From a young age, society teaches us to avoid expressing uncertainty: Saying, “I don’t know,” is a hallmark of failure and shame throughout our formative school years. But former professional poker player Annie Duke contends that admitting uncertainty reflects a more accurate understanding of reality.
Not only does being certain provide a false sense of security, it can close our minds to new information, hinder the fair calibration of our beliefs, and inhibit fruitful collaboration. Duke also highlights the crucial difference between confidence and certainty: while the former can be beneficial in specific contexts, like facing an opponent in poker, the latter can lead to overconfidence and hubris.
Duke argues that acknowledging uncertainty invites collaboration, as individuals actively seek out diverse opinions to form a comprehensive understanding. In contrast, certainty can limit learning and growth, potentially becoming a real obstacle to success.
Annie Duke: I like to think of myself as an uncertainty evangelist, right? Like, I'm a big- like just shouting it from the rooftops, "We should all be embracing uncertainty." And in that, I think that, you know, one of the most common things that people are saying to me is, "Isn't uncertainty a barrier to success?"
I think there's a couple things. I think that first of all, this idea of, you know, "I don't know," or "I'm not sure," or "It could turn out a lot of different ways" or you know, all the different ways we might express uncertainty. "Well, I believe this thing to be true, but I'm like 60% on it." I think that we're taught from the earliest, little, like as we walk into, you know, preschool that, you know, "I'm not sure," and "I don't know," there are like strings of dirty words or something. I mean, last time you put, "I don't know" on a test what happened to you, pretty sure you got marked wrong.
But the thing is that, that's really a shame. Certainly it's a much more accurate representation of any kind of prediction of the future, right? If I say to you, "Well, I think that we should implement this business strategy because here's how it's gonna turn out." Well, I hope that you're not saying, "I know that for sure, it's gonna turn out that way," because that's just not an accurate representation of the world. Too many things can intervene. There's too much luck involved in the way that things turn out, even if I know for sure what the mathematics are, right?
Even if I've got a coin, I've examined it. I know it's a fair coin with a heads and a tail so I know it's gonna land heads or tails 50% of the time, right? I still don't know how it's gonna turn out on the next flip. So if you ask me: "If I flip this coin, what's it gonna land?" There's one sense in which I can tell you something with some certainty. I can say, "Well, if I've done my homework, I can say, well, 50% of the time it will land heads." And if you say to me, "Well, no, that's not what I want you to tell me. What's it gonna land?" My answer has to be: "I don't know," right? I mean that, how could I? So, a, it's just uncertainty is a more accurate representation of the world. And I'd like to argue that the more accurate your representation of the world, the better your decisions are, and the better you're gonna propel yourself to success.
So, that's number one. But we're taught that it's a bad thing. I think the other problem is that I think that we really confuse confidence with certainty- and there's a difference. You know, one of the things that I used to say in poker when people would ask me about it, they'd say, "Don't you need to be like super confident to be a great poker player?" And I'd say, "Well, it kind of depends on what you mean by confidence, right?" There's one thing which would be, I would sort of view as hubris in the face of the game is thinking that you know much more about the game than you actually do because the game is incredibly complicated. The more that you learn about it, the more that you figure out that you don't know very much about the game.
So, sort of this, there's this expansion of your knowledge of what you don't know as you go through- and how little you really know. That's even as you're getting better at it, it's sort of, you know, you're unpeeling it and there's just more and more layers underneath it. And so, I really look at the game of poker and I say, "Gosh, I really don't know very much about this. I'm really unsure about the strategy. I really don't know how to solve this problem." That's different than being confident in the face of your opponents.
So those are two very, very separate things. And I think we conflate the two so that what we think is that being confident is being certain. And here's the problem, again, it's not an accurate representation of the world, number one. Number two, it causes you to be closed-minded. And what we always wanna be doing is calibrating and updating our beliefs because the better, the more accurate our beliefs are, the better our decisions are gonna be, the better our predictions about the future that result from those decisions, right? Because our decisions are always informed by our beliefs. And our beliefs are really bets on the future, right? We're gonna invest some sort of resource that propels us towards some set of futures. And the decision that we make, we think is gonna propel us to toward the best possible future. If you walk around certain that what you believe is true, and expressing certainty that what you believe is true, it will close your mind off to new information because we will swat it away.
Confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, all of those things are gonna cause us to protect our beliefs which are part of our identity, and we will not be open to new information. It's a really big difference to be: "I'm certain of this belief. I know it's true. I'm a hundred percent," and you're thinking about the world as right or wrong as opposed to this little place, you know, the middle place of I'm not sure. And now you get new information and what do you have to do that disagrees with you? It forces you into a total reversal. All of a sudden you have to say, "I'm wrong." As opposed to, "Well, I believe this thing to be true and I think I'm you know, 60% on it and now you give me new information."
Well, it's a lot easier to be like, "Well, you know what? Now I'm like 52," or "You told me this thing that helped, you know, affirms what I thought, you know, what I thought was a favorite- so now I'm like 67." And that's a lot easier to be a calibrator because you're not starting from a place where your identity is wrapped up in that belief being certain- so that's number two. Number three is that embracing uncertainty is gonna help you be successful because it's gonna invite people to be your collaborators.
So here's the thing, there's too much hidden information out there. You've only had the experiences that you have. You only have the hypotheses that you can come up with. You only have the strategies that you can think of, the tactics you can think of, you only believe what you believe because you're you. So, how do we get more information? We go and seek out the opinions of other people, but in order to do that, a, we have to be willing to look for it which we won't do if we already believe we're certain. What's the motivation to go look for more information if you're certain? And we wanna open the door to other people to tell us what they know, to get their opinions.
When they have information that is useful to us, that will really help us update a belief, we want them to be able to share it with us. So when people ask me, "Is an uncertainty a barrier to success?" I just turn it on its head and I say, "Well, don't you think certainty is? Don't you think that's the barrier to success?"