Losing and Luck

Last week I lost my first election. I always took undue pride in my 2-0 record (Obama ’08, Obama ’12), and I thought that deciding to run the field operation for my dad’s City Council campaign—Gruber ’14—presented a pretty easy way to keep the winning streak alive. My dad, as I trained our canvassers to tirelessly repeat, had the endorsements of the local police, the firefighters, the LA League of Conservation Voters, and the Community for Excellent Public Schools, our city’s leading education group. He also had (and our canvassers, walking the posh streets of northern Santa Monica with their multimillion dollar mansions and concomitant fear of the other, were told not to say this) the endorsement of Unite Here Local 11, the hotel workers’ union. My dad is a liberal. I am (on a good day) a socialist.

Anyway, it was a tough election for liberals, and an even tougher one for (supposed) socialists like our man Barry O, and so we lost. Pretty badly. The reactionaries came out and just about now one else—turnout was around 35%. We live in a town of 85,000, with 58,000 registered voters, and the three candidates elected to council had 9,000, 8,000, and 6,000 votes each. Not what you’d call a mandate, but as I used to tell people after our Obama victories, a W is a W (and an L is an L). 

But in a sense, losing this election was therapeutic. Not for my dad, who is still a little stung, but definitely for me. I rarely lose things. Part of that is the luck of my circumstances (white, cis, male, educated, upper middle class, etc.) and part is the luck that I like to think I make myself (being charming enough to get invited back places and memorable enough to get opportunities tossed my way).  Part of it is actually just luck—I got into every school I applied to for my undergrad (I applied to one school, early, and cancelled my other applications).

So yes, lucky. But there’s also a lot of hard work. Now, I don’t often work hard in the way some people really work hard. When I spend the day in backbreaking manual labor, it’s by choice and in the interests of archaeology. I’ve managed to avoid a life of spreadsheets, unless they’re ceramic databases, and what a tedious day in the office usually means for me is having to read more pages about the thing that I love most than I ever thought could be written. So it’s not too bad. But it’s still work, in that it’s a task I do for some other goal, even if reading history all day used to be my idea of a vacation.

Right now that goal I’m working toward—what makes work work—is getting a PhD in History (or Ancient History, or Mediterranean Archaeology, or something along those lines). To do that, I need to get into PhD programs, and so as deadlines approach (December 1st is very soon!) I have been thinking more and more about what it means to dive once more into the breach of applications. Because when I send out my applications, I will most certainly lose. One program I am applying to is taking in two new students next year, out of almost a hundred applicants. I’ve been told other numbers are similar. That basically means that whatever I do, and however good my application is, I’m probably not getting in everywhere I apply. And so in the next few months I will, if we trust statistics, taste a lot of defeat.

I don’t know how I would have handled that defeat a month ago. It daunted me. I thought about sending those applications out there and hearing back a bunch of No’s (but hopefully the Yes I needed) and got little scared. My self-image was going to take a hit, and like most humans, I have a much more fragile ego than I would care to admit. It was like the election—I had an easy way to maintain my win streak, and a hard way to do it. I could have sat this one out, but I didn’t. I went for the hard way.

The win streak is over. I lost. Not only have I lost, but I lost really giving it my all. I didn’t make a few phone calls and call it quits. I didn’t fail because I forgot to organize canvasses, and I’m not really thinking back (ok, I did for a day or two) and kicking myself for all the things that could have been different. Because I really did give it my all. And I lost. And sometimes you lose, even when you leave it all out there on the field.  But that’s not a reason not to try, and it’s not a reason to obsess over the possibility of failure until you reach a state of perfectionist paralysis. It’s a freeing feeling, because it really shows you that the only thing that is under your control is whether you try to do your best. I would even say that losing when you give your all provides as important a lesson as losing when you half ass something—the lesson in that situation being to try harder next time, and the lesson in this one something more like “sometimes you’re just not going to win, but the world didn’t end, now, did it?”

The stoics used to say that it was foolish to worry about things outside our control. They deduced that since the only thing we had complete control over was the moral quality of our behavior, the only thing we could worry about in good faith was our intention for each action. Whatever else happened, good or bad, could not effect the philosopher who acted deliberately and in accordance with the moral principles of the universe, because he had control over the only thing that mattered: himself. That goes for effort just as much as justice and moderation.* 

It’s important to realize that being ready to take what comes, good or bad, is the only way that you can prepare yourself to take what’s good when it comes. And it will come. I am applying to eight schools. Let’s say that’s 20 total spots. That’s still not a lot. I’m going to need more than my resume, more than my writing sample, more than my letters of recommendation. I’m going to need luck.

But I’m feeling lucky again.


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*Here's a quote from Seneca, Ep. IX: 18-19, my rough trans.:

"For when this man (with his homeland captured, his children lost, his wife lost) exited out of the public fire alone but still happy, he was interrogated by Demetrius, whose nickname was "City Destroyer" from his destruction of cities, about what he had lost. He said "all my goods are with me." Behold this man, so strong! He conquered the conquest of his enemy! "I lost nothing," he said, and that enemy  began to doubt whether he had conquered. "All my goods are with me": justice, virtue, prudence, this thing itself, to think nothing good which could be ripped away. We are amazed by certain animals which can pass through fire without bodily harm: how much more wonderous is a man who can come through fire and ruin and steel unhurt and unharmed? You now know how much easier it is to conquer the whole world than one real man!"

© Henry Gruber 2013