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Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out

March 12, 2012

One day a smart ancient Greek guy discovered something very disturbing: If you have a frog that jumps every time half of the distance that it jumped before, even after infinite number of jumps, the total distance covered will never exceed twice the distance of the very first jump. At first that really sounds confusing and counter-intuitive, and unless you try to draw these jumps on the paper, you would not believe it.

To me, this is troubling for two reasons: first, it makes infinity a pretty hard thing to swallow, and secondly, it does tell you how sometimes your initial instinct can get you in trouble – I often see frogs jumping around in that fashion, hoping (hopping?) that they will get somewhere. Perhaps I should tell them.

This rule applies to anything new that you try to master – the distance (learning) you cover in the first few weeks is the most progress you’ll make on the subject, unless you put more time into it and keep pushing. This is where the jumping frog story gets tricky, as your jumps will get ever smaller, until you find yourself not moving further, though you feel like you’re putting in great effort to get somewhere.

It’s a question of accepting frustration and being determined when doing something knew. But all of this set me thinking, how can we make things turn out for the best? How well do we know ourselves, what we really like and enjoy, what we’re good at, what we’d like to change about ourselves, do we have a five-year plan, what we’re not good at, what we dream of….and what’s the point? The philosophy for frogs is a wonderful thing.

So take a new hobby, like golf. Golf is frustrating. Even if you are a feeble hacker, you occasionally hit a splendid shot. The memory lingers, mocking you every time you slice it into the bushes or foozle a two-foot putt. You know you can hit it well. So why don’t you do it more often? Game Theory tells us it is theoretically possible to birdie every hole. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to do 18 holes in 18 shots. But no one ever comes close to this ideal. Golf constantly reminds us that we don’t quite measure up. This is annoying. It’s like being a frog.

I once hit a perfect shot. It was a municipal course in Cornwall, one sunny summer day. I was 17. It was a five-iron from the tee that dropped straight into the hole without bouncing, thereby winning the match against a much better opponent. I won’t say my golf life has been all downhill since then but I’ve never again hit a small white ball so flawlessly. In fact I’ve never hit a small white ball since, I gave it up when I found you had to wear Rupert Bear pants to be accepted in competitions.

But look on the bright side. Like the frog cast into an eternal journey where she’ll never make his destination, it seems to me that most golfers are unhappy about some aspect of their game, continually frustrated about their shortcomings. Most seem to be distressed that they are not in the top 1%. But they probably are, if they compare their lot not with their living compatriots, but with all the people who have ever lived. Even the kings of old didn’t have antibiotics or good dentistry, let alone golf clubs. This strikes me as a healthy attitude. Don’t compare yourself with the members at Augusta, but with the 99% of mankind who have never played golf at all.

It’s all about knowing yourself, your capabilities and stretching yourself,  being unreasonable in your aspirations to achieve, whilst not comparing yourself to some genius. And talking about golf, I noticed a freckle-faced youngster with clown hair in the sports pages yesterday. It was Rory McIlroy, who had become the world’s top-ranked golfer. In his last tournament he had to face down a charging Tiger Woods, whose last-round 62 would have discombobulated a lesser man. He had to hold his nerve on the final stretch, avoiding the water that awaited wayward approach shots. His final total of 12 under par was brilliant by any standard. And he did it without ever looking particularly stressed.  Some fans ascribe Rory’s coolness on the course to his contentment in his private life. He’s moved to Florida, where the weather is nicer than it is in Burnley, most days of the week. He enjoys the trappings of youthful wealth like fast cars, big houses and drinking Jagermeister out of silver trophies. Bet he misses fish & chips from the chippy for Friday tea though.

What is extraordinary about Rory is that he has maintained his childlike self-belief despite blowing a four-shot lead on the last day of the US Masters last year. That disaster could have shattered his confidence permanently. Instead he shrugged it off and, two months later, won the US Open by a blistering eight shots. At 22, McIlroy is the second-youngest player ever to lead the world rankings, trailing only Tiger Woods. The difference? Rory seems to be competing against himself, seeking constant improvement against his own standards. Tiger, on the other hand was public property, sponsorship deals with Nike and Accenture setting up as a sporting superman – but it all got out of hand – Tiger’s late father got carried away and said his son would “do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.” It’s a wonder his son didn’t drive into a fire hydrant sooner than he did.

Rory has none of these problems. People see him for what he is: a normal lad with a glorious talent for hitting a small white ball into a hole. Looks to me like he knows himself, and this set me thinking again, how well do we know ourselves, what we really like and enjoy, what we’re good at, what we’d like to change about ourselves, do we have a five-year plan, what we’re not good at, what we dream of….and what’s the point? So I wrote this down myself.

It’s not fashionable but I like… playing chess in the pub. You get a lot of condescending comments from groups of young girls on the lash, but if I’m laying down a move Garry Kasparov would struggle to counter then I don’t really care to be honest.

You wouldn’t know it but I’m very good at… cooking. As long as I’ve got a lemon, chilli, onion and garlic, there’s nothing I can’t make. My signature dish? I make truly world-class scrambled eggs.

If I could change one thing about myself…I’d collect fewer books. I’m sure I’m personally responsible for 1% of Amazon’s annual profits. By collecting, I include seeking, locating, acquiring, organising, cataloging, displaying, storing, and maintaining whatever books are of interest to me at a moment in time. The love of books is bibliophilia, and someone who loves to read, admire, and collect books is a bibliophile. Bibliophilia is sometimes called bibliomania but should not be confused with the obsessive-compulsive disorder by that name, which involves the excessive accumulation and hoarding of books…and with a Kindle, it’s even easier.

My five-year plan… I’d like to achieve three things before the batteries run out: read the shipping forecast on Radio 4; walk to the South Pole; win MasterChef and open my own restaurant.  I’d specialise in world-class scrambled egg dishes, and in between courses customers could relax in the book room….

The last time I cried… I had an accident in the garden last week, I didn’t cry but that was pretty painful. I dropped very heavy York Paving on my big toe. Fortunately, the toe is more or less still there, but I won’t be modelling flip-flops in the near future.

You may not know it but I’m no good at… going to bed. I’m very bad at being tired, my true Northern moaning goes into fifth gear, I moan until my wife says, ‘I think you should go to bed’ – then I put it off, dawdle, make a cup of tea and do anything not to…

At night I dream of… They’re either really boring and mundane – I remember once dreaming I was hoovering for hours on end – or I have terrible shock-horror nightmares, where I often wake the rest of the house up shouting at the top of my voice. Apparently the dog gets all excited and joins in. I say apparently, as oddly, I’m still fast asleep.

So, from frogs to Rory McIlroy, knowing yourself, pushing yourself and doing a bit of self-analysis, my conclusion is that things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.  Simply, there can’t be more to it than that, can there?

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