Should You Stay or Go? Lessons From a Poker Player

In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book on productivity, a world-champion poker player discusses the advice she received from her brother, also a world-class player:

“Most players are obsessed with finding the certainty on the table, and it colors their choices. Being a great player means embracing uncertainty. As long as you’re okay with uncertainty, you can make the odds work for you.”

This quote was in a chapter on how to make better decisions, and as I read it I realized that many of the single people I speak with also express a strong fear of uncertainty.

It makes sense, of course. Choosing whether or not to stay with a romantic partner can be very stressful. The stakes are pretty high. Do you push all your chips to center of the table, or do you fold?

Very often, I will hear from a woman who tells me she is dating a really good guy. She will tick off all of his fine qualities—good job, shows up on time, nice to her parents, etc. There is nothing wrong with this guy, or at least there aren’t any major red flags that in her mind would justify a breakup.

There are only little things that bug her. She made a funny remark at dinner and he looked right through her. She wanted to vent about a fight she had with her sister, but he didn’t understand what she was so worked up about. These little disconnects seem small, but they can also speak to a bigger issue. When someone doesn’t get you, especially a boyfriend, it can feel pretty lonely.

On the other hand, she’s 28. Or 33. Or 42. Maybe this is her best chance. Maybe if she breaks up with her Perfectly Nice Guy, she will end up spending her life alone. Maybe she will miss her chance to have kids.

Then again, if she stays with him, she might miss the opportunity to find her true soulmate.

When I speak to women in this situation, I often ask them to envision themselves five or ten years from now. What would their 10-years-older selves advise them to do?

At that point, it becomes very clear for some women: They realize that the thought of being in their humdrum relationship five or ten years from now sounds awful. Next Friday, fine. But the next 500 Fridays? Uh, no.

For others, it’s harder. Being with the boyfriend does sound a lot better than being alone and childless in ten years. But of course, those are not the only two options. She might meet someone else—and the sooner she leaves her current situation, the more time she’ll have to do it. Then again, her guy does have a lot of good points, and she’s in her late 30s, and really wants kids.

Running through all these different possibilities might seem crazy-making, but Duhigg says envisioning multiple futures can help you make better decisions about the present.

“The people who make the best choices are the ones who work hardest to envision various futures, to write them down and think them through, and then ask themselves which ones do I think are likely and why?” he writes.

The lesson from the poker player is that the novice makes mistakes because she craves certainty; the expert knows that certainty is impossible and makes the best prediction she can with the information she has and with her instincts.

To cultivate those instincts, Duhigg recommends examining past decisions you’ve made—both the good ones and the bad ones—and reviewing your thought process at the time. Why did you make that choice? What made you think it was the best choice? Why were you right or wrong?

Should you stay or should you go? There is no correct answer to this question, of course, but if you can take some time and examine your possible futures—Will you be happy together five years from now? Are you likely to meet someone else by then? Do you think you would be relatively happy either way?—you can start to access your internal wisdom, rather than be ruled by your fears.


its not you sara eckel

Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.  You can her any questions here. You can also find her at, Twitter and Facebook.

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