Irrational Confidence

During the recent, epic NBA Playoffs, popular sportswriter Bill Simmons marveled at the trope of the irrational confidence shot. Simmons has previously observed this phenomenon, which states that when a team is on a roll, in high-pressure situations, a mediocre player on that team tends to take numerous risky, low-percentage shots, many of which miraculously go in. Simmons singled out Jason Terry of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks for irrational confidence; after the Mavericks won the title, in no small part due to Terry sinking several threes he had absolutely no business taking, Simmons named him the captain of the Irrational Confidence All-Stars.

Sports metaphors are tired and easy, so please forgive me, but in this early stage of adulthood, I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Jason Terrys (Terries?).

Now, I don’t mean that my peers are mediocre; on the contrary, they’re mostly extraordinary. What I mean is that they’re pursuing goals that, by sheer numbers, seemingly have a low success rate. I have to confess, I tend to think of myself in this regard: with so many others trying to do what I’m trying to do, isn’t there a very small chance that I’ll actually be the one to break through? Isn’t this confidence in success irrational?

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, over 50% of whom are under 30 years old. Of that 3.5 Billion+, 1.16 Billion are between the ages of 20-29. If you throw in a modest estimate of the number between 18-20, you can pretty safely assume that there are about 1.2 Billion young adults on Earth, most of whom we can presume are looking for work. In the U.S. alone, there are over 40 million young adults in this age group. Even if only 1% of the American population between 20-29 is pursuing the field you’re pursuing, there are about 430,000 people trying to get the same jobs as you are.

As a result, oftentimes when I’m in the midst of preparing for the future, and trying to take the right steps to get where I want to, I just get overwhelmed by these odds. And in the face of them, I marvel at the confidence with which many peers are striding ever-forward. How do the odds not make many more people feel that they might be deluded in their confidence? How does anyone honestly believe, that out of all the people in the world competing with them, that it’ll be s/he who’s one of the lucky few to succeed?

I guess the answer is that it’s because there’s no other realistic choice. When I was out of a job in the worst months of the recession, these sorts of odds didn’t really make me resigned to the fact that chances were low I’d get something desirable, nor did they make me want to take literally any job I could find (although I did spend time working in a bar, in a parking lot, and at a convention, and my job-search gradually and considerably widened with time). Rather than make my career path more utilitarian, thinking about the odds was and is paralyzing.

There’s this old New Yorker cartoon, in which a doctor is trying to comfort a distraught patient by saying, “Look at it this way: Why not you?” It’s pretty morbid humor, and a scary thought.  Because the fact is, many more people do get sick than stay healthy. Many people do compromise or fail to achieve their goals. And many more of Jason Terry’s three’s do miss than go in. But the fact is, some people die peacefully in their sleep or simply of old age. A lucky few people do end up with the life they want. And as for Jason Terry, his 3-point field goal percentage rose from 36% in the regular season to 44% in the playoffs. When the time came, irrational as it may have been, he raised his confidence, and he raised his game. Why not you?

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