Honest Performance Evaluation… (Is tricky)

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I recently read a book called Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.  If you’re interested in making better decisions and analyzing those decisions with clarity, check it out.  As a racer, I tend to process information by thinking about how it applies to on-track competition. With this book, it’s really easy to connect those dots.

 I can sum up the book by stealing this quote from it: “…there are exactly two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck.  Learning to recognize the difference between the two is what thinking in bets is all about.” – Annie Duke

Simple enough, right?  The problem is that we tend to place far too much emphasis on our outcomes and draw overly simplified conclusions from them.  This definitely resonates for most of us in racing. Win, and we’re awesome. Lose, and we’re awful. What gets lost is the nuance in between.  

Duke explains this idea in more concrete terms by discussing the philosophical differences between the game of chess and the game of poker (Duke herself was a successful professional poker player).  In short, she explains that chess is a game of definition: with proper study, there is a “correct” play or decision in every situation. The variables, while complex, can be defined. When a chess player loses a match, he or she can trace back and see their mistake(s) and pinpoint the exact instant in which he or she made a poor decision.    In a game like poker, the variables are not as definable. This adds a layer of complexity; because poker hands are decided by a combination of skill and luck; and even after the hand is played, the variables aren’t always known. So it can be very difficult to accurately determine what percentage of a win (or loss) can be attributed to skill, and what percentage can be attributed to luck.  

“Chess, for all its strategic complexity, isn’t a great model for decision-making in life, where most decisions involve hidden information and a much greater influence of luck.  This creates a challenge that doesn’t exist in chess: identifying the relative contributions of the decisions we make versus luck in how things turn out.” Annie Duke

Racing, I would argue, is more like poker than it is chess. 

All too often when reviewing our performance on race day, we subscribe to a self-serving bias that makes us feel better about ourselves.  This same bias hampers (or completely stops) our development. What we tend to do is chalk winning outcomes up to our immense skill… And write off losing rounds as the result of bad luck.  In reality, every outcome is some mixture of skill and luck; and the weight of each factor can vary in every round of competition.  

In contrast, when we see a competitor have positive outcomes (win a race, or win a round), our tendency is to credit their success more to luck.  Yet when that same competitor loses a given round, it’s far more obvious to us that they made a mistake (lacked skill).  

It’s a self-serving bias that we justify because each round of competition is a zero-sum game.  If I win because of skill; then my opponent must have been out-skilled. If I lose because of luck, then my opponent must have been luckier.

The problem with this self-serving bias is that it prevents us from properly evaluating the effectiveness of our decisions (our skill).  The result is that we don’t learn from experience well.

“Outcomes are rarely the result of our decision quality alone or chance alone, and outcome quality is not a perfect indicator of the influence of luck or skill.” Annie Duke

So how can we accurately identify the amount of luck or skill that goes into each individual, independent outcome?  Each round, win or loss? It starts with losing some sliver of the identity that takes from winning and losing. Rather than feeling good exclusively when the win light comes on, we can learn to appreciate the ability to identify learning opportunities that those around us often do not.  We can take pride in pinpointing good fortune (luck) in victory and identifying opportunity in defeat.

“When we look at the people performing at the highest level of their chosen field, we find that the self-serving bias that interferes with learning often recedes and even disappears.” Annie Duke

Instead of chalking up losses to the luck of our opponent; challenge yourself to look at the round from their perspective (When I do this, it’s easier to identify skill in my opponent: The same skill that I would normally take credit for if the roles were reversed).   Question everything. How could I have done a better job? What decision could I have made to increase my odds? What bias prevented me from considering that decision?  

While a change in perspective can be useful, it’s often difficult to obtain (we don’t know what we don’t know); and it can be even trickier to maintain.  That’s where Duke insists that a willing community can play a pivotal role.  

“To view ourselves in a more realistic way, we need other people to fill in our blind spots.” Annie Duke

Identifying the right community or partner to challenge us and spur growth is incredibly important.  We’ve all been a part of the race track clique that simply reinforces our own beliefs: “You won, you’re the best!”  Or, “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d win every round.” While being a part of a racing fraternity that consistently bemoans their misfortune and repeats their “bad beat” stories can be comforting, it’s detrimental to growth.  We don’t need a group that confirms our self-serving bias. We don’t need an echo chamber repeating our own beliefs. We need a group strong enough to question those beliefs. “What could you have done differently in that round?”

Admittedly, groups and/or people like this are often hard to find. It’s easier to participate in an echo chamber.  Misery loves company. Cultivating the right community of diverse, thoughtful, motivated racers who are willing to challenge one another is such a huge step toward growth.  Without sounding like a complete infomercial, that’s one of things that makes our ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE community so special: members are accepted into a large group of racers from across the world who are committed to growth.  We question fixed beliefs and false narratives. We fight self-serving bias. We depend on and challenge one another in an effort to grow. While a membership community like ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE is a great option, it certainly is not the only option.  

The goal is not to assume that we’re as good as we feel when we win, nor is it to validate the sense that we did everything right, only to fall victim to a bad break in a loss.  The goal, rather, is to improve. Just a little bit. In perpetuity.  

The saying goes, “I either win or I learn.”  

Let’s amend the saying.  Those ideas are not mutually exclusive.  
Go to your next race to win and to learn.


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