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The Number 1 Thing Keeping Counselors from Growing

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Skills of an effective counselor pt. 12

I remember the first time I saw Alexandra.

I was standing in a small concrete storage facility.

Sweating like a Gatorade bottle.

The music was blaring and I was bored.

Some older students at my university, juniors and seniors mostly, had rented this extra large self storage room to host concerts. But of course, being a concrete room with no widows, there was no ventilation. Between the heat thrown off by the music equipment and the 50 other students crammed in the room it was blazing hot.

Whoever was running the concert brought in a person sized fan, and had it going in the corner. It didn't help.

Like most college music it was okay, if you're into indi-rock bands who were still trying to find their sound.

And then Alex took the stage.

I still remember looking on stage and hearing one of the most beautiful voices I'd ever heard. I literally said to a friend of mine later "it was like a chorus of angels exploded from her mouth."

Yeah. I'm eloquent like that.

In that moment, as she stood on stage and gave a rendition of Sixpence None the Richer's Kiss Me which would have made Sixpence None the Richer cry two things happened.

First, I had an instant crush. Second, and more importantly, I was struck with a sense of awe.

I think that memory sticks out because awe, real awe, is something which I feel less and less as I get older.

And that's why I want to tell you about Annie Duke.


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My introduction to Annie Duke.

Annie Duke is a former world champion poker player and cognitive scientist. I'd heard Duke's name thrown around on a bunch of other podcasts, but I'd resisted looking into her or her book, Thinking in Bets.

Most books are mostly fluff. I didn't want to waste my time.

But as time went on and sooooo many podcasts I liked kept mentioning her I decided to give her a chance.

So one night while doing the dishes I downloaded her interview on The Knowledge Project. And 20 mins in I stopped everything and started screaming. Then I bought her book. And then finished listening to the interview.

Several things in her book struck me. One of which was she answered a question that had bothered me for a long time.

The mystery I couldn't figure out.

See, one of the rules of learning is that people learn best in contexts with clear, quick feedback. This is why some arenas have experts and others don't.

My problem was whenever I would talk with my friends and colleagues about how the lack of feedback means counseling hadn't advanced in 40 years, they'd all say something like "yes, that's why I do EFT."

So then I'd tell them about Scott Miller and his research on common factors and how all models on average, do about the same.

And they'd say "yes, and that's why I do EMDR."

Then I'd tell them about the research on how EMDR often gets the same results even if they don't do the eye movements.

And they'd say... well you get the picture.

People would understand the research, even agree with it, but then respond in a way that was totally incongruent with the research.

It didn't make sense.

They were getting feedback that their models weren't making them better, but instead of changing they were doubling down?

This is the question Annie Duke answered for me.

The "Bad Beat" Story.

Years ago, as Annie was climbing the ranks of poker society, she noticed that some players, who'd been playing for years longer than her had stalled out in their growth.

Which was odd. Because they were getting clear feedback that they weren't doing well. After all, they were losing. But they never corrected their behavior.

What she noticed was that instead of learning, the players would tell a Bad Beat Story. In poker a Bad Beat Story is some version of "I had a great hand, pocket aces, but I lost. It's not my fault. I'm just unlucky."

This really hit home one day, when she lost a really big hand in a game, and afterwards went up to her mentor Erik Seidel, another world champion poker player. As she started to tell him her Bad Beat Story, he interrupted her and told her she was being annoying.

[00:24:56] what he said was, I'm going to paraphrase, but it was something like, why are you telling me this story? Like, do you think I really want to hear this? Like, OK, I've lost with a lot of hands, too. I have heard so many bad beat stories, I have no interest in yours whatsoever. If you really lost because of bad luck, what's the point of the story? There's nothing that you can learn from it.
Now, if you have a question like if you want to talk about strategy. I don't care whether you won or lost a hand, like we'll sit down and talk about strategy, but don't just come up and tell me about bad luck. You're like literally wasting my time and it's annoying. I mean, I think he actually told me I was being annoying.

At the time it crushed her.

Why research on therapy outcomes falls on deaf ears.

What you're supposed to do when someone tells you a Bad Beat Story is commiserate.

"Oh, wow. I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, that's not fair."

"You should have won."

Eric was having none of it.

And it was one of the biggest growth moments for Annie.

She realized that what she and other players were doing was using Bad Beat Stories to protect their ego from the pain of failure. When you tell a bad beat story you pin the blame for the loss elsewhere. You displace the defeat so it's not your fault and to protect yourself from the pain [1].

But it's the death nail of learning.

If you do this, you never take responsibility for the parts you could control. Duke realized that if she wanted to get better, if she wanted to be a world class poker player she'd have to be willing to face the pain head on, and learn from the failure, instead of protecting her ego.

This is what made me start screaming.

This is what my friends were doing.

See, they'd invested hundreds of dollars in their licenses,...

thousands of dollars in trainings,...

and tens of thousands of dollars into their degrees.

And here I was telling them that those things probably hadn't made them better therapists.

That's a hard thing to hear. So their responses were to protect their egos.

To those of us who want mastery...

Not everyone wants to constantly and critically examine their failures. Some of us just want to show up, do our job, and go home.

And that's okay.

In fact, you've earned the right do just that. Even if you did have the time to devote to becoming world class, you're under no obligation to do so.

For most clinicians, at some level, therapy must just be a job.

There should be no pressure on the average person to be a supershrink.

But for those of us who want mastery we're going to have to stop protecting our ego.

We're going to have to get on stage like Alex and belt our hearts out. We're going to have to be like Annie Duke and endure tough conversations with mentors. We're going to have to talk to supervisors and consultants and tell them not that our clients weren't ready, but that we didn't know how to help them.

That is an excruciatingly hard thing to do.

But to those of us who have the audacity to do it, I stand in awe of you.


Jordan (the Counselor)


[1] Are we really supposed to take complete responsibility for the success or failure of therapy? No, of course not. What Duke recommends is that we think in bets. For instance say you have a 20% chance of a client improving. Do everything you can to maximize that 20% and then realize that under the best circumstances, 80% of the time the client won't change.


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