What’s Fun About Starting Over?

What’s fun about starting over?

One of the addictive qualities of computer solitaire card games like free cell (included with the Windows operating system) is that you can replay the same hand until you get it right—if you want, you can have another chance with the same cards, a chance to learn directly from your prior mistakes.

This leads many people to replay their free cell hands over and over until they win.   When I first learned the game, someone told me that every hand could be won if approached correctly.  So whenever I lost, I would immediately replay the same hand as many times as necessary in order to win it.

(There are apparently a few unwinnable hands, but winning is still almost always possible if you play it right.)

But here is the interesting part:  No one is standing over us requiring that we replay a hand we just “lost.”  We just “failed,” so why aren’t we discouraged?  We willingly take on the challenge because we still expect that we can win.  Surely we will do better now that we know how much we’re going to need that red 8.

The other huge difference is that in free cell, the stakes are low and we are playing a game.  Our emotions aren’t involved as strongly as when we are making more consequential decisions.  We feel playful and we enjoy the challenge of figuring something out, so it’s fun.

Back in the 1970s, I worked in the Yale Psychology Department with Professor Irving Janis who did research on decision making.   (He coined the term “groupthink” in his analyses of the Cuban missile crisis and other incidents of faulty decision-making by policy makers.  He also studied adherence to personal decisions where following through was difficult, such as deciding to lose weight or quit smoking.)

Professor Janis and Professor Robert Abelson (another member of the department) used to talk about “hot cognitive processes” by which they meant the difference in decision-making on issues in which one was emotionally involved vs. those which were purely questions of logic.  (Before that, much of the academic research on decision-making had assumed that our decisions were made as Spock on Star Trek would have made them, which had resulted in a fair amount of work on decisions that were essentially trivial.)

Starting over in real life is a hot cognitive process!  It’s an understatement to say that there are often significant feelings attached.

If we are starting over in building a relationship, unresolved feelings from prior relationships are just waiting to show themselves.   If we have been fired or laid off from a job, a part of our new job search has to include managing the feelings we have about our previous work experience and how we were treated.  Otherwise we risk answering interview questions in ways that hurt our chances of creating a new opportunity.  If we are working toward regaining our health after a threatening illness, our feelings about having been vulnerable are part of the baggage we carry into our new health regimens.

None of this sounds like fun.  But if our goal is to have more fun more of the time, how can we apply that approach here?

The world keeps changing under our feet.  And the pace of change appears to be accelerating.  Many of us are going to have to start over numerous times during our lives.  (This blog is part of a new chapter for me.)  What helps make it fun when we are starting over?

Talking things out with a good listener who really pays attention makes a tremendous difference.  With someone who knows how good you are and isn’t upset by what you are discussing, burdensome feelings can lift and very serious matters can suddenly seem hysterically funny.   Sentences like “there go ten years I’ll never have again,”  “it’s only my career,” or just “I’m still here” can seem sad one minute and like the funniest joke in the world the next.

I wish I could actually hang out with you and listen to you and let you experience what I mean, but you probably already know.  Feeling connected to someone else who “gets” us is enormously reassuring.  Letting the wind blow through some of our feelings of failure and frustration makes everything start to look a little different.  It loosens up our thinking so that we become more flexible and more able to respond in a fresh way to whatever comes up.  Little mammals and little children play as a way of learning about how the world works and how they can affect what happens.  When we become a bit more playful, it helps us too.

We can choose a light and kind touch in what we say to ourselves.  So long as we’re not weighed down by disappointment and discouragement, starting over can be great fun.  A new world of possibilities awaits us.  As with playing free cell, here’s another chance to get it right.