Headwinds and Tailwinds

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In my previous post, I was hoping to discuss something I heard about on NPR this past weekend. I was listening to an interview with Maria Konnikova, psychologist and poker player, and as she discussed learning the game of poker, the idea of headwind/tailwind asymmetry was introduced.

Headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry is the work of Thomas Gilovich, psychology chair at Cornell University. The premise of the argument is that in our daily lives we struggle against headwinds and are boosted by tailwinds. Our outlook, motivation, and tendency toward resentment are all affected by these forces. Gilovich makes the point that, like runners and cyclists, we are very aware of the headwinds that are relentlessly buffeting us. He says that when we get a good tailwind, we are initially grateful, but quickly stop paying attention to the boost it’s giving us.

He links this to the ideas of gratitude and resentment. We all understand the headwinds. We’ve all felt them. It’s the lack of acknowledgement of the tailwinds that tends to cause problems. Maybe that’s a human brain problem. The brain is a lazy organ. It likes to go on autopilot. If it’s not dealing with a situation that’s impacting “survival,” the operating system puts the process in the background. Resentment comes from thinking you have it harder than the other guy. The way I understand it applying to the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry is that we stop paying attention to our own tailwinds and notice only the headwinds, we experience life as being hard. But that’s not all. We notice others’ tailwinds, but not headwinds. They must have it easier. This leads to resentment and a lack of gratitude.

What would happen if we chose to focus in on our own tailwinds instead of those of others? We experience gratitude. With gratitude comes happiness.

Going back to the interview with Maria Konnikova, she relates this all to the idea of internal vs external locus of control. Who is responsible for what happens to you? When something bad happens, is it your fault or the fault of someone or something apart from you? This gets to the idea of responsibility and accountability. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge our role in our failings. It’s easier to push them off onto an external factor. Most people do this. But if you could get over the ego hurdle, there is growth to be found in self-reflection. Unfortunately, some of us make self-reflection an art form, putting an undue burden on ourselves for our failings. Our inner critic is strong.

Conversely, when something good happens to you, is it due to your actions, or is it due to luck or good fortune? The tendency for many is to have an internal locus of control for the good things and an external locus for the bad. For some of us, there is a reluctance to attribute our successes to our own hard work and perseverance. We may instead give all of the credit to something outside ourselves, such as luck. Most of the time, however, the path toward success has been built piece by piece, reflecting hard work and planning.

We have a lot to say about where we go in life and the attitude we exhibit along the way. Resentment leads to self-handicapping and excuse making. In contrast, gratitude leads to happiness and a feeling of self-efficacy.

How do you usually reflect on the successes and failures in your own life? Would a change in perspective set you on a better path? Do you practice daily gratitude? Feel free to comment below.

6 thoughts on “Headwinds and Tailwinds

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