So, I don't know if you've heard, but on January 13th, 2016, the United States government gave away 1.6 billion dollars in the largest cash lottery in recorded history.
Actually, I'm not sure how you could have not heard. Maybe you could have been in the midst of a month long information fast, hiding in cupboard somewhere? It was on almost every television channel, people speculating about the odds, tracking celebrity ticket purchases, and, in small mostly ignored pockets of the conversation, some people even wondering if a wildly fluctuating revenue source like a lottery is really the best way to fund education.
It seemed like everywhere I went people were talking about the lottery. Walking down the alley to my apartment I overheard two disheveled smokers debating whether they would take the 30 year annuity or the lump sum. On Facebook people were committing (or pretending commitment) to share their winnings with everyone who liked or shared their post.
Maybe you bought a ticket, or even a couple. I saw one guy who was really excited about the 540 tickets that he bought. If you did buy a ticket, the chances are pretty good that you didn't win. You might still be a little despondent about those little balls not bouncing your way. You don't need to be.
Because losing that lottery could be the best thing to happen to you this year.
The majority of my friends seemed to fall into one of two categories. The first group did not buy any tickets, and were so very proud of their abstinence. The second group bought some tickets, but coupled their admission with an abashed shamefulness.
Now, these are my friends of course, so there is a fair chance that those emotions, both the pride in avoiding the game and the shame of having played, are an anticipation of my response. In the past I have railed against the stupidity of the lottery as hard as anyone, calling it tax on people who don't understand probability, ranting about all the things that are more likely than winning the lottery, like getting struck by lightening five times, or getting attacked by a polar bear and a regular bear on the same day.
Because what I knew was that it's very, very unlikely that you will win enough money in the lottery to even cover the cost of your ticket.
Now, I don't want to get bogged down in the numbery side of things, because the numbers just set the stage for what I find really fascinating about the lottery, what everyone finds fascinating about the lottery: the way these games of chance with their absurd prizes illuminate our understanding of the human condition.
The prizes are absurd, by the way. We have a difficult time scaling our perception of really large numbers, so maybe the magnitude of the absurdity gets lost sometimes.
This guy, who thought that we should abolish the game of chance and just eliminate poverty instead, serves as a great example of how difficult it can be to really understand large numbers.
It's tempting to just laugh about a misplaced decimal point, but the reality is that none of us are great with large numbers. That's the entire reason that we developed scientific notation in the first place.
It's easier to break a big number into smaller chunks that are more accessible. For example, the $1.6B of this epic lottery gets split between the three winning tickets, and then taxed. The winners then have the option to break that number into smaller bits by taking the 30 year annuity, which would start their payments at over $7M per year, increasing as interest accrues over the period to around $31M. What that means is that even after you split it into three prizes and then spread it over 30 years and tax the living crap out of it, the lowest end of the payments are around $20,000.
While I ran into more than a few of Philipe's sort of conversations, debating the point and purpose of this lottery system in our society, most of the conversations were more along the lines one might expect: what would I do if I won?
One of the more prominent defenders of the lottery, George Mason's Lloyd Cohen, even suggests that these conversations are the real product of the lottery. There are many people who still deride ticket purchasers the way that I used to. Those criticisms are based on the idea that the purchase of a ticket is primarily the purchase of the chance to win all that money. Cohen argues that the thing that people are actually purchasing, and then enjoying and sharing with their neighbors, is the right to fantasize about a life divorced from financial anxiety.
That is what I heard in most of the conversations that I overheard as the lottery prize climbed into the hundreds of millions, and billions of dollars. Sure there was the occasional materialist speculation, "I'd buy this, or I'd buy that," but for the most part, that wasn't where the majority of conversations went. There were two things that I heard more often than any kind of material acquisition: where people would travel and how quickly they would quit their job.
For a large number of us, that is the dream that the lottery is offering: freedom from the grind, and the opportunity to explore the world.
The thing is, there is a difference between being free from financial anxiety and having a billion dollars.
That is the source of my frustration with the lottery. I love hearing the hope and joy in the voices of people sharing their dreams of a life freed from the weight of all the financial obligations that keep our societal wheels turning. What I hate is the resignation that sweeps in when they admit that they don't think they will win, and that all their fond dreams are only that: dreams.
I enjoy hypothetical scenarios, I think they are useful in helping us get in touch with the desires, the motivations that we are sometimes afraid to even acknowledge to ourselves. The danger is when those hypotheticals reinforce the impossibility achieving those desires, of realizing those dreams. The danger of the lottery is that it becomes a catharsis, a process by which we exorcise our need to dream in brief, flurries of fantasy.
The lie of the lottery is that you need a huge injection of money in order to assert your will on the trajectory of your journey through life. If you buy that lie then all your delightful dreams will stay dormant in your mind, doomed to never be realized.
But, if you let it, losing the lottery can be the best thing that every happens to you.
You have to actually lose, though. Disdaining the game out of intellectual superiority isn't going to get it done. You have to put the money on the counter and stare at those six numbers and know that if the balls featuring those numbers pop out of the chaos to roll down that little plastic tube, then you will be millions of dollars richer.
We need the visceral connection to the possibility of wealth on a surreal level, because so very many of us have become indoctrinated by the cult of practicality. Do you remember when you were a child, full of whimsy and fantasy, and you would dream about what you wanted to do with your life? Maybe you had a great support system who encouraged you and told you that you could be whatever you wanted, do whatever you wanted...
