At certain times in our lives – on a milestone birthday, say, or maybe after a momentous event – we are faced with two alternatives: regret about the things we haven’t done, and gratitude for the things we have. You have a choice, even though it may be hard to see that. Choose gratitude.
Fifteen years ago today, I was a contestant on the newly sensational game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The program had only been on the air for about a week and a half, but it was the talk of the nation. The flashy industrial set, the intense, moody background music, the suspenseful question-and-answer format, and the oddly enthusiastic host – all of it somehow came together to create an unexpected ratings phenomenon. It seemed as if everyone was watching.
And there I was, taking part. And on my birthday, no less. In fact, I learned that very morning, it wasn’t just my birthday – it was also the birthday of the host, Regis Philbin. When I found that out, it seemed like a sign, something too unlikely not to be meaningful. Suddenly my participation in this game show felt more like a part in some kind of mystic, grand plan.
And for a while, events unfolded as if that were true. After a morning of preparation, with paperwork, instructions, and practice, ten new contestants – including me – were brought on stage, to compete against each other for a chance to play for one million dollars. The odds were 9 to 1 against me, but I was the only one to answer the deciding question correctly, and I made it into the “Hot Seat”! I was nervous, and stiff, and uncharacteristically laconic, but Regis led me through the questions like the veteran showman he was, and, with a little help from the audience, I was able to answer enough questions correctly to walk away with $125,000.
I had been given the opportunity to phone a friend for help on the last question I had faced (“In Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, which musical instrument traditionally portrays the wolf?”), which would have been worth $250,000 if I’d answered correctly. My friend suggested “French horn”, but he sounded uncertain, so I asked him how sure he was, “percentage-wise”. (Yes, I was the person who introduced that question to WWtBaM.) He told me only 60%, which wasn’t enough for me to feel comfortable with, so I declined to answer and left with the $125,000. But then Philbin revealed that “French horn” had indeed been the correct answer.
Because of the way the show was shot, I was left alone backstage for about ten minutes immediately after leaving the set, and I stood there by myself in shock – not thinking, “I just won $125,000!”, but, “I just lost $125,000! Or maybe I lost $875,000 – who knows whether I might have known the answer to the following two questions? If I had just listened to my friend, I might have won $1,000,000!” I felt as though I had failed, and in failing had shown myself to be an idiot on national television.
This remorse dogged me for months. A rational part of me could not understand it – I had won six figures, how could I possibly be unhappy about it? – but rationality did not help. I had blown the mystic grand plan! I obsessed on all the things I had not done: If only I had learned the instrumentation of “Peter and the Wolf”! If only I had taken my phone-a-friend’s answer! If only I hadn’t asked him how sure he was! I created a thousand other universes in which I went home, to nationwide acclaim, with a million dollars.
Eventually, I just didn’t have the stamina to keep on obsessing about what I had not done. Life went on, and there were other things to think about. And it was only then, when I stopped beating myself up about how I had failed, that I began to be able to see how I had succeeded. How I had made it into the Hot Seat against long odds. How I had managed, despite my extreme nervousness, to elicit a few chuckles from the audience. How I had been a part of a genuine national craze. And, of course, how I had taken advantage of my lifelong penchant for trivia to take home $125,000 (well, $75,000, after taxes) in just a few hours.
Those are all cool things, things that most people will never get a chance to do. But I could not see what I had done until I stopped obsessing on what I had not done. And once I could see what I had done, I was finally able to be grateful for it. And that was a turning point. Remorse had pinned me to one spot in time; I mentally replayed it, over and over. But gratitude enabled me to think about the future. Being glad to have done as well as I had gave me the confidence to imagine doing better the next time. And six years later, when I was invited to be on the quiz show Jeopardy!, I was a much better, much more entertaining player because of it. And, as I have written about before, what I accomplished on Jeopardy! was part of what brought me to where I am today – it led me to imagine a better future.
Gratitude is important. It’s not just a mindless, feel-good obligation, like remembering to write a note to someone who sends you a gift. Being thankful for what you have, and what you have accomplished, reminds you of what resources and strengths you have, and what you are capable of. When you truly count your blessings, you also end up counting your opportunities.