2017, grit, plans, winning

Why I’m Changing The Way I Think About My Plans–Both Big And Small

Recently, I attended a wedding in Fort Myers. Yes, this Fort Myers, the one that Irma visited just weeks prior to that. On the phone with the bride two weeks before the wedding, I asked her how she was feeling. Having been hit hard by the hurricane, the wedding venue was closed down for repairs. Recognizing the first-world-problem-ness of my question, I assumed my friend was struggling with the reality that her meticulously planned weekend would almost certainly not go according to plan. And when you (ideally) only have one wedding, that’s a difficult reality to accept. “The only person that should be freaking out is me, and I’m not. What can I do?” She responded. “Bring your swimsuit,” she joked. “In the best case we’ll hang at the pool, and in the worst, the whole wedding will be under water.”

My friend wasn’t just playing it cool. She is genuinely cool about riding life’s waves, even, as I’ve learned, when they come in the form of a hurricane. Now, she could only try her best to put the pieces back together.

I am the opposite of cool when it comes to these types of situations.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled when my plans, both big and small, have fallen through, even when (and this is most frequently the case), the outcome was not fully in my control. The thrill that some seek in spontaneity, I seek in a good plan well-executed. So when things don’t go according to plan, my heart becomes heavy with disappointment. I analyze how I might have behaved differently in order to have achieved the desired outcome. For me, a fallen plan is the mark of a failed planner—a failed me. This misconceived schema is largely driven by my “do or do not, there is no try,” upbringing. Growing up, my plans were smaller, and most of the time, I did have complete control over them. Performing poorly on an exam meant I hadn’t planned enough time to study. Failing a piano lesson (and my piano teacher was very generous in handing out failing grades) meant I hadn’t planned enough time to practice.

I started reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened shortly before my trip to Florida. I haven’t yet finished it, but talk about things not going according to plan. The memoir starts with Hillary at President Trump’s inauguration, and the introduction explains her rationale for writing the book—to share candidly with the world why, in her opinion (and as the title suggests), what happened happened. After believing she would win—planning to win—she now has explanations, confessions, reflections, and realizations (and sass). She wants to discuss the mistakes and misfortunes.

At first, the book was painful for me to read. Painful for obvious reasons, but painful also because it is one big debrief on a plan that went awry. Despite years of planning, years of preparation, years of explicitly and implicitly pursuing activities that qualified her for the job, she didn’t get it. It’s painful to know that nobody is superhuman enough to kill the Wrench that kills plans. It’s painful to be reminded of life’s massive unpredictability.

But as I got further into the book, I started to settle in. In a chapter about why she ran, Hillary cites lines from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, a poem she has loved since her teenage years:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

She writes, “In the nearly fifty years since, it’s become a mantra for me and our family that, win or lose, it’s important to ‘get caught trying.’ Whether you’re trying to win an election or pass a piece of legislation that will help millions of people, build a friendship or save a marriage, you’re never guaranteed success. But you are bound to try. Again and again and again.”*

I appreciated her inclusion of both personal and professional instances of trying.

Since reading the passage, I’ve pushed myself to think beyond my academic notion of failed plans to what I rationally know to be true: If most of life’s outcomes are indeed uncontrollable, I shouldn’t be celebrating wins and cushioning losses as if I had any control. Success is in the intent. And failure is not in the plan or in the planner, but in the lack of trying to achieve.

In the twisted complexity of our modern world, “try” is more of an option, and often, the best option.

One thing we can all learn from Hillary, whether we supported her or not, is how to push forward past the plan when it doesn’t come to fruition. How to look back critically, but without self-blame. How to cope with the fact that the plan was just a plan.

Because Hillary, like my friend, knows better than to be married to a plan.

 

 


*Clinton, Hillary Rodham. What Happened, Simon & Schuster, 2017, pp. 57.

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counterfactual thinking, happiness, psychology, USA, USMNT, victory, winning, World Cup 2014, writing

Lessons Learned from USMNT: How to Lose Victoriously

“You know, if we were in Portugal’s place, we would have been really happy about the way this game ended,” I overheard a guy say to his friend as they exited a bar (What a smart drunk dude!) on Sunday afternoon. The USA-Portgual World Cup match had just ended in a tie. “That’s totally true,” my friend, also overhearing, said to me.

It was true — and it was a smart thing to say — because Portugal had almost lost the game. Basically lost it.

USA could have had the win. We were so close. We should have won the game. There are plenty of reasons to believe this: At the ninety-minute mark, the official duration of a World Cup match, we had won the game; with only thirty seconds left in the actual game, we had won the game; We had lots of good saves; We had two solid goals; We believed, we believed that we would win.

Despite the fact that we both shared the same outcome, a 2-goal tie, Portugal was likely happier about the score than the US. This is because the US, leading up to the last thirty seconds of the game, was on track to win while Portugal, was on track to lose. For Portugal, the tie was a better-than-expected outcome.

In psychology, this line of logic is called counterfactual thinking. Our happiness is fueled by an assessment of our accomplishments against their alternatives. In fact, research has shown that bronze medalists are significantly more happy with their awards than silver medalists. The bronze medalist is thankful to have not lost while the silver medalist is disappointed at not having won gold. The silver medalist, like the US team, was so close to winning.

