your life choices, or wants to have their decisions or beliefs picked apart in return. That’s why forming a group around good decision-making practices is important.

What are the qualities of a good group, when it comes to learning from each other?

  1. The group cares about accuracy. Members will call out each other's biases and engage in civil disagreement.
  2. Members of the group hold each other accountable. They discourage each other from succumbing to irrational or self-destructive impulses.
  3. The group welcomes a diversity of thought. Having different perspectives in the group is important for generating new ideas and helping each other see what you'd have otherwise missed.

Once you’ve formed the group, you’ll need to have clear rules of engagement. Duke looks to sociologist Robert K. Merton's guidelines for how he believed the scientific community should function, which he described using the acronym CUDOS:


Data is commonly owned, belonging to everyone. In a decision group, sharing data means being honest about the factors that went into your decision and providing as much detail as possible, omitting nothing, especially the things you're tempted to leave out.


All evidence must be treated in the same way, with a standard set of criteria, no matter what the source is. This doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate whether a source is credible or not—but it means you shouldn’t disregard information without a fair evaluation just because you have negative feelings about the source, like a news outlet with political leanings you don’t agree with or a colleague you find annoying.


Don't let conflicts of interest or other biases influence the work. Those “conflicts of interest” can include resulting. If knowing the outcome influences what we think of a decision, then one way to ensure your group isn’t swayed in either direction is to withhold the outcome until after the discussion happens.

Organized Skepticism

All ideas are subject to scrutiny, criticism, and dissent. Organized skepticism is not argumentative or confrontational—not if everyone is willing to engage with their own uncertainty. As a group, you should reward civil dissent and debate with approval, encouraging healthy discussion and making it part of the group's norms.

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PDF Summary Introduction


Shortform Note

We’ve reorganized the chapters for coherency. Here’s how the chapters in our guide correspond to those in the book:

  • Chapter 1: Vetting Your Beliefs → Book chapter 2
  • Chapter 2: Evaluating Your Decision-Making Process → Book chapter 1
  • Chapter 3: Learning From Outcomes → Book chapter 3
  • Chapter 4: Making Better Decisions → Book chapter 6
  • Chapter 5: Working With a Group → Book chapters 4-5

PDF Summary Chapter 1: Vetting Your Beliefs


The decisions you make are ultimately driven by beliefs. You believe that job will be more fulfilling than this one. You believe you'll like living in a big city better than your small town. You believe cardio is good for your heart and you believe that you'll live happily ever after with your partner.

Some of these beliefs are based on our direct experiences. But you might be surprised by how often false beliefs creep into our heads and stick there. Making a habit of interrogating your beliefs is essential to making good decisions.

The Science Behind the Formation of False Beliefs

False information seems to catch on and spread like wildfire, so much so that you could spend your whole life trying to combat the most commonly held misconceptions and likely never run out of material. Think of the popularity of MythBusters (a television program that ran for over a decade where popular “myths” were tested and frequently debunked through experimentation) or Snopes.com (a fact-checking website). Why do misconceptions spread so quickly and linger even when the information needed to disprove them is readily available by doing a simple Google search?

It comes...

PDF Summary Chapter 2: Evaluating Your Decision-Making Process


But that doesn’t mean you made a bad decision. You paid attention to conditions on the road, predicted that the commute would take you longer, and took action to avoid being late. You didn’t know there would be an accident or that the weather would clear up soon, and you can’t make a decision based on information you don’t have. In general, leaving early to make your appointments is probably a practice that will serve you well, and not something you should abandon because of one bad outcome.

Before you blame a negative outcome on poor decision-making, analyze the factors that led you to make the choice you made. You can’t control your luck, but you can control your skill and the soundness of your thought process. You can make sure that you considered alternatives, took steps to lower your risk, and thought through all the possible outcomes.

Being a good decision-maker means staying rational in the face of losses, because some losses are inevitable. You won’t always be right, but you can always be working toward objectivity and away from emotional or biased decision-making.

Consider the reverse: bad decisions that lead to positive outcomes. Picture a college student...

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PDF Summary Chapter 3: Learning From Outcomes by Considering Luck and Skill


In poker, a loss could come down to the fact that you made the wrong moves—an issue of skill. Or it could be because another player drew better cards—an issue of luck. The ability to tell those two situations apart differentiates good players from bad ones. Duke calls this sorting process “outcome fielding.”

How you sort an outcome is a kind of bet, just like your decisions and beliefs. If you attribute an outcome to skill, you’re betting you can learn from it and thereby adjusting future decisions (other bets) in a way that will impact future outcomes. It’s a chain reaction. That’s why it’s important to get better at outcome fielding and get it right as often as you can.

Obstacles to Accurately Evaluating Outcomes

Let’s break down some of the hurdles we have to overcome for more accurate outcome fielding.

The Challenges of Working Backward

It’s difficult to work backward from a negative outcome and pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Different causes can produce the same effect. Multiple causes can work together, each with a different degree of influence, to produce a single effect.

For example, people who achieve great success or fame in the arts...

PDF Summary Chapter 4: Making Better Decisions Now by Learning From the Future and Past


The Benefits of Mental Time Travel

Regulating Your Emotions

Mental time travel helps put your feelings in the moment—which can feel intense and all-encompassing—into perspective. When you're having a bad day at work, the frustration and misery can consume you and drive irrational decisions, like arguing with a colleague over a minor issue that you normally would’ve ignored. If you recall similar events in your past, you'll likely find that they didn't have a huge impact on your life over time; the emotions are a lot less significant, in retrospect, than they were in the moment.

Rather than focusing on the immediate emotions, keep a big-picture view of your life. What decision or series of decisions will make you happier over time? Is that argument with your coworker actually a discussion worth having? If so, are you in the right frame of mind to handle it productively and in a way that won’t permanently damage your relationship?

Another problem is that, in the moment, the way we feel about a situation (or outcome) is influenced by how we got there. For example, if you regularly stay at work for an extra hour or two because you like to stay ahead on various...

PDF Summary Chapter 5: Working With a Group to Strengthen Each Other’s Decision-Making Skills


This all sounds very formal. It doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as an experienced poker player telling Duke, when she was first starting out, that she was free to discuss strategy with him but he wouldn’t indulge self-pity about bad luck. This was the same sentiment she found among a group of players her older brother (who also went on to be a professional with millions of dollars in poker earnings) introduced her to. Members of that group had a shared understanding that being good players meant continually examining their strategies, their decisions, and their outcomes—and helping each other do the same.

In a group, everyone is a willing participant and expects certain behaviors from the others. You can establish a norm of challenging each other’s beliefs and biases. Make helping each other improve a shared goal. Whether this group forms organically or if it’s deliberately set up with written rules, there needs to be an explicit agreement about how you engage with one another. You’re interacting in ways that are outside typical social norms, so expectations need to be clear. But if you can gather or join that group of like-minded people, you can help each other...

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