“If I don’t pass this test, I’m going to lose it.”
My client was a nursing student, who had to pass an important math test before she could receive her degree. She failed her first attempt, and her second was coming up. She was getting the jitters.
I pointed out that her approach to this situation – all or nothing – didn’t make sense. That’s because the likely outcome of this set of circumstances – like most everything in life – lay along the contours of a bell curve.
If you look out into the future, you are confronted with an array of foreseeable outcomes, some good and some bad.
My client, for example, might fail her last two tries at this exam, and be delayed in her attempt to finish her nursing program. That seems a remote possibility, because in past years only 8% of the class failed all three times, and to date she has scored near the top of her class. That bad outcome, while possible, exists on a narrow tail of the curve.
Out on the other tail, amid the unlikely positive outcomes, she might discover the school mis-graded her first test, and she already passed. That would be nice, but it’s a slim possibility.
The big, fat center of the bell curve, where the most likely outcomes reside, predicts she’ll pass during her second or third try.
As things turned out, she passed on the second try – with flying colors.
People tend to ignore the bell curve. You prefer to see yourself as the hero of your own adventure – the blessed, untouchable protagonist who sails into success. Or you go too far the other way, towards powerlessness, and go martyr, seeing yourself as the unlucky recipient of a cruel fate, singled out for suffering at the hands of the gods.
Neither is true. The future is a set of foreseeable outcomes that lie on a bell curve. You can look into the future right now, from where you stand in the present, and forecast the most likely outcome, and the less likely best and worst outcomes.
If you look at things realistically, there’s no reason to “lose it” if the actual outcome isn’t what you’d wish for. You merely fell onto a different place on the curve – but you’re still on the bell, and it’s still a foreseeable outcome.
Treating the future as foreseeable can be empowering. You are not all-powerful, and you are not helpless – you are doing your best in a world where you metaphorically roll the dice each and every day.
An old friend of mine was recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer in his abdomen. The doctor provided a gloomy prognosis. My friend, who is Irish, a scholar and a bit of a fighter, decided to take that prediction with a grain of salt. The fact is, you never know with cancer. Like everything else in life, the final outcome is a matter of statistics and probabilities.
On one tail of the bell curve, he could drop dead tomorrow. That happens, and he knows it. The cancer could attack his liver or trigger a heart attack or who knows what. But it’s unlikely – probably as unlikely as being hit by a bus tomorrow, which also happens.
On the other hand – at the other tail of the curve – he could live another 50 years. That seems unlikely, but it happens, too. I read an interview recently with Robert von Bahr, of BIS, the Swedish classical music recording company. Mr. von Bahr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, and had surgery, but was told his chances of long-term survival were about 4.5%. After the surgery, his doctor came to him, looking flabbergasted, with the results of a biopsy of the cancer. It turned out the tumor was benign. This particular outcome occurs in approximately 1 in 20,000 cases and the doctor had never encountered it during his career as a specialist in pancreatic cancer. But it happened to Mr. Bahr, and so his cancer is entirely cured and he could live to see his 100th birthday. He said he was as surprised as everyone else – he hadn’t realized that also happens, but apparently, sometimes, it does.
My friend will probably find himself in the big fat center of the curve, like most people. Right now, he’s taken up residence on the luckier tail – chemotherapy has shrunken the tumors, and last week his doctor improved his prognosis. Of course, that could change.
There are things we can control in this world – and others we cannot. It boils down to the famous serenity prayer from the 12-Step movement:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Instead of “losing it” or feeling like you cannot handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it makes sense to adopt a more accepting approach. Like everyone else, you’re riding a bell curve, and you can end up, at some point, on one of the narrow tails. Sooner or later, you probably will.
So try to relax – and don’t act surprised when something “totally unexpected” happens.
In reality, when you fire a cannonball into the air, it traces an arc, a parabola. Yep, a bell curve. That’s the shape of life – a narrative arc. We peter into this world crawling on our hands and knees, soar to undreamt of heights…then peter back down on the other tail of the curve. Eventually, we crash back to the earth (or explode in mid-air – that also happens.) Stability, stasis, flat predictable lines – none of that is part of life’s equation. It’s more like calculus, which might leave you scratching your head while you chase a moving target, attempt to fathom the nature of the infinite, and compute an infinite regression.
Complicated stuff. You might be in for some surprises.
Best to sit back, and enjoy the ride.
If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of psychotherapy, you might enjoy my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”
My second book takes a humorous look at the current state of the legal profession, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist”
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)
For information on my private practice, click here.