Thought for the day.
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:
YOU CAN’T WIN IF YOU DON’T PLAY.
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:
YOU CAN’T LOSE IF YOU DON’T PLAY.
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.
- 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.
- 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.