2016, accomplishments, basketball, determination, illusions, math, optimism, psychology, shooting, Warriors

Why You Should Believe In Yourself Against All Odds

Two Fridays ago, I watched the Warriors get destroyed by the Lakers. The score wasn’t completely devastating, but points don’t tell the whole story. The Lakers’ young talent played a phenomenal game, and the Warriors were unable to catch up, let alone surpass, the Lakers in the second half.

The game resulted in many surprising numbers (strength wasn’t one of them), including a season-low for the Warriors with a 15-point first quarter. It was downhill from there. Still more notable, was that Steph Curry, known for his ability to knock in three-pointers, didn’t make a single one of his 10 attempts. This was the first of 157 games in which he didn’t make at least one three-point shot. He held records for three-point streaks on the road and in postseason.

Sports statistics don’t predict future outcomes; they may posthumously explain the outcome. But as the game clock ticked on, I, along with the commentators, sat on the edge of my seat expecting Steph to make each new three-point attempt. Given his past performance, we believed that he would, and should, have made one.

When Curry went to the bench before the end of the game, I was perplexed, “How is it possible that he didn’t make a single one?” And later, I couldn’t help but wonder what it all meant going forward—if anything.

But there was another factor affecting the pure statistical probability: psychology. We as fans were thinking it, Steph’s face said it, and he actually said it after the game: “Kind of weird not to make one.” With each attempt, Steph’s chances of making a shot were plagued by what we can surmise was building pressure, confusion, nerves, and frustration.

Two days later, Steph Curry broke the NBA record for most threes in a game, making an impressive 13 of 17 attempts. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he had the hot hand. In psychology, the hot-hand fallacy describes an arguably unfounded belief that our chance of success at some random event increases with each success. For most of the past, statisticians have denied the existence of a hot hand despite the fact that basketball players may insist that they feel it.

Regardless of this opposite—albeit more expected—outcome, I again, couldn’t believe it. What were the odds of this performance following that against the Lakers?

After the game, I spent some time researching the hot hand fallacy, only to learn that new research has, for the first time, called the fallacy into question. In the study, the researchers went back to basics, looking at the chances of coin flips. Toss a coin four times, and record the percentage of heads coming specifically after heads. Repeated a million times, the average is 40%, not 50% as we might expect.

The same data, read a completely new way, sets a new expectation.

And this new lens holds true for basketball players as well. Applied to the original study, 19 out of 25 of basketball players demonstrated the hot hand effect when shooting from a location where they have a 50% chance of making the shot.

Data is often a helpful predictor of outcomes. But it can also make us myopic as we find ways to support the data at hand. The results of this new study (and of Curry’s record-making game) inspire me. I am able to believe that in this world of smart numbers, we humans still call the shots. It’s up to us to figure out what we make of the numbers—and if we want to make anything of them at all.

When interviewed after his record-making game, Curry explained, “I was hard on myself in practice the last two days. I had pretty good sessions. I don’t overreact to games like that whether I got 0 for 10 or 2 for 12 or whatever it is. My process is the same, but I had another level of focus the last two days trying to get my rhythm back and see the ball go in.”

Perhaps it is our mindset and our belief that we can succeed, regardless of statistical plausibility, that drive our success. Our chances of success or failure shouldn’t prescribe our confidence. We should instead choose our paths deliberately, then create the conditions that enable us to reach our destination.

Yes, we can believe in data, but let’s believe in ourselves—and others—first.

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amazon, basketball, childhood, createspace, descending the corporate ladder, duncan, emotions, illusions, nba, novella, psychology, self-publishing

“Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.” -Mark Twain

“So there’s absolutely nothing you can do? I really need these books to arrive by Saturday.”

“Well, we don’t ship on weekends.”

“Okay fine, by Friday.”

“Well, you need to understand we’re a warehouse. We can only start printing once you order your books. Sometimes we end up with a pretty long queue of books to print.”

“So there’s absolutely nothing you can do?” Much like the lump that was now trapped in my throat, I was trapped in a cyclical conversation.

Last Monday, I was notified that a pre-release version of my novella was approved for printing by Amazon (I’m self-publishing through their platform). I was celebrating my book with friends and family the following Saturday, and wanted to have physical copies present. I knew I was cutting it close by ordering the final ones less than a week before I needed them, but my proofs had arrived within two days the week prior. As I sat there listening to the friendly voice saying things I didn’t want to hear, I was overcome by raw, instinctual sadness. The kind of sadness that is conceived by helplessness. The kind of sadness that constitutes childlike disappointment.

