Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Last week I wrote about learned helplessness and how the world tends to be a breeding ground for it. In between the time it was written and published I had a stream of relatively random and inexplicable bad luck. I got a parking ticket because LA–the city that doesn’t mind having the dirtiest air in the world–insists on weekly street sweepings at 8am. My car was towed because apparently parking too long in an enormous lot is harmful to business whereas a shantytown of homeless people is fine to go unnoticed. Then there were some problems at work. And then I got so sick that I woke up in the middle of the night sweating out my fever so fiercely that I was convinced I’d pissed the bed. None of it made any sense and I just wanted to quit.

Then I remembered what I’d written. The only real thing separating the winners from the losers is if they get back up. Am I going to appreciate these events for their extreme improbability or am I going to delude myself into thinking I am cursed forever? If you stretch the graph out long enough, statistically paranoia and fearfulness and timidity start to pay off. Were boldness to become commonplace, it would no longer exist as a viable strategy. Risk can lead to total failure but cautiousness just the absence of success. Zap, Zap, Zap, Zap–our bodies resign to its infinite continuation and prepares to minimize anguish. It would seem to me that the odds of playing dead were better for survival than pushing through and hoping for a chance win. That might be a way to survive, but not a way to live.

So I didn’t quit. And with the perspective that it’s very easy–but ultimately self-defeating–to look at things with a pessimistic explanatory style, you can resist that impulse. All I know is that my cycles are getting shorter and shorter because I stop before it spins out of control. My cycle is probably different from yours. I start feeling the symptoms of the flu. You might get angry, or restless, or the desire to radically change course. Or that’s when you might get high and tell yourself “that it’s what you need to be inspired.” Whatever. The fact is we all have coping mechanisms that do little but ignore the problem. For me, they actually make it worse.

But what I’ve learned is that in monitoring your SIGs and responding not instinctually but appropriately, you can focus your energy on the stuff that matters. And it’s not that the things weren’t my fault, it’s that there is a difference between accepting responsibility and burdening yourself with blame.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.