The Happiest People Are Good Guessers

an illustration from a textbook. At the top it says "horses" and there are 4 horse creatures listed, from top left moving clockwise: a zebra, a donkey/burro, a white horse, a horse that has its front half striped and back half white
Image by Biodiversity Heritage Library / CC BY

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

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One of the hardest things about life is that we’re always guessing. They say the only certain things in life are death and taxes. But you can evade your taxes. It just might not go well. And there’s been a lot of talk about living forever or at least a Hell of a lot longer because of stem cell research and a million other things even more complicated, like the stuff Philip K. Dick wrote about.

Really nothing is certain. But much is likely. There are horses, and there are zebras.

When you go to medical school, there’s a saying that new students often hear: When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.

Essentially, this means that the most obvious conclusion is the most likely. Most things are the most normal case. By definition, really. That’s why they’re considered normal.

The trouble of course is that zebras exist. They’re not imaginary creatures. And sometimes when you hear the hoof beats, it’s a zebra.

You’re guessing which. You’re always guessing which.

Now, there are ways to make your guesses a little more accurate. Are you in a zoo? Are you in a place where zebras are native fauna? Did you see a black and white striped blur in your peripheral vision?

If any of these, or some combination of these, is true, then you’re more likely to have heard a zebra.

I find that a lot of people have problems in life not because they’re moral or immoral. Not because they’re gifted or challenged. It’s easy to believe this or tell ourselves these things are true. But that’s the horse. (Or is it the zebra?)

Rather, I find that a lot of people have problems in life because they’re bad guessers. They’re wrong about a lot of things, but they never learn. Because real life is a lot different than the hoof beat example.

Even after the hoof beats fade, you don’t always get to see whether it’s a horse or a zebra. Real life is often more ambiguous. Some people make their guesses and assume they’re right. Even if that conclusion is self-defeating. Even if it causes them to make decisions that create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They heard a horse. They know it’s a horse, and there’s nothing that you can do to convince them that it wasn’t a horse.

Or they heard it was a zebra, and they know it’s a zebra, and there’s nothing you can do to convince them that it wasn’t a zebra.

Both are dangerous, defaulting to the normal or abnormal without fully considering the facts and challenging one’s intuitions against reality.

I’ve found that the happiest people allow themselves to consider both outcomes to be true. To weigh the evidence and figure out which one is more likely.

And if a zebra shows up in an unlikely place, they ask themselves why this could be.

They try to learn the most productive lesson that they can about this one time that they were wrong.

One that helps them guess a little bit better next time.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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