Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #14 — On Finding the Right Strategy: “So, why didn’t this work?”

#14 — On Finding the Right Strategy: “So, why didn’t this work?”

More than anything else, baseball is a game of strategy.  Off the field, managers and coaches regularly plan how to use their team’s strengths and exploit their opponents’ weaknesses.  On the field, these same people work out moves and counter-moves almost constantly.  If one team brings in a left-handed pitcher, the other team might try to load their lineup with right-handed batters.  If one of the catchers has a weak throwing arm, opposing base runners might make more attempts to steal.  If a pitcher seems to be getting tired, opposing batters might not swing until later in the count, hoping to tire that pitcher even more.  And if one team has a hitter on a hot streak, then in a situation with runners on base the opposing pitcher might walk that hitter intentionally rather than let him hit.  These intricacies and more are integral aspects of baseball, and dealing with them successfully is the result of some fundamental strategy. 

In baseball, having a strategy provides a way of trying to achieve a goal when the outcome is uncertain.  And just as strategy is important in baseball, it is important in life.  The right strategy can help us deal with uncertainty, use our limited resources, and achieve our life goals.  So how do we go about arranging to have an effective strategy?  It turns out that you don’t have to look very far for advice.  Almost every bookstore and library has shelves full of self-help books offering programs for successful life strategies.  Moreover, most of our institutions, formal and informal, actively promote their own versions of strategies with their own promises of success.  If you just go to the right school, choose the right career, live in the right area, drive the right car, wear the right clothes, marry the right person, associate with the right people, and adhere to the right political and economic views, then you will enjoy those institutions’ ideas of success. 

Yet despite all these approaches promoted by all these experts, many of us still struggle.  I regularly witness a variety of these struggles in my therapy practice.  One self-defeating strategy I often see involves trying to take care of or please everyone with whom you come into contact.  People who do this usually have some noble sounding rationale:  “I believe it’s better to help others” or “I don’t want to be selfish.”  (I sometimes think that selfishness has been given a bad name.  After all, isn’t it selfish to eat or to breathe and thereby consume resources that others could use?  Of course, it is.  But what’s the alternative?)  Ultimately, these “pleasers” pay a high price with little to show as a result.  While they are busy trying to please others, they find that few are trying to please them.  Sadly, many of these people eventually become embittered and wind up holding a grudge against life, making satisfaction ultimately impossible.

Another common self-defeating strategy is to insist that life be responsible for you instead of the other way around.  I often see this in people who come to my office complaining of all the ills that have befallen them or all the opportunities or benefits that have been denied them.  And, of course, in no case are they ever responsible for any of the things that have gone wrong or failed to go right.  You will often hear these people speak of how life “should be,” while lamenting how it is.  Steadfastly helpless, they will respond to every suggestion offered them with “Yes, but,” followed by all the reasons why that suggestion won’t work.  In some cases there might even be a bit of smugness and a sense of martyrdom accompanying this rebuff.  The eventual result of this approach to life is that people who might have been supportive are simply driven away, and the helpless ones are left feeling abandoned by life and without a clue as to why. 

There is also a popular approach in which people insist that life has to “make sense,” that there must be some concrete reason or cause for everything.  You often see this in people who insist on having a diagnosis for their condition, some label they can be given, with a corresponding “treatment” that will “fix” the problem.  Clearly, this is an appealing concept:  If you just identify the specific cause for your troubles, then you can apply the treatment the way you might follow a recipe and make life come out the way you want.  Unfortunately, life often fails to cooperate, presenting us instead with problems that have multiple causes, lots of ambiguity, and no certain treatment or outcome.  Yet, those for whom life must make sense will often argue heatedly when you point out to them that life’s major challenges aren’t always reducible to a diagnosis and don’t always respond to formulaic treatments.  Like it or not, we sometimes just have to accept all the uncertainty and live our lives in spite of it.

A common theme in these and other problematic strategies is that life is to be approached as it should be rather than as it is.  People trying to live this way often fail to recognize that what they are doing isn’t working.  Instead, they blame others for being selfish or dishonest or simply ignorant.  This is an attitude I remember from my youth, when being in a “rap group” meant sitting in a coffee shop with a bunch of college students planning the next sit-in to be staged in the campus administration building.  Everything was so clear back then:  War was wasteful and inhuman; we were all brothers and sisters; and “the Establishment” was just something in the way of human progress.  We were all so sure of how things were and of how they should be and of how staging protests was necessary.   Anyone who disagreed simply “didn’t get it.”  Slowly, painfully over time, I came to recognize that the disagreement didn’t mean that people didn’t get it but that they didn’t want it or that they just didn’t care.

On my way to becoming a therapist, I became much less focused on how things should be and started to deal with them as they are.  I also came to realize that this was one of the major lessons you learn from those cheap seats way above the ball field.  After all, the pitcher doesn’t throw what the batter wants just because that’s what the batter wants to hit.  The batter doesn’t swing at every pitch just because the pitcher wants to get him out quickly.  Once years ago, I heard a college coach say to his team, “Don’t expect them to do what you want; expect them to do what they want.  Your job is to play your game anyway.”  Even today, I am struck by his eloquence:  Expect life to be all and only what it is, without deference to you, and live your life anyway.

There is a long-standing baseball adage that the best hitters try to hit the ball where it’s pitched.  They expect the pitcher to try and throw the ball where it will be hard to hit.  These hitters accept that and are ready for it.  I think that if we likewise can accept that life will throw anything at us anywhere at anytime in order to make things difficult, then we can deal with things as they are and become some of life’s best hitters.

  1. Martha Tate, LCSW
    July 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Don, Once again, you have hit a solid hit here. Your wisdom “hits home” for me. It will serve as support for me as I try to play my own game and become one of life’s best hitters. Your combination of sagacity and encouragement are helpful and appreciated.

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