Q: I’ve missed countless opportunities because I fail to speak up in the moment. A pretty girl smiles at me on the bus. Ten minutes later, I will wish I’d stayed on the bus and struck up a conversation. The same thing happens with business opportunities. At the critical moment I need to act, I go into a fog of some kind, weighing my options. Much later, I’ll realize that gold was put in my lap, and I’ll endure a lot of shame from not being present enough to recognize that. I’m all man when I have a girlfriend (which I don’t now) and will do anything to make her feel secure. But because of my problem with seizing opportunity, I’m much lonelier than I need to be. I’m realizing that I’m an irretrievable mental defective.
A: You’ve heard that 80 percent of success is just showing up? Well, the other 20 percent is not acting like you got glued to the toilet seat shortly afterward.
You diagnose yourself: “I’m an irretrievable mental defective.” Um, no — probably just a drama queen with risk aversion jets set a little high. Your freezing in the face of opportunity is probably due to an “approach-avoidance conflict,” a type of inaction-producing psychological stress that occurs when an opportunity has both positive and negative aspects that make it simultaneously appealing and off-putting. For example, with the girl on the bus, there’s a possible date versus a possible rejection. The closer (and more possible) the opportunity the larger the negative aspects loom. This leads to indecision and, in turn, inaction. When you have some distance (say, a few hours after you get off the pretty girl express bus), the positive aspects take center stage, and going for it seems the thing to do. Only then, this no longer takes a nervous “hello” across the bus aisle; you need one of those “missed connection” ads and $3,000 for a private detective.
You need to practice opportunity-spotting and preplan what you’ll do when it knocks so you won’t respond like a bratty preteen girl: “Go away! Nobody’s home. I hate you!” Recognizing opportunity takes knowing your goals. Articulate them, and then identify five opportunities a day and seize at least two of them. This requires simply taking action despite your indecision. Assuming you aren’t weighing the opportunity to blow through a bunch of stop signs, what are the likely damages? Step back and do a little cost-benefit analysis. If, say, you’d talked to the girl on the bus, worst-case scenario, she might’ve glared back at you, giving you an ouchie in the ego for what, 10 minutes? Doing nothing leaves you with lasting regret, shame, and self-loathing. Doing nothing repeatedly should help you get a headstart on becoming a bitter old man, thanks to all the years you’ve invested standing near the ladder of success yet never once having a woman in a bikini shinny down and hand you a mai tai.
Q: Why does my girlfriend say she loves me more than I love her? There’s no anger behind it; she says it teasingly. But it’s making me uncomfortable and a little annoyed. I’m beginning to wonder whether I love her enough. I mean, I thought I did.
A: “I love you more than you love me!” is just the thing to say to a boyfriend — if you want him to take you in his arms so he can look over your shoulder for your replacement. The problem with the subtext — “You know, you could probably do better” — is the “principle of least interest,” sociologist Willard Waller’s 1938 theory that the relationship partner who is less emotionally invested calls the shots. Even if that less committed partner isn’t an exploitative creep, he’s likely to get his way in ways he wouldn’t in a more equal partnership, and Waller felt this didn’t bode well for the relationship. Current research supports this. Social psychologist Susan Sprecher, for example, found that unequally involved partners were less satisfied with their relationship and more likely to break up.
If you aren’t already eyeing the door, ask your girlfriend whether there’s a problem — maybe something she needs that she isn’t getting from you. If she’s just playfully needling you, tell her you need her to stop. It’s okay, in a relationship, to ask that a phrase or two be a no-go zone. This “I love you more than you love me!” business, for example, is a cousin of the lose-lose question, “Do I look fat in this dress?” There is a right response to that question, and it isn’t “Yes, come to think of it,” “No!” or “No, you look like a cow landing with the world’s largest parachute”; it’s hiring somebody to be there to clock you with a tire iron before you can answer.
Advice Goddess Radio: Cambridge neuroscience research fellow John Coates, a former Wall Street trader, on how science-based risk-taking empowers success.
It’s Amy Alkon’s Advice Goddess Radio — “Nerd your way to a better life!” with the best brains in science solving your love, dating sex, and relationship problems. Listen live every Sunday — http://www.blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon/ — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or listen or download at the link, at iTunes, or on Stitcher.