Playing to Win: Lottery Syndrome and the Utility of Positive Choices

by | Feb 8, 2006

Stop by Louden Mouth, and you’ll be treated to a rich conversation ranging from ambition to magical thinking to trust, comfort, and building foundations for our lives and work. There are several comments from my friend, the brilliant business coach Mark Silver that by themselves are worth the visit (as if Jennifer’s luscious language and generous presence were not enough). (Update June 2016: Jen now blogs at

One strand of the conversation looks at what Mark calls the “Lottery Syndrome,” that is, living and working in the belief that some big break will be the key to your success. Holding out for the big break distracts us from the day-to-day work of returning phone calls, writing articles, paying bills, etc. It’s as if every moment we spend dreaming about winning the lottery (or being discovered or getting the big contract) is a drop of water falling against the rock on which we stand. Each drop is innocent, but over time, they erode our foundation. The more we live in lottery syndrome, the shakier the ground on which we stand.

My husband, aka The Charming Prince (TCP), has a sure fire system for beating the lottery. If he happens to be watching TV when the Daily Game takes place (in Washington State, a drawing of three numbers every evening), he guesses three numbers. If he loses, and of course he almost always does, he puts a dollar in a jar. If he wins, he has all the dollars in his jar. Of course, that means he always wins.

TCP is on to something. He has abiding trust that reality will unfold the way reality does. No matter how big the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no matter how large the payout, the numbers say that gambling is always a losing game. No killjoy, he plays the game anyway. But he plays to win.

I wonder what this might look like in other contexts. Where in my life do I play the lottery? And am I playing to win? Immediately I see it: For much of the past year I’ve been gambling with my energy and attention. I’ve played my cards fast and loose, sleeping irregularly, eating poorly, and using otherwise restorative activities (exercise, gardening, listening to audiobooks) as escapes from the aches and pains of heart, body, and mind. Bit by bit, this ate away at my foundation until the simplest things seemed overwhelming.

On the plus side, I’m happy to say that I did not struggle with myself over my choices. Long experience (and The Work) has taught me that I do what I do until I don’t, and that to beat myself up about what I am doing or have done is the craziest gamble of all because losing is 100% guaranteed. (Thank you, Byron Katie.)

If I’ve been gambling, what for? I think I was gambling for the prize of seeming to have it all together. My mom’s been through several medical crises and three changes of residence in the past 11 months. I learned 18 months ago that one of my brothers is serving a 12-year term for armed assault. He is indigent, and after many years of being out of touch, he reached out for help. Just over a year ago my 23-year old nephew was murdered, and I spent a week or so with his mom, my sister, who was a mere 10 months into recovery from addiction to alcohol, meth, and gambling. (She’s still clean.) I was betting that if I just had the right attitude, if I did enough inner work, I could live up to my desire to help my family, continue to build my business, and – I don’t know – rule the world? Win a beauty contest?

So what might this have looked like if I’d placed my bets more like TCP places his? What might I have done instead of skipping lunch to catch up on my email? I might have stopped working to make a nice meal instead of betting that a couple of energy bars and a diet coke would suffice for a few more hours at the computer. (Funny, I ate cases of energy bars and I never did catch up. It’s only been in the last few weeks in which I’ve been “putting dollars in the jar” that I’ve actually gotten close to cleaning out my inbox.)

Bottom line: I think I’ve been gambling for time. Living as if I’d win the time lottery some day if only I worked long and hard enough. And I’ve been gambling for wisdom, hoping that if only I tried hard enough to be good I would become wise.