Staring at my breakfast and realizing that I quite possibly would not have copies of my book to hand out at my book launch party, I thought about what I could have done differently. Maybe if you hadn’t slept early two Fridays ago. Maybe if you hadn’t gone to dinner on Saturday. You could have finished editing two days earlier. While they could make me feel worse about the situation, my thoughts couldn’t fix it.

I gloomily packed up and made my way to work. The first part of the day trudged along, I smiled and laughed but the persistent lump in my throat made it impossible for me to feel at ease.

I texted my family saying, “There’s a small chance that my books won’t make it by Saturday. It’s not the end of the world, but FYI.” My detached tone couldn’t change how I really felt, but I was embarrassed by the facts. My parents’ response indicated a sort of worry. One that wondered why it seemed that I didn’t care about this important day in my life.

In psychology, the illusion of control explains a tendency to overestimate our ability to control outcomes. The illusion of control is just that, an illusion. While there are many problems about it, the most important one is that we end up blaming ourselves when things that we never actually controlled, go the wrong way. There was nothing I could do about the fluctuating demand of Amazon’s printing press.

Last Thursday, in the final moments of the NBA championship, Tim Duncan missed a shot that could have tied the game. Though he is typically stoic, after the miss, Duncan’s face said it all. It was over, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was that childlike sadness that is caused by disproportional regret.  As I watched Duncan sit on the bench watching the end of the game, I found myself loving him for looking so sad. His mess-up was already haunting him and to me that meant that he really truly, deeply cared. It reminded me of the previous Monday and the news of the my books. While I was rather agnostic to the winner of the championship, I found myself more sad for one individual than happy for an entire winning team at the end of the game.

On that fateful book order Monday, I checked my email around 2 PM. There was only one. Its subject? “CreateSpace Order 343145265 has Shipped.” What? Shipped? I didn’t even think they could print the copies this week, let alone ship them. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get them in time? How? What? I was in disbelief. I was going to have books for the party!

In today’s social world, we only see the best of other people — their lucky breaks and beautiful escapes. It’s easy to forget that what we see is seen through a (literal) filter. In turn, we begin to filter our own raw emotion and hide our true feelings, even from ourselves.

Don’t.

As I realized last week, it’s okay to be visibly, childishly sad once in a while. It makes you human. It helps others connect with you at the deepest level. It shows love for whatever it is that you are pursuing. It represents passion. And if you do it right, your raw emotion, like most children’s emotions, will be short-lived. With some turn of events, be it hard work or fate, your sadness will be quickly replaced by a childlike excitement. And if you haven’t experienced it, believe you me, it’s a feeling worth being sad for.

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basketball, passion, persistence, quitting

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” -W.C. Fields

It was sometime during my freshman year of college that one of my friends mentioned to me that she had decided to stop eating meat. She started looking to me for tips on vegetarian-friendly restaurants and how to “feel full” from a non-meat meal. At the time, I didn’t have many vegetarian friends and was thrilled at the prospect of company. The weeks went by and my friend became more and more weighed down by her new dietary restriction. I just feel tired all the time, she told me. My body just isn’t getting all the nutrition it needs. It was then that I realized that despite our similar food preferences, I simply could not empathize. Having been vegetarian all my life, my body does not know what it feels like to be full from meat. You know, the whole “you don’t know what you don’t know” thing.

A few months ago, I got a call from one of my good friends who told me he was quitting his job. He didn’t yet have a defined next step, but all he knew was that he was unhappy enough where he was that he needed to leave. He was rather emotional as he shared his decision with me. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to to do he admitted.

Quitting is not always the easy way out. In some cases, take an extreme example like smoking, it’s actually quite difficult to do.

I’ve never really officially quit anything. Growing up, I just wasn’t allowed to quit. When I got annoyed with having to practice piano or dance, for example, I was required to persist. I ended up a decent musician and dancer and I am so grateful that my parents pushed me through. But here’s the thing: What I didn’t realize when I was younger was that my parents saw some promise. They truly believed I could be good and it was for that reason that I wasn’t allowed to quit. Unfortunately, I incorrectly interpreted the reasoning behind their “anti-quit” mindset, and grew to believe that quitting is just always bad.

Last Tuesday as I watched LeBron play his series-winning game, I realized how much I respect the guy. Yeah, his performance was deserving of the title, but more noteworthy was his sheer resilience and persistence to do what he set out to do despite widespread criticism. And the ability to recognize the necessity to quit a team, city, and fans to join another to get where he felt he deserved to be? Kind of admirable.

