A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how things can go wrong even though you have done everything in your power to make them go right. Then, a couple of days later, things went wrong. For someone who loves planning, who believes that you can reach your aims if you work hard enough, this is a terrible reality.
I find nothing more annoying than people who will tell you how their whole life is ruined by outside influences. People who tell you “I would like to have better grades but I have tried studying and it did not work” and then go back to watching telly (I used to be one of those). People who tell you that they really want to lose weight but it is physically impossible and then they heap three spoons of sugar into one cup of tea (I used to be one of those, too). People who tell you that they can’t get the job they want because that would require “connections” – as if making connections was an arcane art that you are born into or not.
I love the idea of agency – the idea that you shape your own life. I love success stories. I love to think that everyone can become President of the USA – looking at Hollywood blockbusters and the ecstasy that met Barack Obama when he first ran for president, most of us do. Most of us want to believe that if you deserve success, success you will inevitably receive.
Unfortunately, this is a lie. It is a lie in two ways. Firstly, it is entirely possible that you work really hard and yet don’t get what you were working for. This is where people say “it wasn’t meant to be”. Another of those annoying things people say, implying that some cosmic force actively prevents you from getting what you deserve and rather than being mad at it, you should thank the universe for its infinite wisdom. To me, “meant to be” is either a logical fallacy, or what you are actually trying to say is “you never had a chance”. A para-plegic, regardless of how hard he exercises, might never dance for the Bolshoi.
Cal Newport, in his excellent So Good They Cannot Ignore You, might revel in the fact that Richard Feynman became a Nobel-prize winning physicist, despite the fact that he “only” had an IQ of 125 but that should not blind him to the fact that Feynman, in all probability, would never have got there if he had only had an IQ of 75. Most Nobel-prize winning physicists – including Feynman – have an above-average IQ. Most classical dancers are able-bodied. Most professional musicians can hear. This might sound a terribly trite wisdom but it is true and it is bone-shatteringly unfair.
That doesn’t mean that you cannot battle the odds and achieve meaningful victories. It just means that when you work hard, you are not travelling on a path to inevitable success but merely improving probabilities for that success.
Contradicting Einstein’s often quoted quip, Stephen Hawking has suggested that God does play dice with the universe. When you work hard, when you try to take control over your life, you are not taking control over the dice, all you are doing is accumulating larger amounts of winning numbers. This does not mean that a losing number might not still come up.
This is the second way in which the working-hard dictum is a lie. Even if you work really hard and have excellent chances of reaching your aim, it might still not work out. If you believe that there is no intervening deity (or fatalistic force in the universe), then you have to face the fact that the dice can always roll against you. It is always possible that you do not get the thing you feel you deserve, not because “it isn’t meant to be” but because it just isn’t. You can make things going wrong less likely, but mostly, you cannot make it impossible.
After very careful analysis and getting feedback from a hell of a lot of really amazing academics, I can say that if I did something wrong in my dissertation, if there is something I should have done but didn’t, I do not know what it is. I handed in something that I believed at the time – and still believe to be – absolutely deserving of a very good result. I have many theories about why I did not get the result my supervisor and I felt I deserved, but ultimately, it does not matter because not one of them can change what I wrote or change the way I do things in the future. For the first time in my life something went wrong and I cannot say what I should have done differently. For someone who wants so desperately to believe in agency, this is terrible. I would love nothing more than to think that I made a mistake. I want to blame myself but I just don’t see how. I would much rather beat myself up than admit to the fact that my agency is limited, that sometimes shit happens and there is nothing you can do about it. After mulling it over for weeks and weeks, I must simply admit that the dice were cast and my number did not come up. Easy as that.
At first this randomness made me quite unhappy but then I realized that while you might sometimes not get what you worked hard and well for and therefore feel you deserve, you might sometimes get what you do not deserve. If the dice can be cast undeservedly in your disfavour, they can also be cast undeservedly in your favour.
Shortly after handing in my dissertation, I decided that it was time to try my hand at getting published in an academic journal. More specifically, I thought that since rejections are inevitable – especially when you haven’t really found your feet, yet – it would be a good time to get the feeling of being rejected out of the way before it really mattered. I was thinking about long term academic happiness and realized that one of the anxieties that appears to be prevalent among young academics is the sensation that they really should get something published but dare not send their work out for fear of rejection. So, I edited an essay I had written during my time at Cambridge and sent it to a thematically appropriate journal. It’s a good essay (it got me in to Oxford) but it’s quite old and I felt like I would not be hurt when it got turned down. I thought it was an easy way of getting used to the rejection that will inevitably happen when you repeatedly try to get things published. I was trying to trick the dice by getting rejected for something that did not have a good chance to begin with so that when something that I felt deserved to be published got turned down, I would already have immunised myself against the misery.
I know it’s an odd plan but when you find rejection and failure as unbearably painful as I do, you come up with these things.
Here’s the funny thing: It didn’t work. The essay did not get rejected. Now, undeservedly if one goes by effort or strength of desire, I will have my first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal.
I don’t mean to suggest some kind of cosmic justice (there are people who get cancer and then their dog dies; there are real life Jobs, who suffer silently and never receive their just deserts) but merely regression to the mean, which, as anyone who’s ever played a board game knows, is not progression to the nice. In practice this means that if your chances are good and you roll the dice really, really often, your numbers become incredibly likely to come up (this may be connected to Peter Sims Little Bets, which I really need to read). This might not be as inspiring as the usual “you can make your dreams come true” shtick but it has the benefit of being more evidently true and sustainable. It also helps you maintain a world where working hard is beneficial, even though in any given instance, your effort might not reap the expected result.
So what did these past roller-coaster weeks teach me?
1) Shit happens.
2) When shit happens, look at it, analyze it, ask yourself what you should have done differently but if you do not find an answer, accept it and move on.
3) Awesome happens. Sometimes for very little reason.
4) If you let the dice be cast, the result might be in your favour or in your disfavour. If you avoid having the dice cast, the result will inevitably be in your disfavour. So you better place as many bets as you possibly can.
In my case this means that rather than working on a mythical, unrejectable paper (no such thing!), I will go through the things I have, edit the papers that I deem good enough and send them out. Sure, I will continue to make my work as good as possible (thereby improving my chances) but at the same time, I will throw the dice as often as possible, knowing that the beauty of a random universe is that sometimes my number will have to come up.
One more thing I have learnt, and this sounds entirely to Zen for me to actually admit, is that I cannot sustain unhappiness in the woods. So this is where I have been doing some happy writing/berry picking lately.