Yes, chance. And, control.
Sometimes life happens to us, and other times we make things in happen in our life: is this question even worth dwelling upon?
Does life happen to us, or do we make things happen in life?
Saturday, November 2nd, 2019.
The stadium fills with the sound of the Chicago Bulls’ theme song as my mind fills with anticipation. Stomachs in knots, hearts racing, eyes fixated on the speaker at the podium on stage, 44 National FFA Officer Candidates rise from their seats, knowing only six will end up on that stage in the span of less than five minutes. My knees weaken, but I’m strengthened in both body and soul by the presence of two of my closest friends as we stand arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, Idaho-Illinois-Indiana. It just so happened that the closest states to me, alphabetically, were the fellow candidates I needed most at this moment.
Name by name, one by one, officers are elected and run onto the stage, bursting with joy. Name by name, one by one, those officers are not Miriam Hoffman. Before the final name is called, I know in the depth of my soul this spotlight is not for me. Even so, my heart and its dreams are crushed. I have worked so hard for this. Many people told me I would be elected. The last five years of my FFA career flash before my eyes and the last four months of preparation for this moment suddenly feel like a waste of energy. I spent all that time practicing interviews only to be left in the seats? I forced myself to prepare in such intense scenarios I was brought to tears leaving conference rooms only to be one of the faces who will fade into the crowd of consoling friends and family? How could this happen?
For weeks after the 2019 National FFA Officer Election, I wrestled with questions. The biggest question of all: Was it my fault I didn’t get elected? I worked hard, yes, but so did everyone else. I didn’t deserve to be elected any more than those six on the stage. But, what if I just didn’t say the right things in the interviews? What if I was supposed to say something different? On the other hand, I felt confident I told the nominating committee what I needed to say. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be elected, and this was all part of a plan. Or, perhaps I should have been elected and now it’s my duty to resent the election process because it didn’t give me what I wanted. That doesn’t feel right, though, and I know it.
It took me several months to find internal peace with the results of my first run for national office. Finally, as I scrolled through social media and saw pictures of the new officers off to another adventure, instead of being bitter, I was truly happy for them. The weeks leading up to that moment were difficult because, at the heart of it, I was struggling with the balance of chance and control: how much of life happens to us, and how much of it do we make happen? If life just happens to us, then it would be easy to say that life just dealt me a bad hand on November 2nd, 2019; yet, if we make things happen, the whole thing was my fault and I should have just done better. Maybe this isn’t even a worthwhile question to ask.
Thursday, October 29th, 2020.
The screen fills with little rectangles: faces of people I’ve come to know through quick conversations in Zoom holding rooms before interviews. Each of us National FFA Officer Candidates have logged on from our home states, with those closest to us emotionally also closest to us, physically; some are surrounded by parents, others by friends, and even from miles away, we can almost feel the anticipation. My past state officer teammates and now closest friends lean in, arms around me, as the dreaded election music fills the speakers. It’s not Lucas Oil stadium, but my mental associations take me back to that day in 2019 that my biggest dreams were shot down; somehow, I already feel peace. Not because I know the results--in fact, I’m pretty confident I won’t get elected this time, either--but because I know even a failure to be elected is not a failure to find value in this process.
Eyes fixated on the nominating committee chairman’s rectangle on my laptop screen, I take a deep breath and hold it as he begins to announce who will fill the role of Eastern Region Vice President. Before he’s finished saying “from the state of Illinois,” his voice is overtaken by the cheers of the people who’ve filled my heart and now fill this room where I find out that I’ll be serving as a National FFA Officer for the upcoming year. The last six years of my FFA career flash before my eyes, and I breathe a sigh of relief as the last four months of preparation find their fulfillment in this moment. Or, did they?
Where the previous year I found myself wondering why that loss had to happen to me, this time I’m wondering if I’ve made this election happen for myself. Was I a self-made woman because my name was called? Do I get to take all the credit for the new jacket I wear and the title that comes with it? Or, did I just have a fortunate day, a fortunate week, a fortunate life leading up to this moment? Again, it’s the battle between chance and control: how much of life happens to us, and how much of it do we make happen? If life just happens to us, I can’t take any credit for being elected. If we make it happen, I should give myself a double pat on the back.
Does life happen to us or do we make things happen in life? Try asking a different question.
Here’s the deal: both years I ran for national office, I put in a lot of effort. Both years, many people poured into me. Both years, I made mistakes. Both years, I think I asked the wrong question after the election. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to question how much credit we can take for our control and how much we can blame on chance. What if, instead, we asked ourselves “how much can I contribute next?” and “how can I show gratitude for what others have done for me?”
When things don’t go our way—like the first year I ran for national office—let’s certainly learn from what we feel we could have done better, but focus the lion’s share of our energy on doing well in our future endeavors, whatever they may be. Sometimes things won’t go our way even when we try our hardest, but they’re a lot more likely to go wrong when we don’t try at all. When they do turn out the way we hope—like this past year, when I was elected—let’s not inflate our egos with how well we performed, but instead give credit and express gratitude to those who undoubtedly contributed to our success. Even if we did work hard to get there, there is no such thing as 100% control over all the factors in our lives. I am deeply grateful for the outcome of both years: both taught me, both gave me deeper relationships, and both shaped who I am both inside and outside of the FFA.
There’s not much debate that there is some element of both chance and control in every scenario in life; the best we can do is take action like we’re in control, but express gratitude like we’re not. This, I’m confident, will keep us going when it’s tough and keep us humble when it’s smooth sailing.
How do you think about the balance of chance and control in your life? Did your perspective change after reading this post? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tag me on social media at @nffaevp and @miriamrosah and use the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.
A clarifier on “chance”—we call chance by many names: fate, randomness, luck, or if you’re a person of faith like myself, we may call it a higher plan or God’s will. Regardless of the name, it all ends up the same: things happen to us that we did not directly choose.
Oh, and one more thing: my thinking on this subject has been influenced and advanced by two books I’ve read (or am in the process of reading); ironically, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship of chance and control in order to come to the conclusion that it’s not always worth thinking about. Still, I have no regrets; the thought process leading up to my conclusion was worthwhile. If you’re interested in diving deeper, check out Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova.