Archive for February 8th, 2012

“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. (more…)


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