I love 11th-hour comebacks. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. The last half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Independence Day. The 1-on-6 Search & Destroy round with the worst Call of Duty player (me) somehow finishing everyone on the other team. Hitting a benchmark against all odds in one climactic stroke is a massive efficacy boost. Combined with an exceptional performance (which they usually demand and elicit), 11th-hour comebacks are an ecstasy unlike most.
But they rarely ever happen, and if you treat them as “the most enjoyable success” and focus on finding them in every situation (formerly me), you’re setting yourself up for failure. Here’s why:
Success in any endeavor takes effort expended over time. Once you decide what you’re going to accomplish, you must continually make right choices and actions to get there. If you want a well-defined physique, you have to choose to get up and successfully work out; the same goes for healthy eating. You have to choose these every day for several months.
Once you make enough right choices and take enough right actions, you get the prize! Usually, if you do it right, it’s fairly straightforward. Although you may have to learn and pivot occasionally, the path is clear (but maybe hard). The possibility of either catastrophic failure or sweeping success doesn’t very often arise, and there’s a reason for that: you approached it rationally. You knew what to do, you set a realistic goal, and you did it. Two plus two equals four; force equals mass times acceleration; eating healthy and exercising leads to fitness.
The conditions for the 11th-hour comeback – a narrow margin of success with sweeping upsides and catastrophic downsides – only come when you haven’t laid a good groundwork for the situation. You’ve underperformed for most of your season. Killing a wizard so powerful he cut his soul into seven is your goal. A hostile alien race threatens to annihilate the planet. You’ve not applied any thought to getting better at Call of Duty, and the rest of your team got hit by a grenade launcher. Your odds suck.
The thing about the odds is they always win by definition. Odds are the chances of any given situation turning out a certain way. Given its shape and hard upward flick, a coin will land on heads or tails roughly 99.9% of the time (once in a lifetime it’ll land on the rim). We don’t pull the odds out of a hat; we form them as conclusions from everything we’ve observed. Given the facts of reality and the nature of objects, certain things are more likely to happen – like coins falling on their sides. When your success requires reality to go in unusual ways, the least likely thing as the thing you need to happen.
The least likely thing is the thing your career needs in order to stay on track – the thing your self-esteem needs to stay healthy – the thing you need to stay alive. Losing your job, hating yourself, and dying are more likely. They’re also what happens more often.
Sometimes you can’t help it. If an unexpected product malfunction threatens to undo a multi-million dollar deal, you just have to fix it. When aliens show up at your doorstep, you’ve gotta play the hand you’re dealt. But those times are emergencies, and they don’t happen often. Most of the time you can help it – you can think long-range, set timeframes with a high probability of success, get things done ahead of schedule – you can lay good groundwork. Then you succeed more often, and face the emergencies as just that: emergencies.
My love of 11th-hour comebacks is a response to exceptional performance and an adrenaline rush of efficacy. But there are more efficient ways than making every situation an emergency to feel highly efficacious. Consistently setting and achieving fairly (key word: fairly) difficult goals is one of them.