I started learning French in the sixth grade and it quickly became one of my favorite classes. It was a new and different change from the same old subjects (math, science, English, history) that I had taken over and over since kindergarten. I also found it somewhat exhilarating to be learning a new language. I continued taking French classes through my senior year of high school, though I had completed my foreign language requirement by the tenth grade. By the end of high school, I could fluently read, write, and converse in French, though I had spent most eleventh and twelfth grades complaining about my boring French classes.

When I started college, due to no more than a self-imposed requirement, I signed up for a French Grammar and Composition class. It turned out that the class was easier than the AP French course I had taken three years prior. I consistently received high marks in the course but almost never found myself intellectually stimulated. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I studied abroad in France and learned more about the French language and culture than I ever had before.

Looking back, my return from France would have been the perfect opportunity to start learning a new language or allocate some course units to a different subject matter altogether. Instead of taking the cue I had mastered a language or that I was ready to explore something new and exciting, I convinced myself “not to quit learning French.”

Thanks to the black and white moral code of our childhood, we’ve all at some point been taught that quitting is for losers. That quitting will make us lesser people and that others will think lesser of us. Of course, the stigma is not unfounded given that some level of persistence is mandatory in order to become a pro or expert or achieve whatever your goal may be.

We are never taught, however, that sometimes, quitting is the right thing to do. And in some cases, quitting is actually more difficult than not. We are never taught that it is okay to acknowledge that you are not cut out for a certain sport or career path and that perhaps your talents would be better suited for something else. We are never taught how to identify that you have drank to the lees and that it is time for a new experience.

I occasionally fear that an anti-quit mindset will prevent me from pursuing enriching new experiences and opportunities in various aspects of my life. That stale comfort will go unquestioned. In some senses, I know this mindset is driven by a fear of leaving things behind. Of missing what was. But the truth (and something that I am still trying to accept myself) is that once you get to a certain point in life, you are no longer “quitting things” but making yourself into a well-rounded individual with diverse experiences and expertise. Each of those things you quit is really just a building block of your existence. Everything that defines you.

So yes, be persistent. Tell yourself you won’t quit at it, whatever it is, if it’s the last thing you do. But the second the passion, learning, thrill, excitement, or sense of purpose quit standing by your side, you owe it to yourself to go out in search of a new adventure. Because honestly, the second you quit quitting or even thinking about quitting, you’ve probably quit trying.

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basketball, college, friendship, home, house, memories

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” -Maya Angelou

It was a few months before I was to leave for college and I was already getting the jitters. When they found out I would be going to school over 2000 miles away from home, most of my friends’ parents would ask me how I planned to deal with the cold. Though at the time I found this question to be rather inane, I am now thankful that we directed our conversation to the weather. Much better than discussing whether I was going to miss home. Who doesn’t, at some level, miss home? And honestly, missing home was what scared me the most. After having lived in the same house for sixteen years, and sixteen/eighteenths of your life, it’s hard to imagine being any place else, especially when almost every single one of your friends lives within a 50 mile radius.

There were few people to whom I expressed this sentiment. I thought it would make me look weak. Of those that were privy to this raw emotion, one provided the most confidence-inspiring (though at the time, unbelievable) comment yet. He was a few years older than I and had made a similar cross-country trek in pursuit of higher education. It’s really uncomfortable at first. You want to feel invincible because you’re finally leaving the nest but you really do miss home. Then suddenly there’s an inflection point. For me it was at the end of winter vacation my freshman year. I realized that I was leaving home…and felt like I was going home. It’s the most liberating feeling. When college becomes your new home. I just stared at him in disbelief. No way. I’ll always think of this place as home.

In the NBA (and sports in general, I would think), playing at home is considered advantageous. In fact, it is also a reward of sorts. Teams are often unfavored to win if they are not playing “at home” and in the playoffs, home court advantage goes to the team with the better record. At some level, it feels a bit ridiculous. Is it really true that professional basketball players, people who make their living off playing this game, actually perform better in their natural habitat? But when you step back and realize that the players are just normal human beings like you and me, it makes sense. There is a certain level of comfort being at home. The people in the crowd are mostly rooting for you; you can trust they won’t be waving some germy foam finger in your face when you are attempting a critical free throw. You got to sleep in your own bed rather than some rickety old hotel mattress. There’s something soothing about being at home.

Growing up, I used to go on a family vacation almost every year. Sometimes it was with just my family. Sometimes it was with friends as well. Sometimes more than once a year. But no matter what, I always hated that moment when it was time to come home. Being away from home was a beautiful escape from the “hardships” of my life — practicing piano and dance, doing homework, going to the dentist (I lived in fear of getting a cavity and it going on some sort of permanent record).

