Ignoring Data is Essential for Optimism

My daughter recently got married. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I realized the act of getting married is profoundly optimistic. We’re all well-acquainted with the 50% divorce rate. Yet every day, we humans look these odds in the face, and say, we’re doing it anyway.

As I stood watching my daughter joyously pledge herself to another, it got me thinking about why humans are so wonderfully persistent in our belief that we will be the ones who can make it work.

Entrepreneurs enthusiastically launch businesses ignoring the very real odds that 90% fail. Writers pour their hearts into books that will likely never be published.  Again and again, we humans paint canvasses, write music, start families and begin other risk fraught endeavors with dogged, and statistically speaking, completely unjustified optimism.

Several years ago I was talking to a friend on my cell phone during a morning walk in the city. I was staying at a downtown hotel with my two daughters. We were enjoying a girls’ weekend, coincidentally staying at the same hotel where my husband and I had our wedding reception.

As I entered the lobby, I told my friend, “I’m about to get on the elevator, I have to get off the phone.” But then the hotel’s outside glass elevator showed up, stepping in, as the lone passenger, I told her, “I can still talk.”

Riding up the elevator, I realized, and said aloud to my friend, “The last time I was in this elevator was 20 minutes after I got married, my new husband and I were riding up to our reception.” Reflecting, I said, “If anyone had told you everything that was going to happen to that young couple, no one would have believed you – the family problems, health issues, financial setbacks – wow!”

My friend, a woman who has been married about as long as I have (which is practically forever) laughed and said, “That’s for sure.”

That’s when I realized anyone could have predicted it, especially anyone over 50.

If anyone with any years on them had been told the cute young couple in the wedding dress and tux holding hands in the glass elevator would face in-law issues, health scares, and financial problems,” the older person likely would have nodded and said, “Yep, sounds about right.”

In fact, the only people who wouldn’t have believed it were the cute young couple.  They (we) would have said, “Oh no, those things aren’t going to happen to us because we have a plan!” Like so many before us, we ignored the data and believed we could make ourselves immune to hardship.

Had we known what was coming, would we still have proceeded?  I honestly don’t know. I’m certainly glad we did. We couldn’t know we’d face bankruptcy, endure the agony of losing parents to long illnesses, feel lonely more often than we thought married people would, and say truly mean things to each other in moments of frustration. Nor could we have predicted the unmitigated joy of our children and the comfort of having someone to be petty with when life goes awry.

Getting married is an act of courage. It’s unmitigated optimism in the face of unfavorable odds. There are times in our lives when our hearts call upon us to brave the data, and do it any way. As it turns out, our hearts probably are right.

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