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I’ve got this philosophy of life.  I honestly don’t believe that we have hardly any control of it.  I think we make tons and tons of decisions, some big and lots small, but in the end, it we don’t have much say in our destiny or fate.

I’ve asked a ton of my friends about what percent of control they think they have and it varies from a low of maybe 40 to a high of 90%.  My answer is .001%.

I’m not going to go into a long post about the reason for my thoughts, but the short answer is that we have so many choices to make, on a daily basis, that there is no way that we could foresee the outcome of all those decisions.  We’re not soothsayers.

If I lived my life over 1000 times, there is relatively no chance that I would be a bike racer for the majority of it.  I doubt I would even race bicycles more than a couple times out of those thousand.

Think of you significant other.  What were the chances that you were even going to meet that person?  Think back upon all the decisions that were made to meet that person, then multiply that number by two, since he/she had to be there at the same time and the odds of even meeting them are next to nil.  Again, 1000 lifetimes and you would never know the person.

Bike racing is a game of opportunities.  Tactics, each and everyone, are thought that you think will increase your options of a good result.  Let’s throw out the “new professional style” of racing.  The style where none of the contenders respond to moves until it is the last 3 km of a race.

In one-on-one bike racing, you have to make so many decisions, thousands a race, that decide your fate.  You need to know when to tap your brakes, who to ride near, where to be in the field in relationship to the final corner, or a zillion other ones that make you have a higher chance of winning.  Or staying safe.  Or many other things.  But you can make all the very best, correct choices each and every time and it can still go to shit.  Or you can make the lousiest decisions the whole race and still end up having a great result.

Thus the way with life.  The guy sleeping on the sidewalk that we all walk by could have made nearly every decision he was faced with in life correctly.  He could have made the exact same choice you or I would have made, everytime, but he ended up sick and homeless.  And we don’t have the correct amount of empathy because we feel he made lousy decisions in life.  He might not have.  He could have done it exactly right and he still ended up in a big pile-up in the final corner of the race.

I don’t know how many races I’ve been in I wished I’d made one different decision, usually towards the end of the race.  Obviously, these races are ones that I thought I could have done better in.

At the finish of one of the stages of Joe Martin, a friend ,who finished 3rd, said he thinks he could have won.  I was a little put off by the statement and asked him how he thought that was possible.  He said he came around the final corner way back and nearly passed everyone.  I told him that 3rd was the place he deserved.  He needed to be in better position for an opportunity to win.  He never had that opportunity because of his positioning.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this.  I guess we should all remember that we should try to make the best use of our opportunities and abilities, but don’t dwell on the final result not being what you had envisioned initially. Hindsight is 20/20.  I’m not exactly sure where that saying came from, but it really is a gem.



27 thoughts on “Opportunities

  1. TLG

    Good read. Considering how your life starts – chance based conception – I can’t argue with your philosophy.

  2. Craig

    I have always thought similarly but darker. I have told my kids repeatedly that life is about minimizing bad choices, not always making good ones. The homeless guy on the street – one bad decision might have put him there. I know that life is about momentum and the more good choices you make for you, the easier it is to eat a bad one. But not always. Bike racing is the same. Make a bad choice at the wrong time … done … ask Cancellara about that at Flanders this year – by not following Sagan’s move before the last trip up the Kwaremont he tossed the whole race. And he was the strongest guy out there this year again.

  3. RW

    Great post.

    A story of my life…

    I was in college and needed to decide where to do an internship between Florida and SLC. I litereally flipped a coin and went to SLC. There I met my wife and one of my best friends. I talked another friend into moving there who made a life there. My wife got a job in SC and we moved there where I ended up introducing 2 different friends to their future wives.

    To make a long story short a simple coin toss affected my entire life and was directly responsible for 12+ other peoples lives their families wtih multiple kids, etc.

    Crazy to think about what would have happened if that coin had ended up differently.

  4. Fsonicsmith

    So let me take a stab at the reason for the topic; you were racing your bike and you ran into lawn furniture in the form of a homeless person?

  5. KrakatoaEastofJava

    Oh brutha, cue the type-a’s that believe everything they’ve got is a result of their own hard work…

  6. jinglenuts

    ain’t that the truth ‘I honestly don’t believe that we have hardly any control of it. ‘

    I’ve seen a lot in my day, from people having it all to completely loosing it all.
    Seen top racers loose everything because they came down will illness or injury (ie cancer)
    Seen top business folks loose it all after being caught with fraud and others illness.
    Seen top notch engineers loose their jobs only to find themselves almost on the street (no one wants an older engineer)
    Seen guys/gals who had it all only to find themselves homeless after a nasty divorce.

    I nearly lost it all as well, I have education in computer science, business and electrical engineering with over 25+ years of experience…. raced (mtbing) and had a house etc…
    Last divorce, I nearly lost it all – my job, lost the house, spent a fortune on lawyers…
    never in a million years would I suspect to fall so hard. But, its what you do with those hard lessons learned that count. Gotta learn from them, for somethings you have no control over.

    serenity pray man is key…
    “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.”
    let go let God (what ever that God may be) is also key…
    plus a good 12 step program what ever that may be…

  7. Joe

    Well, neuroscientists are finding we don’t consciously “decide” anything. Our brain comes to a decision quickly in the background, and our conscious mind becomes aware of our decision after it has already been made. Our brain interprets this as having consciously “decided”. In many situations they find we form an opinion or make a decision almost automatically, then invent reasons and rationalizations after the fact. You are correct sir, we have a lot less control than we think.

  8. Neil Kopitsky

    I think about this a lot: “The infinite arbitrariness of my children’s existence . . . “

  9. Matthew

    A decision on where to park my car when I had to go to bathroom resulted in my marriage. You should take a look at chaos theory.

