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Thought for the day.

August 23, 2015

A very personal piece, for your reading pleasure and maybe food for thought:

Here in Massachusetts the ad campaign for the state Lottery (and maybe it’s a national thing, I don’t know) goes like this:


This statement is true, so far as it goes.  If I don’t pay my dollar, I have no chance of winning a million dollars.  But there are a couple of corollary ideas naturally following the above statement.  Of course, given the statistical chance of winning the lottery, one such statement could be IF YOU PLAY, YOU’LL PROBABLY NOT WIN.  But there’s another idea that I believe has a much stronger visceral message:


Humans naturally give more weight to the experience of loss than to the experience of gain.  Once we have something we are much more afraid to lose it than we were happy to get it.  Similarly, the pain of losing a competition often lingers far longer than the joy of winning, though I suspect this isn’t true for winning the lottery.  Why not?  Because the personal investment a person makes in a lottery ticket, a dollar or so, is relatively insignificant.  We don’t mind losing in the lottery because we haven’t put much out there at risk.

But what if what’s at risk is bigger?  What if it is a larger amount of money, or a job, or a life savings?  What if what’s at risk feels like life itself?

If you have a life that is comfortable, what you really have is a life that is familiar, a life in which you can control the variables and have a pretty good idea of the outcome of a given situation and, most importantly, a life in which your senses of self and identity are safe.  A comfortable life isn’t necessarily a happy one, or a fulfilling one, or the one you dreamed of,  but if you stay in it you are unlikely to feel threatened by much. You have your stuff and you want to keep it.  The comfort comes in not taking any risk.  The threat of losing, or failing, often feels much bigger than the prospect of fulfillment.

Say I’m a tennis player. (I am most assuredly not, but let’s assume.) I’m a good tennis player, and I’ve worked hard at it for many years.  Imagine that I get an un-seeded spot at Wimbledon.  I have spent years learning the skills necessary to compete in this tournament and I know I’ve worked just as hard as everybody else.  In fact, my entire identity thus far in life has been becoming a good tennis player.  I’ve been told by teachers that I’m a good tennis player.  I went to the best coaches and schools.

Imagine that I get the draw, and I find out I’m playing Roger Federer in the first round.  At this point I can consider my options: I can’t beat Federer if I never play him, but even if I play Federer the likelihood of beating him is very small, i.e, I’m likely to lose.

Now I have to ask: How big a blow is losing?  How big of a risk am I taking?  What am I putting out there for the world to see?  At this point my decision to play in Wimbledon or not will depend on how I think about myself in relation to tennis.

  1. Is there anything to gain from playing Federer?  Might I learn something?  If so, maybe I should just get out there and see what happens, even if I am temporarily humiliated.  I win experience, if not the match.  With this view, I feel like I’m not really risking much, but I can potentially gain greatly for the future.
  2. If I feel like I am risking my very life, that my entire sense of self will be destroyed if I lose, if I can’t stand what people might think of me, might it not be better to withdraw from the competition?  After all, I can’t lose if I don’t play.

The outcome of most of human’s lives rests on which perspective is taken.


From → Food for Thought

  1. Jen permalink

    Wow that really is food for thought and as you say can be applied to so many situations. Makes me think about my patients and their struggles with implementing changes in the context of chronic disease…..hmm I like it!

  2. Danie Botha permalink

    Excellent thoughts (for the day.)

    We have to realize though that Roger Federer will then NEVER be unthroned, or even be challenged. Not that I want that, I like him!
    This philosophy of NOT LOSING WHEN YOU DON’T PLAY is a safe one–limit risk taking. Depending on our life’s situation we are often compelled to do just that. Be it children, parents, finances, whatever the valid reason–we have no option, other than to complete the journey.

    On the other hand, many (if not most) worthwhile changes in life/in the world come/follows when individuals take risks, step outside their comfort zone. Some small, some bigger. It’s true, there’s much one can loose. Interesting enough, it is often in one such journey of risk taking that one can also find so much more, ONESELF for instance, especially when its a journey that involves and enrich other’s lives as well. (And I’m not referring to money.)

    Such as being a parent, an Anesthesiologist (I’m one myself), a physician, a nurse, a teacher, a miner, pilot, cleaner, student–whatever–it is only in giving some of ourselves, that we can truly find meaning. (Although, that’s hard when you’ve been on duty 18-24hours plus!)

    Great post. Thanks, Shirie!

  3. Darara Borodge permalink

    Great article!

    I am personally at a crossroads in life where I am faced with “not playing the game” in order to preserve my identity or diving in and giving it my best shot. The tricky thing is is that fear and anxiety also serve to create avenues of self sabotage such that even if one tries to play the game they might not give it their all (because their subconscious decision was to preserve their identity).

    How does one change their attitude if they know they are making a poor choice? Sorry for the late reply! All the best.

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