Thinking Aloud: 300,000 to 1

By Lance Hardie

Lance HardieThose are the odds. Approximately three hundred thousand sperm cells take off from the starting gate. With few exceptions, only one will unite with the egg cell at the end of the tunnel. And the one that wins over the other 299,999 may very well be an inferior individual.

Let’s face it: with odds like that, there is bound to be a better one in the bunch. As a metaphor, here is an argument for the randomness of achievement. You may accept, more or less as a religious belief, the propaganda notions that education, hard work, influential friends, a favorable horoscope, or a bit of good luck now and then is the magic formula for success. In reality there is no evidence to support this superstition. All analyses of how successful people achieve their ends are made up after the fact, and there are no scientific studies to show the effects of following particular systems.

Taking all individuals as a whole, there are no consistently successful ways of achieving anything—business prowess, musical genius, athletic performance, good teeth, healthy hair, freedom from warts, or the impregnation of an egg. You are pretty much on your own. And, when all is said and done, prayer might work as well as anything. As with almost everything in life, there are no guarantees.

Now, having said that, let me give you a few rules guaranteed to guarantee nothing beyond the feeling that, whether there is a God, or even a small "g" god, or a goddess with any size "G," less stress is better than more, and sleeping well at night is better than not. If it were part of a workshop or even as the title of a best-selling self-help package (you know—the book, the tapes, the video, the newsletter, maybe even a hotline) the following list might carry a timely, catchy name like "Lance Hardie’s Thirteen Steps to a Vibrant, Joyful Life with No Effort, No Exercises, and No Responsibilities." Well, something like that—maybe shorter. In reality, what follows is not quite a list, and certainly not a series of steps, which, if it were, would never add up to thirteen. Consider it more like a set of partial views of a whole body that cannot be seen all at once. If this were a cubist painting, you might turn it sideways to look at it, or stand on your head. Which is not a bad idea in itself when you want to look at your situation in a new light.

  • Always tell the truth as soon as you know it—to yourself and to everyone else.

  • Make commitments only to yourself, then keep them. If you must make commitments to others, deliver on time. If you can’t, say so as soon as you know it.

  • Learn from the great sages about the world, about human nature, about self-knowledge. It will save you much pain and suffering, not to say time. The great sages are not hard to find. They are on the shelves of most bookstores and libraries. And of course on the Internet.

  • Learn from experience, then let the past go. Don’t punish yourself. If you insist on punishing yourself, others will join you.

  • No one owns you. Do what you love. If you believe you can’t, you believe someone owns you. That’s called slavery. From time to time you may try to run away. It’s a sure way to create suffering.

  • You have a natural rhythm and a natural style. When you fight them you deform yourself. If you deform yourself long enough you will end up hating yourself.

  • To thrive in society, adapt gracefully to the foolishness of others. This is not to contradict the previous item, only to say that if you don’t want to make enemies out of the fools it’s better not to rattle their cages.

  • Accept no guilt for being yourself. It’s okay to say no.

  • Most people can’t read your mind. When you need something, ask for it.

  • Exception: most people can read your mind when you lie.

While most of this little homily may seem quite sensible to you, if not simple-minded, there is a good chance your nervous system won’t be ready to carry out all of it when you are just out of high school. You have to live in the world for some time—with the near-nuts and the out-and-out crazies—just to get your bearing. The world of work and relationship and money will give you plenty to chew on for years. You have to make mistakes, which is another way of saying you have to suffer. The great secret to learn is that some things are likely to fail because the odds are against you—and you’re standing at the wrong angle. While it may seem simple enough, some of us take longer than others to figure out that it’s better not to bet against the house.

At some point in your life you reach an age at which you can stand to read the words of the great sages. Then you realize you are not alone—someone has been there before, and it’s a great relief to discover that. No, they didn’t have faxes and frequent-flyer miles, and it doesn’t matter because that’s just window-dressing. The virtues and the vices, the principles and the nonsense—all that stays the same because we are all still just barely out of monkeyhood. And, for all we know, not even very permanently.

One in 300,000 is not very good odds, and that’s not counting all the other times when impregnation doesn’t even occur. I have a feeling that this number applies to more than just sperm. I have a feeling that many opportunities in nature and in human behavior have similarly large odds against particular results. Telling the truth and doing what you love may not increase your odds of success in the world of those near-nuts and out-and-out crazies unless you become a great actor who is really good at humoring their foolishness. Acting and humoring depend to a large extent on a mastery of timing. Unfortunately, not everyone who won the race against the other 299,999 can convert that kind of timing success into the other kind. How much work is worth doing in order to learn this great art has a lot to do with the question of how important it is to you. More critically, it has to do with how important it is to that part of you which is authentic. And it may take a lifetime or more to find that out.

Telling the truth and doing what you love puts you in the company of poets and prophets and other brave people whose success is not measured by the foolishness of the world. It is measured by the standards of their own strength and their own convictions, which are recognized by others like them. And sometimes they are even recognized by the world, on a ratio of about one in 300,000. If you are one of the unsung heroes, well, guess what—you may have to sing for yourself. Only be sure that your songs are of joy and of triumph. Because the last rule is "Never complain."


Lance Hardie is a freelance writer and public radio host in Arcata, California. A student of mythology, religion, and the classics, he is currently working on a collection of essays on those subjects.


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