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Being the Exception to the RuleThis summer I’ve been taking some time off trying to organize the back end of this blog and write the second edition to my book, To Love, Honor and Vacuum. So I thought I’d repost a column that I really enjoyed about not limiting yourself. It starts with some observations about a Tim Horton’s contest–which perhaps only Canadians will get. Tim’s is like Dunkin Donuts….

Last week my daughter r-r-r-rolled up the rim to win twice–and won twice! A coffee once and a donut next. She was ecstatic.

When Rebecca reported her astounding streak of luck to her dad, he silently pulled two little pieces of cardboard out of his wallet–one for a coffee, and one for a donut. He’d won, too. Same order and everything.

Thus launched a rather ridiculous conversation about math. What are the odds that two people would win exactly the same thing in the same order? They started multiplying the 1 in 6 chance to win to the third and fourth power, and then Keith realized: but I didn’t only win. I forgot about all the times I r-r-r-r-olled up and lost.

It’s like his pet theory about the full moon fallacy: whenever people go a little nuts and we look up into the sky and see a bunch of stars, we don’t think anything of it. But if we look up into the sky and see a full moon, we say, “that proves it! Full moons cause people to go crazy!” We forget about all those other times we saw nothing but stars because those times didn’t register in our brain since they didn’t fit our preconceived notions. If something happens that fits with the way we want to see the world, we’ll start believing it’s far more common or likely than it actually is.

Categorizing things is our brain’s natural way of learning about the world. When a baby is born, it has no idea that a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs, yet within two years most toddlers can reliably label a yapping lap dog and a growling German Shepherd as both being of the canine, and not the feline, variety. They start to notice what dogs have in common, and what cats have in common, and learn to distinguish between the two.

Our brains are wired to notice relationships so that we can learn about the world more easily. Usually that’s a good thing. Yet sometimes the relationships that our brains notice can keep us stuck.

Let’s say you grew up in a home where your parents’ marriage was awful and ended early. Marriage makes you miserable, you conclude. And every time you venture to the grocery store your view is confirmed: magazine covers are blaring about the latest scandals and divorces. Sure, your best friend’s parents are happily married, and almost 60% of marriages in this country don’t end in divorce, but you still believe marriage is a trap, and so you determine not to try.

Or perhaps everyone around you dropped out of school, and so you think there’s no point in someone from your neighborhood trying to do something better with their lives. Maybe it’s the opposite: everyone in your family went to university, so even though you have dreams of working with your hands, you figure university is just what you do after high school.

Seeing things in categories doesn’t present a problem unless we start to let those categories limit who we can be. It doesn’t matter what the chances of divorce are for everyone else, or what the chances of graduation are for your neighborhood, or what your odds are for success.

When it comes down to it, it’s not about odds. It’s just about you: where you decide to put your effort, and whether you’ll let other people write your future for you. No one else has as much interest in your success as you, so don’t let other people’s failures–or even your own past ones–limit your options today. Choose where you want to go, and then push on with all your might. Even if there is a full moon.


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