In late January, I wrote and submitted an article to a well-regarded online publication. Aware that the publication deals with a high volume of guest submissions, I decided I did not expect a response, let alone an acceptance. Imagine my elation, then, when I eventually received the following email:

Thanks for sending this in. I’m afraid I was snowed under with submissions this past week and have only just given it a read. I really enjoyed it, but I see that you’ve published elsewhere in the meantime. 

Hope to get a chance to work with you on a future story!

Personal victory! The editor likes me. I am a shoe-in next time! I told myself.

Last week, I submitted a new, unpublished article to the same editor. This time around, I received an email response almost immediately. No big deal. I was expecting an email, anyway, I thought when I saw the notification. Unexpectedly, however, it was a rejection. Here I was, victim to counterfactual thought. Unlike the first rejection email, this one left me disappointed and unmotivated to try again (though I eventually will).

Today, despite our Game 3 loss to Germany, Americans across the country are rejoicing. Based on our historical performance and the skill of other teams, the US Team beat expectations and advanced out of the Group of Death.

It is not a win; it is a personal victory.

***

Like our friends on the soccer field, we all have goals, both personal and professional. To keep things simple, we identify obvious successes (in the effort to avoid obvious failures). “I am going to achieve this precise thing!” we tell ourselves. Having a guest post accepted by your favorite publication, for example. We fail to realize, however, that even in the most seemingly black and white situations (a match win or loss), there are relative successes and failures.

And it’s these relative achievements, not the absolute ones, that significantly impact our sense of accomplishment and happiness.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we should all sandbag our goals or expect to lose. But once in a while, it would help to remind ourselves that a goal is just a frame. There is a lot of space within that general frame — a lot of net. Instead of giving up, I should be reminding myself that this editor is still willing to consider me in the future. That there are many other well-regarded publications in the world. That every article I write is better than the last. That I will only fail if I stop submitting.

Push yourself. Strive. But don’t expect any obvious win. There is no such thing. Like a soccer match, life is mostly just a series of missed shots at your goal. And as long as you’re consistent in your performance, as long as you remain happy and motivated, you, like our US team, will still advance — even if you don’t make a single shot in the net.

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basketball, hard work, hubris, piano, winning

Nobody Said It Was Easy

About this time eight years ago, we were reading The Odyssey in English class. I think it was during those discussions that I learned the word “hubris.” Words have character, and to me, this one is ugly. But in ancient Greece, hubris wasn’t just ugly. It was illegal.

About this time one year ago, I was standing in front of my mirror practicing my first semester thesis presentation over and over. And over.

About this time two weeks ago, the arguable hubris of the Boston Celtics and the undeniable skill of a certain Russell Westbrook led the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory. This isn’t the first time I’ve written a post involving overconfidence and the Celtics.

We’ve all experienced success in some form or another. From exceeding our own expectations to those of others. From avoiding to overcoming obstacles. And the sweet taste of it is unforgettable. We turn a blind eye to everything we did to get there, though. After all, “it was all worth it” in the end. It’s when we fail (or “fail,” like when you call a B+ failing) that every single moment of preparation (or lack thereof) rings loud and clear in our mind and memory. Feeling wronged, we think, I don’t deserve this. With our rose-colored glasses, victory is easy. Success is a right.

At my piano studio, we were required to perform pieces from memory. No sheet music during recitals or tests. To prepare us, my piano teacher would assign us to memorize a piece weeks before it was to be performed.

Memorizing was woefully difficult for me. It would take me hours of practice and often require me to play isolated four-measure phrases repeatedly. At no point in my childhood or early adolescence did that process seem attractive. Frequently, I did what most stupid children do — skipped the practice and walked into class hoping for the best. Whatever. I’ve memorized pieces before. I’m sure I’ve got this. In modern vernacular, you could say that week after week, I would just do it live. Or try, at least. Needless to say, the repercussions were disastrous. My piano teacher, sitting across the room with my notes and fuming with rage, would impatiently listen as I attempted to play a modern Gershwin masterpiece from my you know what. I guess sometimes you have to fall on that you know what to have some sense knocked into you.

Psychological theory explains performing under pressure in the following way: When you are already pretty good at something, you perform amazingly under pressure. But when you’re not so good and the pressure kicks in, you completely tank. It suggests that practice, but not too much practice, makes perfect.

As a notion, beginner’s luck seems wonderful. It’s cool to be a natural star. But beginner’s luck is just that. Luck. And rare. As blunt as it might sound, you can’t just expect to hit the ball out of the park. This is especially applicable to me as I have never held a baseball bat.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hear a high school friend perform at a coffee shop. She was an amazing singer when I met her eight years ago and has only gotten better. And now she’s “out there”, trying to “make it big” in the music industry. When I was telling a coworker about her, he asked Well if she’s good, it shouldn’t be too difficult right? That’s the thing, though. It’s never easy. But that’s what makes success even sweeter.

I like to win. And I’m a bit of a sore loser. But as I continue to grow up, I’ve learned that no matter how much you like to win, regardless of whether you usually win, you can never expect to win. It’s as an announcer preached during that Thunder-Celtics game. You can’t just show up and win. You gotta play the game.

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