Once I went to college, however, home became the escape. Not-so-coincidentally my most common holiday destination, home was the place where I could get away from the stresses of my college life (surprisingly similar to those of my eight-year-old life, though twice a year, my escape included a visit to the dentist).

Almost exactly a year ago this time, on the way to a family Memorial Day barbecue (don’t worry, it was vegetarian) I completely broke down in front of my parents. A rare occasion during which my entire family and family friends were in the same place at the same time, and I felt alone and lost. It had been a year since I had graduated college and I felt distanced from all too many people I had grown to love. I felt that my heart and mind had frequently been “on vacation” in other geographical locations. In realizing that this place that I had called home now felt incomplete, I only began to cry more. In an odd full-circle type deal, I was being a child in this place that had defined my childhood.

Of late, I’m finding myself more and more frustrated that I can’t pinpoint home. A house, yes, but not home. As our lives take us down different paths and to diverse geographical locations, we, even if just for a moment, make our homes there. And when we leave, a piece of us is left behind. It’s hugely discomforting. On the flip side, one could argue that it’s comforting knowing that more and more of the world is yours.

There’s probably a balance to achieve between feeling grounded at home in your day-to-day while still maintaining the remote pieces of your life. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve mastered it. Unlike the almost two-hundred posts that precede, this one has no conclusion. Quite unsettling. How’s that for a metaphor?

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basketball, bias, creativity, Jeremy Lin, psychology, schemas

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” -Einstein

Of late, and like most of you out there I imagine, I’ve found myself deeply fascinated by the Jeremy Lin story. In reflecting on what makes his so universally appealing, I’m sure it’s because his is just so unexpected. A schema is a cognitive tool, often based off of past experiences or preconceived notions, that helps us categorize and interpret the world. Though today, people like Lin’s high school basketball coach are claiming they always knew he was capable of such a feat, I’m willing to put money on the fact that this is just a hindsight is 20/20-type situation. Until recently, “Asian-American Harvard graduate,” did not readily fit my schema for an NBA star basketball player. Whether or not they’ll admit it, this has got to be true for others as well.

On several occasions during my school days, teachers would tell me or my parents that I could be President (Teachers say that to everyone, don’t they? Don’t answer that). Today, I realize that the statement is a sort of metaphor for “You can do anything you want to do. You can be anyone you want to be.” Back then I took it quite literally. I remember the day I learned that a main eligibility requirement to be United States President is natural citizenship (US-born). I sat there thinking, Wow. My teachers are right. I could be President. That evening I went home and told my parents. Though they politely played along with my youthful dreaming, let’s just say they didn’t exactly take it upon themselves to groom me for presidency, as say, Bush Sr. probably did for George W. (Note: I am not blaming my parents for the fact that I will never be President of the United States).

It makes sense. We as humans are rather risk averse. We play to win, and we take the bets that are in our favor. If there were more Indian-American female US Presidents out there, maybe I would be more optimistic about such a life goal. This mindset is necessary, albeit disappointing. Disappointing because it may be hindering our creativity as a society. Recently, Scientific American reported research findings showing for the first time that much like unconscious biases against race, gender, sexual orientation, and mental diseases, we are also unconsciously biased against creativity. Yes, in a world of augmented reality and mobile wallets, we literally fear creativity and innovation. Not only that, we actually fail to see creativity when it slaps us in the face. All this in the name of a “sure-thing.”

I can’t help but wonder if there’s any way out for us. Cognitive biases are pretty strong — they’re unconscious, after all. Are we as a society inhibiting our own creative progress? I believe that with creativity, as with most widespread biases, change starts with the individual. Just as people may almost “overcompensate” to prove complete acceptance of topics traditionally victim to unconscious bias, it may be time to aggressively pursue creative (and risky) goals.

Today, in perusing my usual news sources, I came upon an admittedly questionable article claiming that predicting the future is all about trusting your feelings. In cases where we have some overall knowledge about a question at hand, going with our gut may be enough to make a (successful) prediction about the future. When it comes to ourselves, maybe we can be a bit creative with our goals and dreams, especially if we have some sort of gut feeling that success is possible. Though nerve-wrecking especially for those who are risk averse, the idea is pretty uplifting.

To conclude, I come back to basketball, and a basketball poster that hung in my gym locker room. The quote read, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” We owe it to our creative selves, the Asian-American-Harvard-graduate-NBA-star in each of us, the first African America US President in each of us, to go with our gut, reconstruct schemas and break barriers.

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