Losing Streak

How do you recover from a losing streak, a run of bad luck, a change of fortunes? When your confidence is shaken–whether financially, emotionally, physically, or spiritually–and you doubt yourself or the universe, what drives you to the point of no return or to the point of recovery?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself and wanting to ask others as two random events collided and sent such questions crashing into my consciousness.

My brother claimed throughout our childhood that he would be a millionaire by the time he was 40 years old, and he was. An intelligent and honest man, after earning his master’s degree at the Wharton School of Business, he made his millions by returning to the midwest and combining the principles he had been taught at Wharton with hard work and determination. He won, all right–but he also lost through several downturns in the business cycle. He lost so much, he said, that he might have lost not only his business but his home, too, had he not been able to maintain his confidence and determination.

“Sis,” he cautioned, “When you’re doing well financially, always remember there will be a downturn in business or in the economy, and be prepared.” This was his advice upon seeing my newly-decorated media room–not compliments or praise for the pleasant and comfortable room I’d designed, but caution: don’t spend all your money on stuff, but instead, spend some of it preparing for the inevitable bad times.

Then, last week I was listening to Ira Glass’s interview with a professional poker player on This American Life (in Act Two), and heard that professional poker players have losing streaks that are not only expected, but can last for months. The subject of his interview, a female pro, said her longest losing streak lasted about eight months. She said that the biggest problem with a losing streak, besides the loss of income, is the loss of confidence; pros stop playing smart and start playing emotionally when they’ve been on losing streaks. Players who normally play a psychological game will begin to make more and bigger mistakes, perpetuating the losing streak. Some never recover.

Her comments recalled to mind my brother’s of earlier in the year. Both of these successful people in quite different fields accepted losing streaks or downturns in the business cycle as part of life. Whole teams go on losing streaks, and the only means of recovery, according to Harvard Business School professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter, is confidence.

These things make me think about difficult times in my life, and how I survived and even thrived afterward. We’ve gone through what I would characterize as the seven (yes, seven) toughest years of our lives recently, beginning with the loss of confidence in the predictability and constancy of the universe when our daughter died of a terminal illness. Before then, I took it for granted that my biggest concern would be raising our child to adulthood and avoiding as many pitfalls as possible. It had never occurred to me that my child might die, in spite of having the head knowledge that people, even children, die, and in spite of having specialized in counseling people for parenting and childbearing losses as a therapist. It was my specialty, for pity’s sake.

Well, now I’m a real expert on loss.

Olivia’s death seemed to set into motion a long struggle with grief and loss of constancy that made for a difficult recovery. I remember praying almost daily, “Dear God, please don’t let any of my other children die, or I may go crazy.” It seemed too much to bear at the time.

Now I’m a much more serious person. I realize in my head and emotions that tragedies are occurring moment by moment worldwide and that I’m not immune. There is no immunization, for, as Buddha said, life is suffering. Therefore, a sensible person who is experiencing comfort at the moment, ought also to be mindful of the suffering in the world, and live in such a way that at least some suffering is avoided or relieved.

For example, if I amass resources and squander them, in what way am I relieving  anyone’s suffering? In what way am I increasing suffering? If I’m mindful, the answers to such questions will change the way I live and the choices I make. I may choose to go ahead and buy that caffe mocha, because all the Starbucks employees and stockholders will benefit and their financial suffering may be relieved. On the other hand, I may forego the mocha and donate my $3.00 to a homeless shelter, or put it in the offering plate at church, or give my middle-aged waitress at IHOP a bigger tip later. The issue is mindfulness of suffering, and having a compassionate approach to life that seeks to relieve suffering.

The key to handling losing streaks and long bouts of suffering, I’ve learned thus far, is accepting that the suffering is real, and realizing at the same time that it could be worse. I know that when my daughter was dying, I thought things couldn’t be any worse, but as the weeks passed, I realized they could have been much worse. 

What have you learned from your own suffering?

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