  10. Joe

    Yes Chaos Theory. A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and causes a hurricane in NYC…..

  11. Chris

    Einstein noted that he. Opulent hate a murderer because he does what he must do but he’d rather not sit down to tea with him.

    Great post Steve!

  12. MG

    I think I’m either missing something or else you may mean something other than what you specifically stated. I apologize if this sounds like a semantic argument, but then all philosophical arguments rely pretty heavily on semantics so I think it’s valid. You say that we have very little control over our lives, but then you say that we have to make so many choices every day. Those choices are control, even if we don’t know where they will lead. You know, a blind pilot is still flying the plane even if he doesn’t know where he’s going. I agree that we don’t have control over many outcomes (and absolutely agree that no one can foresee all outcomes, and very few can foresee even some), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have control in terms of the ability to make choices. A true lack of control would be if you didn’t even have the ability to fuck up your own life. And in light of that, in many areas we DO have control. You make the choice to eat properly or not. You make the choice to work in one field or another. Once you start down one road, yeah, you necessarily cut others off, but that’s a consequence of control, not a symptom of lack of control. You can control the choices you make, and the outcomes of those choices really aren’t random – it’s just that you probably don’t have full information on the many other components of the larger system surrounding that choice, some of which will influence the ultimate outcomes from your perspective to a much greater degree than your own input. If you really want to experience lack of control, try this experiment: every decision you have to make for a day or two, let it be decided by a coin flip after reducing it as much as you can to a yes/no question – oh, and you also get no say in what choices you have to make. All you can do is sit in one place and let the choices present themselves and then make all decisions based on a flip of a fair coin. Try that out and then see if you still agree that the control you exude over your own life right now really is as low as you think it is.

  13. Chris

    Damn auto correct.

    Einstein couldn’t hate a murderer because he does what he must do, but he’d rather not take tea with him.

    “All You Need is Love ” expresses many of the same sentiments.

    Great post Steve!

  14. Matt M

    Cancellara was not the strongest guy out there at Flanders….Sagan had 10 seconds at the top of the Paterberg then held off Cancellara and VanMarke for the final 15Km and gained time on them, which is a round about way of saying that I don’t agree with the idea that 0.001% of your life is in your control as Steve does. More than likely that guy you passed on the street made one – or several – bad choices that got him there….the bigger issue is accepting your choices, in concert with whatever fate has dealt you, and moving forward from that point. I’ve made tons of bad choices, and tons of good choices, in races and life….but by and large they were my choices and I’ll accept the results up or down. To further the point…I think crashing is by-and-large optional…people that crash all the time lack attention, skill, desire, or common sense enough to not fall off the damn bike. Sure, accidents can sneak up on you…but everyone throwing a ibig deal at Sagan hopping over Cancellara at Roubaix seems misplaced…I think they guy simply didn’t want to crash and did whatever he had to do not to. Yep, he has skill, but we’ve all made similar “miracle” saves largely out of desire not to fall….and a bit of luck.

  15. shano92107

    odd coincidence you write about this – i was just thinking about this in the last few weeks. Lately we’ve been interviewing for a junior level engineer. It occurred to me that if it was me being interviewed I NEVER would have made it past the HR shredder. But now I’m in a position to say whether a person gets the hire or the door. Thats kind of weird to me…
    So very many subtle ‘what-if’s’ determine a persons trajectory but as a few mention above, the ability to choose the correct door (or not choose the fuck-up door) sure helps. When I look back at all the bad influences and opportunities to be a complete waste of skin that I had, how I lucked out and got where I am today just boggles me. Sure makes me appreciate what I got, every singe day

  16. Taleb

    You need to read some of Taleb’s books. Fooled by randomness is a good start. Or his best piece Antifragile. He has a refreshing view of this topic.

  17. Galen

    You could make the analogy that poker is similar.

    Make the right decisions and get your money in as the favorite and still lose when the river card doesn’t go your way.

    Each individual outcome is random to some degree. But in life if you keep making good decisions you are more likely to be successful.

    You could still make good decisions and hand things turn out poorly.

  18. Al Dente

    After racing on the track for a couple of months (and wheel sucking every moment of it) I entered a crit having never seen one, heard of one, or knew what the heck to do. Long story short I got 2nd because of a split second decision with half a lap to go just got pipped at the line. My dad was so sure I could have won, if only this and that… blah blah. It was a miracle I even got 2nd, and the stress of being a junior and not having a coach to deal with my parents (it’s a complicated sport) sucked.

    Now 10 years later I am back racing, but in a very relaxed no stress way and having a great time, riding with the girls when I get dropped is a bonus….

    Thanks for sharing your adventures and insights, they help put things into perspective sometimes.

  19. KrakatoaEastofJava

    After having been dropped at literally all races prior (during my first racing season), I also entered the state road championship (juniors). 1984. The very first ever “Boulevard Road Race”. Why’d I enter? It was the next race on the calendar. The story goes that I broke away on the first minor climb, taking three other guys with me. Not really. I guess with 65 miles still to go (on an intimidating course), people were surprised by my going fast over a couple of little rollers. And we were away. All because I stretched my legs a bit (for like 25 seconds). A decision I was barely conscious of.

    I took third, went to nationals, and even took a cool pic of Tilly climbing next to Matt Eaton, Broz , Thurlow etc.

  20. Jeff

    school of hard knocks doesn’t discriminate and offers ‘open enrollment’ for everyone. I unwillingly joined 3 years ago myself. 🙁

  21. Jack john

    Agreed, if you work for someone else a large part of your fate is out of your control. However, if you work for yourself the pendulum swings the other way.


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