Life is Like the Lottery (You Can't Win if You Don't Play)

Who hasn’t ever imagined what they would do with a million dollars. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at least once bought a lottery ticket for a dollar, knowing full well the odds of winning are almost nil. This doesn’t prevent anyone from imagining the possibility of having the chance for a changed life for just a buck. (I personally plunk down my dollar twice a week, serving to fuel my imagination with wild ideas based on the possibility of winning.) And if your numbers don’t come up, life goes on and we really don’t consider a dollar lost as a bad investment. Because one thing in all of this is obviously true- if you don’t buy a ticket in the first place you have no chance of winning.

I think life is much like the lottery in this way. If you don’t try and if you don’t put yourself out there, there’s not much you should then expect out of life. What I mean is, you can’t just sit around and expect something to miraculously happen just because you think you deserve it. Those who do well in life, even though it may be scary, put themselves out there knowing failure and success are both possible.

Let me share with you a real life example…

I had a friend in college who was a photography major, whom I met while working on the yearbook staff.  He was talented and good with his technique and ability. I vicariously learned quite a bit about photography by observing his process with photo shoots and watching how he solved assignments. My friend had great expectations based on personal confidence in his talent, he imagined working for National Geographic as a field photographer and he envisioned traveling on photo shoots for months at a time.

After college, he got a staff photographer position for a small town newspaper, still believing his talent would lead to his dream job, that National Geo would be calling any day with their offer.  But my friend did nothing more really to “put himself out there”. He didn’t enter shows, send his portfolio to magazines, hire an artist’s rep, or seek to change his employment as it had become comfortable.

We later heard of a fellow photography major student who graduated our same year, who had been offered a photography position with Texas Monthly Magazine. My friend was very upset and frustrated as this person he felt, was no more talented than he was and it wasn’t fair. I reminded him of how I remembered this other student in college would always be up at the photography lab helping younger students with their work. He would talk to anyone with creative ideas to critique his work, and he never missed an opportunity to enter a competition or show. I imagined this person would be just as driven after school and I wouldn’t have expected the Texas Monthly gig just magically fell in his lap. I’m certain he worked hard, and didn’t let any failures he may have experienced hold him back.

Very few people find true success or happiness in life without effort, failure, and continued effort. I believe the dictionary would define this as perseverance. The thing about failure is it’s usually something we don’t want to experience. Most of us are programmed to think failure is bad and a negative reflection on our efforts. We think others will judge us. But I think, failure in one effort should just lead you on to the next effort and should not to be taken so personally. It’s like that dollar ticket you bought, say the numbers get drawn and you don’t win anything. You don’t pout and give up over that one lost dollar, and it doesn’t suck the life out of you for months on end. So why give up over one failed life effort? And to be honest with you, some things don’t work out because they weren’t meant to. You don’t always know or can see how the next thing makes more sense or will turn out to be better because of that failed previous attempt. And sometimes, the positive result of a failed effort falls doesn’t fall in to place immediately, but years later.

This is my life example on the benefit of a delayed failure…

When I was in high school, I tried out for cheerleader (don’t hold this against me, really) and made the “B” team as a sophomore and junior. I wasn’t really “popular”, I was mostly just good at cheering and enjoyed jumping up and down. But as a senior, I had to make the “A” team through tryouts, or I wouldn’t make any team. This was back in the day when the cheerleading squads only had seven spots on each team, not like today when the squads are just as big as the football team. So on the day of tryouts I did my best, but I didn’t make the team.

Well, this didn’t fit in well with my 16 year old life plan at the time, I was devastated actually. What would I do with my time? I had failed at something I really wanted and didn’t know how to feel. I was hurt and afraid at the same time that students would laugh at me for failing, no one would respect me, and I’d be nobody.

Over the summer, I decided not to just do nothing my senior year because I hurt over not having secured the varsity cheer spot I so badly had wanted. I don’t know why, but I decided to sign up for speech, drama and debate classes. Through this experience I learned how to speak with confidence in front of others. I competed with a partner in debate, and also on my own in extemporaneous speaking. I learned how to quickly organize and communicate my thoughts so as to be well understood and I became confident in my new found ability. I had fun competing (win or lose) and the sting of my previous failure had significantly lessened.

What I couldn’t have possibly foreseen was how this sequence of events would serve me four years later. I was a senior in college when my uncle Tommy suggested to me I apply for a Rotary Foundation Student Scholarship. He was a Rotary member, and told me of how the foundation would sponsor and send students in graduate studies to universities overseas, not so much to further their education, but as ambassadors of good will. Their hope was to expose young people from different countries to different cultures and help them see and understand one another in a realistic way through shared personal experiences.

I decided to take his advice and apply. My home town Rotary club happily agreed to sponsor me. The district in which I would be applying, I learned had twelve applicants to consider and only four spots to award. On the day of my interview, after having submitted and extensive written application, I was nervous but excited all at the same time. I waited in a hallway area as the interview scheduled before me, was running a little long. When the conference room doors opened, out walked a beautiful young blond girl with amazing flowing hair, feminine floral dress and shiny high heel shoes. I myself had decided it would be prudent to dress conservatively and chose to wear a matching blouse and skirt with understated tan shoes. I wondered if this had been a good decision on my part as I could see in the room, a gathering of older gentlemen and then understood the interview would be by this panel, not just one person. I felt like if pretty was going to win out, I probably didn’t have a chance. So when they were ready for me and called my name, I walked through those conference room doors with no expectations in my head of winning, I had decided  I’d just be me and if that wasn’t enough I’d be fine. And then, much to my delight, the twelve or so men in the room all had copies of my application, had actually read all my information and personal essay, each had prepared in advance notes and questions to ask me. To this day, it was the best (and by best I mean most challenging) interview I’ve ever experienced. Had I not had that debate and extemporaneous speaking experience from four years earlier, I probably would have flopped. But instead, I was impressed with their questions, and allowed myself to have fun with quickly developing my perspective in response to challenging questions. I left that day, at least feeling good about my effort regardless of the result.

I did actually receive one of the four scholarships awarded that year, and to the Rotary Foundation will always be grateful. I don’t know if the pretty blonde got a spot or not, didn’t matter. I spent a year in England studying, speaking to youth groups and Rotary clubs, traveling, and managed to receive a Master’s Degree as well. I felt like in being myself, I had won. And I realized immediately had I been elected cheerleader my senior year in high school, I wouldn’t have been motivated to take speech classes and none of what I had experienced would have been possible. In the long run, studying abroad and earning a Master’s Degree was way better than a year of jumping up and down. At the time, who knew?

So the point to this observation is that failure isn’t bad, it should be expected as part of being human. And it should serve to motivate continued effort, for most of us, good things don’t just fall in our laps. We have to take a chance, not get our feelings hurt and put ourselves out there. Because as I see it one thing is obviously true- life is like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play!