Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Self-unfulfilling prophecy


In every disaster movie there’s always one character who tries to warn everyone about the catastrophe about to befall them. Interestingly, this character is almost never the hero of the movie. The hero usually has other things to deal with, mainly proving that he is in fact heroic. The person who predicts the disaster is almost always a dorky little worrywart, which is why nobody ever listens to the prediction. Who wants to hear about a lack of lifeboats when the grand ballroom is so utterly magnificent? In fact, the worrywart often dies despite his foresight, sacrificed to the gods of cinematic irony.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but far worse than this, it seems, is to be the prophet of bad news to come. You’re never rewarded for it—you’re often killed in spite of it—and even if you live, nobody thanks you because, well, they’re either miserable or dead themselves. This is true for prophecies you make about ships, tall buildings, space aliens, earthquakes, meteors, and big rubbery monsters, but oddly enough it is especially true for prophecies you make regarding your own life.

The minute a person says “I can’t do it,” they are subject to a very predictable meteor storm of aphorisms. Chiefest of these is the retort “self-fulfilling prophecy.” See, if you say you can’t do something, you may start to believe it, and then you’ll ruin your chances of success before you even gave it a reasonable try. That’s the theory behind that concept, in any case, though I would strongly debate the applicability of that concept to many situations. After all, a guy who warns everyone about the lack of lifeboats isn’t actually causing the iceberg to appear or steering the ship into it at full steam; he’s just being his dorky little worrywart self.

Yeah, sure, if you have to give a big speech and you’re sure you’re going to blow it, you might very well be so anxious thinking about blowing it—stammering, stuttering, babbling incoherently until a giant hook comes out and yanks you offstage—that you actually will blow it. I’d argue, however, that this applies only to those situations where you have more to lose than you have to gain. In the speech example, you’re probably expected to be successful at your speech, so you don’t really gain anything by doing it right; you simply fulfill a requirement. In other areas, however, the fear of failure is balanced with a robust desire for glory, and this keeps the self-fulfilling prophecy from ever becoming a factor.

Obviously I’m babbling about all of this because my first BQ attempt is ten days away and I’m pretty sure it won’t end in success. Am I jinxing myself by saying this? Am I now certain to fail because I’ve set myself up to do so? I doubt it. You see, I still want this thing, as badly as anyone wants a BQ, and nobody who attempts to BQ does so because they are indifferent to the results. No matter how casual a runner is about their qualifying success, they aren’t fooling anyone. They’re thrilled. I’ll be thrilled if it happens to me, but my training has not led me to predict that this will happen. In short, right now I’m the guy warning about the lack of lifeboats—or, in this case, lack of the ability to combine speed and distance. I can run pretty fast for a few miles or very slow for a great many miles. Put the two together and…well, I don’t know what happens, because I haven’t done it yet.

There are times we predict poor results as a way of protecting ourselves against the disappointment of failure. If we say “I don’t think this is going to happen,” when our worst fears are realized, at least we get the small consolation of saying “See? I knew that would happen,” as well as perhaps a small shield against crushing disappointment. It isn’t fun to say these things; again, nobody wants to be the guy who points out what’s flawed or lacking in a person, plan, or situation, even if he’s simply being realistic. However, there are some things that even the most enthusiastic optimist would hesitate to advocate. No matter how good you feel about a ship’s superior design, eschewing lifeboats for shuffleboard courts is probably a bad idea. Likewise, planning to run, say, a 3:15 marathon is a ridiculous idea for me, now or ever. I’m just not that fast and never will be. Running a 3:55 isn’t unthinkable, but it’s still pretty unlikely right now.

But it’s not unlikely forever. If not this one, then the next; not everyone meets their goal the first time, and luckily, unlike with ships and tall buildings (and even planets, if you believe the slew of apocalyptic films these days), people often get second chances. In summary, don’t shoot the messenger if he’s the bearer of bad news, and don’t denounce the dorky little worrywart who warns about disaster. He’s probably not going to last much longer; don’t make his final moments on earth any worse than they already are.