Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We're (Not) In the Money...But That's Okay

In the classic musical "42nd Street", which takes place during The Great Depression, a group of slightly hard-boiled choroines find a coin on the streets of Manhattan. The jubliant discovery that it's a dime touches off one of the biggest production numbers in Broadway history and stops the show for a good five minutes.

I was reminded of that number last week when all work in our office stopped dead as one of our colleagues decided that we should all go into a pool for $2 each for the Mega Millions jackpot. While we didn't win--well actually we won $7, which we re-invested in the following drawing and lost it all-- there was no singing or dancing in the hallways of our office. Nonetheless, the anticipation of easy money and what a windfall might do prompted one of the most entertaining and diverting half hours of recent weeks, which says a lot since we spend a lot of time playing with toys.

Quite frankly, it's vritually impossible to buy that much fun for two bucks any more. And while there was a 1-in-175 million chance of winning, speculation about what would happen if it did became a game for all of us, and a hilarious break from work. The fantasy of winning a jackpot is the ultimate use of the imagination and in our case demonstrates just how play enhances life. It creates an altenative reality that we can live in for a few moments, a means of interpersonal connection and a platform for communicating in ways that people don't usually. For adults, it's an important reminder of the liberating power of the imagination, and it is harmless fun, as long as one can afford the ticket and the odds are kept in perspective.

At the same time, all the fantasies about winning the lottery shouldn't derail us from planning for a future that doesn't include a multi-million windfall. Several years ago, State Farm insurance found in their annual survey that many Americans included "winning the lottery" in their financial planning. This year, the survey shows that Americans aren't planning and haven't considered what they'll need to be able to retire comfortably.

We have developed a "jackpot" mentality in the U.S. today. It's nothing new, but with all the reality shows and lotteries and casinos, game shows and so forth, the risk is that we focus on outcomes and not on process. Like the kids who say that they are going to be rock stars and find themselves in the 40's still living off their parents' largesse, the dreams that come true are the ones we work for. (We know at least one where this is actually the case, though it's often lampooned in comedy.) Sure, there is such a thing as luck, but you can't build a life around waiting for it. If getting rich were as simple as picking the right briefcase out of 26 choices, we'd all be "in the money."

Unfortunately, real life is more mundane than that, though mundane is not necessariy a bad thing. Outcomes are never guaranteed in whatever we do or try, but they are impossible without engaging in process. American Idol is a perfect representation of that...if you look below the surface. These young people start out raw and make the cut based on talent, which is a gift that no one can control or predict. What happens during the weeks of the show is a process of developing talent, training a voice and creating a pop star. As you cast your votes for your favorites, don't overlook the level of work, commitment and dedication to the process it takes to win.

Let's make sure that we and the children in our lives understand that fully engaging in the process of going after what we want is the best use of our time. While the specific outcomes may be out of our control--and there will be triumphs and disappointments along the way--the process is what living is all about, and who would want to shortchange that.

As for us, we're back at work, and it's not so bad.

- C. Byrne