The Time I Had a Winning Lottery Ticket

Image: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love (2010), Columbia Pictures

You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

Not everyone identifies with Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling novel Eat Pray Love. After all, few people have a year to spare, not to mention the means to travel to Italy, India, and Bali. At least not with the sole purpose of “finding themselves” after a divorce. Even Gilbert herself drops a hint about the self-indulgence, stating how nice it would be to win the lottery.

“There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint-please, please, please…give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son-please, please, please…buy a ticket.”

Of course, Gilbert is not literally talking about the lottery here. She is referencing the fact that you cannot win if you don’t play. In life, you have to take action if you want to see change.

Even with the poignant adage, most people would need to win the lottery to have an adventure like Gilbert’s.

Did you buy your ticket yet?

The Lottery Ticket

It was an autumn day. A balmy breeze tickled the trees even as colored leaves clung tight to their branches.

I remember vividly because for two minutes my life changed forever.

My mom sat in the kitchen pouring her second cup of coffee when my dad returned from the convenience store with the local newspaper in hand. He tossed it on the table, and in a rhythm all their own, she scooped it up while he poured his own cup of coffee. Taking the lottery ticket lying on the table, she started comparing it to the numbers posted in the newspaper. One by one, the numbers matched up.

“Oh my God!”

“Mom?” My sister, brother, and I ran in from the living room to make sure everything was alright, leaving the television blaring behind us. I watched her face go from an ashy pale to a flushing pink. I can only compare her grin to the one the Grinch gave when he got “a wonderful awful idea”, only her thoughts would be much more generous and not at all sinister.

“We won the lottery!”

Anyone within a ten-mile radius heard the hooting and hollering. Our dog, a Doberman pinscher, confused by the excitement, took to racing in circles around the table. In those moments, my parents’ debt was paid, we had a new house, we kids were put through through college, everyone had new cars, and a big vacation was planned.

When we realized my dad had asked the lottery attendant to print off a copy of the winning numbers, the energy dissipated in seconds flat. What we were looking at was not actually a ticket at all. In reality, we only got one number out of six on the ticket still sitting on my mother’s desk.

Better luck next time!

The Benefits of If-Then Planning

For a fleeting moment, we had a winning lottery ticket. The next, we didn’t.

We lost what we never had to lose, all because of the instinct to if-then plan. You know, the whole if X happens, then I will do Y. If I win the lottery, then I will yadda yadda yadda. In the end, we were left with nothing but disappointment because our ideas got ahead of us.

Don’t get me wrong. If-then thinking is often a good thing. Planning for the future, to the extent that you can control it, makes sense. It allows us to think about the consequences of our actions before we take them and can help us shape our most promising future.

Option #1: If I work hard on this project, I will not only keep my job but I may get a promotion.

Option #2: If I pour hot coffee over the boss’s head because I do not like this project, I might lose my job.

Psychologists say that if-then planning helps to guide our behavior and can even help us to build “good” habits. More to the point, when we define if-then scenarios for specific goals, we increase our chances for success because we rely less on willpower. Our brains automatically, or subconsciously, follow from your IF to your THEN. You do not have to make any active decisions because the decision has already been made for you.

Option #1: If I write 1,500 words for my novel today, I will reward myself with _____.

Option #2: If I don’t write 1,500 words today, I don’t get to _____.

_____ = Use your imagination!

Who needs self-control when you can trick your mind into if-then thinking?

When If-Then Planning Gets Out of Control

The problem is that if-then planning can slippery slope into crippling anxiety. That can be the case, at least, when you get too far ahead of yourself.

If I work on the project but the boss doesn’t like the results, then I might get in trouble. If I get in trouble, I may have to start over. If I start over, then I might have to put in extra hours and won’t have enough time to spend with my family. If I don’t spend enough time with my family, I might get a divorce. If I get a divorce, I will be sad and will not be able to focus on my work. If I cannot focus on my work, I will lose my job. Clearly, if I work on this project, I will lose my job. I should not start working on the project.

Living life according to a contingency, something that may never happen, can be a sort of self-sabotage. If-then planning makes sense when it focuses on the immediate consequences of your actions, but it can derail you if you march too many steps forward. You need to be strategic in how you use it.

When if-then planning, you need to ask yourself if you are intentionally putting things out of reach. Are you setting realistic goals? Are you making excuses to continue in your bad behaviors?

If-then planning only works if you really sit down and face the hand you’ve been dealt. If you set goals that are inaccessible, goals that rely on luck or chance rather than your own effort, i.e., winning the lottery, you essentially give yourself permission to never do anything. Your THEN will never come to pass.

Yes, it’s okay to daydream. Yes, it is okay to hope, but you have to live the life you’ve got just the same. If there is something you really want out of life, you need to step up and go for it. Start with if-then planning and take one step at a time to reach your goal.

Get out there and buy your figurative lottery ticket.