To a point.
There was that moment for all of us where those encouragements shifted tone. 'You can do anything' became 'Be realistic'. 'You can be anything' became 'You need to pay rent'. We have inherited a societal pragmatism that adores the refrain when I was a child I thought (and dreamed) as a child does, but now that I am grown I have put childish ways behind me.
As a result, we tend to forget. We forget that it was our dreams that built this fabulous future that we enjoy. We forget that we were first dreamers before we were ever engineers or accountants.
Now, when I'm talking about dreaming, I'm not talking about the echoes with which your subconscious bombards your sleeping mind. I am talking about when we are awake and cast our imagination into the undefined future, trying to find a place that feels more like home than the reality we are experiencing. More often than not I find this kind of dreaming disparaged as an empty escapism, an avoidance of the unpleasantness of the daily grind, but dreaming, if done well, is much more than escapism.
The reasonable human adapts to the world, but the unreasonable human persists in demanding that the world adapt to them. Therefore progress has always been the domain of the unreasonable human.
The problem is that that kind of dreaming is difficult. It is difficult, but it is a skill at which we can improve. Like every other skill we gather along our journey, though, we only get better if we practice, and it downright uncomfortable to practice a skill that is ridiculed by everyone you respect on an intellectual level.
That's where the lottery is fantastic. It gives us permission to practice dreaming. Unfortunately, most of us are really awful at dreaming, because we haven't really tried since we were children. That's why most of our dreams are so similar: quit the job, explore the world.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with not being good at things that you don't do often. You just need to decide how you want to respond to your lack of competence. Are you comfortable not being good at envisioning and then enacting your own future? Is the occasional flurry of fantasy when a lottery jackpot reaches your purchase threshold enough to satisfy the yearnings of your latent dreamer?
Me, I hate not being good at things. Hate it. When I discover something worthwhile I'll either set my mind to becoming competent as quickly as possible, or resign myself to being a fan of those who are competent. Dreaming and then living your dream, by the way? Totally worthwhile.
When I first realized that I could dream and live my dream, I wasn't good at it. In fact, I was terrible. I mean, I wouldn't say that I'm a world class dreamer these days, but I am a sight better than I was when I first started trying to take an active hand in the shape of my future.
Maybe you are a pro-level dreamer yourself. Maybe you didn't play the lottery because you already know what you would do with a billion dollars because it is exactly what you are doing with your life already. But if you did play the lottery, and you tried your hand at imagining a life you consider better than the one you are now enjoying, then you have an opportunity. You have this opportunity because you didn't win all those millions of dollars.
You have the opportunity to practice dreaming dreams that don't depend on the injection of an absurd amount of cash. These kind of dreams are almost the opposite of lottery dreams. Lottery dreams start with the idea of assuming the absence of financial limits, which is part of the problem, of course. Limitations foster creativity. Real dreams start with the limitations in place, and work their way free of them.
Here's the challenge that I would give to anyone trying to start future shaping, anyone ready to start getting better at lived dreaming: start small.
One of the biggest difficulties I had when I started trying to live dreams was that I wanted to to start with enormous, obvious, champion-status dreams. I wanted to do something significant, and I just didn't want to bother trying for just a little dream here or there.
Again, I have always enjoyed being good at things, but I only recently discovered the joy of becoming good at things. To put my gross perfectionism in perspective, my hope of being world class the first time I tried something as complicated as dreaming in the the real world is like expecting to be able to drop the ball in the hole from the tee box the first time I picked up a golf club.
I would never approach the game of golf that way, but I think that kind of expectation of competence keeps a lot of us from trying new things. I know that I want to hit home runs, and drain three pointers, not learn how to make contact or complete a layup.
But small wins are still wins. So start small. Get a win, and then another one. Do you know what we call people who develop the habit of stringing together wins? I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with chicken dinner.
Here's what I'd suggest: when you wake up in the morning, and you are lying in bed enjoying the lingering ripples of your night's fleeting fantasies, take a moment to imagine what your day is going to look like. Consider what you want to do, what you have to do, what you know you are going to do. Picture your day.
And then try to picture a better one.
It doesn't have to be the best day ever. It doesn't have to be the kind of day that you remember forever and tell stories about to all of your friends.
All it has to be is better than the day you were going to have. Imagine yourself at the end of the day, reflecting on what you have accomplished. What could you have added that would make your reflection more pleasant?
After a week of trying to dream, and live, a better day than you were going to have had, try to scale up your dreaming, just a bit. On a Sunday, or Monday, or whichever day feels like the start of the week to you, try the same exercise. Consider all the things that you have to do, want to do, or know you will do over the following week, and then try to dream a week just a little bit better than that week.
What would it take for you to consider this coming day, or this coming week, a win? Rather, what is the least it would take to consider it a win?
Your first dreams don't have to be world changing, they just need to be you-changing. There is plenty more to discover about finding and enacting the large dreams, the lottery sized dreams, but the first step is becoming the kind of person who looks at how your life is going to go, and finds ways to make it better that work in the life that you already have.
Because the reality is this: if you are waiting for your life to change before you start trying to change your life, you will probably never change anything.
So start small. Dream a better day, and then a better week. I hope some of you will share your stories of lived dreams in the comments. And keep in mind:
Life is a like riding a bicycle: to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.