How to Win Against All Odds

courtesy Eat Smile Sleep via Flickr CCThe facts are in: over and over, the smartest people around have proven that most of what we would love to attribute to skill in terms of success is much more likely to be a matter of luck combined with the circumstances we find ourselves in. That preference may in fact be part of our genetic makeup – if we ever really admitted just how much of our world is governed purely by chance, why would we bother fighting? If we subscribe to the idea that by working we can triumph over adversity, it will keep us going!

I’m not trying to convince you otherwise – I mean, this is a personal development blog. If I didn’t believe that the personal was worth developing, why would I be here? But I want us to be realistic: there’s no guarantee that the things you’re working to develop will ever actually develop.

Before you object and point to your favorite role model, let me assure you: I understand. In my case I might point at Tim Ferriss, for example, or Kameron Hurley as an example of people who achieved great things through hard work and perseverance and an attention to detail. And it’s true, they did a lot of work, and that almost certainly increased the odds that they would succeed as authors.

But they were still odds. They could have gone the other way. In fact, they did go the other way for the thousands and millions of people who also set out to write a book, fiction or non-fiction, and dreamt of winning awards and making bestseller lists and maybe even paying the bills from the profits of writing. The principle of Survivorship Bias means that we look at the people who succeed and attribute their success to being due to their skill, the pattern of their behavior, their techniques. It’s why so many people focus on emulating Daily Routines of their heroes. If I do what they do, one thinks, I’ll end up where they are. 

The Projection Problem

There’s a pretty simple problem with the idea of just going through the same steps to achieve a goal that you’ve seen someone else achieve. Simply put, you don’t actually want that goal – rather, you want the benefits your hero gained when they achieved that goal. Financial security. Accolades and honors. Film deals.

Unfortunately, since you are not actually your hero, you don’t actually know if they get those benefits, or if they actually enjoyed them. So what you’re left with is that you don’t actually want what they want nor do you want to feel the way they feel – you want to feel the way you think they feel when they got what you think they want. When you put it that way, you start to see the problem of the odds being against you actually getting to feel the way you actually want to feel – at least, by following someone else’s model. You might have better luck trying to navigate to the grocery store by flipping a coin at every corner. Sure, you might get there eventually…but it’s not too likely that it’s going to be the quickest path.

I’m not saying it’s not worth trying different things. The problem is assuming that the others are guaranteed paths, that they are paths that would work for anyone other than the people who traveled them. They’re actually one-way tickets through rivers that you can’t ever step in twice.

That’s ok. As Robert Heinlein put it, “Of course the game is rigged. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.” On the other hand, I do have a way you can win. Every time, in fact, if you choose to. In fact, you would have to actively choose to lose – which is certainly a valid choice, because learning how to lose gracefully is probably even more important a skill than learning to win. Want to know how to win, every time?


“Heroes are heroes because they are heroic in behavior, not because they won or lost.” – Nasim Taleb

You can sometimes skew the odds, but they’re still gonna be odds. You can’t control them. What you can control is your behavior. Notice I didn’t say emotions: controlling them is a much longer-term process. But what you can control is how you react to the odds, regardless of what they are. Remember the Samurai and the Strawberry? That’s what that story is all about: realizing that whatever your situation, you can choose the actions and, to some extent, the way you experience it.

I’m not trying to preach a pollyanna attitude here; it’s not appropriate to be upbeat and happy all the time. One of the worst traits of mine is the tendency to joke my way out of uncomfortable emotional spaces that would be more suited to a serious and considered reaction. I am saying that it is worth it to practice acting rather than reacting. Because that is something you can control – that, in fact, you have to choose not to control, by withdrawing your attention from your actions.

It’s up to you. But luck can’t touch your behavior. You can bet on it.

Speaking of increasing the odds, I’m working on a readership drive!
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