The Key To Success? Learning When To Quit, According To A Retired Professional Poker Player

Quit or not quit sign

The ancient Stoics understood it, and modern psychologists confirm it: we humans have an instinctive aversion to admitting defeat. Quitting feels like failure, like the bitter aftertaste of wasted time, energy, and resources. But as counterintuitive as it might sound, knowing when to throw in the towel is as crucial to success as persistence.

Just as a gardener prunes deadwood to make room for new growth on a beloved tree, we must learn to leave behind endeavors that no longer serve us to create space for the ones that will. This includes career paths going nowhere, businesses interests that don’t seem to be scalable or worth the time and energy, and personal relationships that hold back our own personal growth. 

It doesn’t have to be a career or business pursuit, either – it can be a brilliant idea that stagnates, a beloved hobby that no longer brings joy, or even a living in a dream city that feels more like a prison than a home.

Embracing Quitting: Evolution Not Failure

Embrace quitting, not as a sign of defeat, but as an evolution strategy; a daring gambit in the complex game of life where the ultimate prize is a fulfilling journey, not just a final destination.

One person who knows the benefits of quiting is former professional poker player Annie Duke.

Duke retired from the poker world almost a decade ago, saying she hasn’t played since 2012. In addition to a distinguished 20+ year career in poker, Duke has extensively written about human psychology and cognitive-behavioral decision science.  In other words, the study of motivation and why people decide to do what they do. 

Duke is the author of the 2022 book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away and recently appeared on Harvard Business Review’s On Strategy podcast to discuss why quiting is so stigmatized. 

In particular, Duke addresses two psychological phenomena that deter us from quitting: the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion in the episode. 

The Sunk Cost Fallacy: The Downside of Persistence

Duke says sunk cost fallacy leads people to stick with projects, jobs, or other investments due to the time, money, or effort already spent, fearing that quitting would mean wasting these resources. It’s the “stick with it” attitude that the desired result may eventually happen with time.

Except, just like the gambler’s fallacy of being “due” a win in a card game after a string of losing hands, the sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy because it disregards whether the next unit of time, money, or effort invested will be worthwhile.

Loss Aversion: The Fear of Starting Anew

On the podcast, Duke also explains how loss aversion, on the other hand, makes people reluctant to quit and start something new due to fear of potential failures or losses in the new venture, despite being unhappy in their current situation. This fear is greater than the concern of losing in the current endeavor, which Duke calls “asymmetric.”

Duke explains that perceive maintaining the status quo as not starting something new each day, although technically it is. Therefore, loss aversion is more applicable when contemplating leaving the familiar for a new start.

These two biases work together when people make a big decision, which makes quitting difficult due to the fear of wasting past investments and the fear of failing in new ventures. This is despite the logic that new endeavors may offer a higher probability of happiness or success than persisting with the current unsatisfactory situation.

Opportunity Cost Neglect: Missing Out on the Gains

“One of the biggest things that I see is opportunity cost neglect,” Duke says on the podcast episode. “We don’t tend to take into account the gains that might be associated with another course of action in comparison to the thing that we’re already doing. So, if you have resources that are pursuing a particular project, those are resources that can’t pursue other projects. And any other project that you might pursue has losses and gains associated with it. We’re almost myopic in the sense that we really can’t even see the other opportunities that are available to us and that causes us to neglect the gains that might be associated with those other opportunities.”

Duke offers an example of how people make employment decisions. She explains how people often find it hard to fire underperforming employees because they worry about not finding a good replacement. They think more about what they might lose instead of what they could gain. If they think about how the team might improve without the underperformer, or how likely it is that a new hire will do better, they can see the desired benefits of making a change.

The Key to Effective Decision-Making – A Framework For Thinking And Learning from Past Decisions.

Duke says the key is to focus on one’s way of thinking on make decisions faster and more effectively.

Duke explains on the podcast that writing down your thoughts when making decisions helps you understand your reasoning at the time. Later, when you see how things turn out, you can look back at what you wrote and learn from it. This method makes it easier to learn from past decisions, because you have a clear record of what you were thinking when you made them.

In conclusion

At the end of the day, quitting is not a sign of failure, but a strategic step in life’s complex game, a critical part of our journey towards fulfillment in your career or business. By understanding our biases and maintaining a record of our decision-making thoughts, we can learn and improve.

Success is not a linear path but a series of starts, stops, and adjustments. It’s not something that’s neat and tiddy. The bravest move can often be to quit, regroup, and chart a new course. It’s not about surrendering, but knowing when to walk away for evolution’s sake.

Ultimately, quitting isn’t failure. It’s evolution.

B. Carlisle

Contributing editor at Wealth Gang. An entrepreneur at heart, he's passionate about meaningful ways to leverage technology and social media for business opportunities and side hustles.