I’m used to thinking of gambling as horrible. Every day I hear stories of people destroying their lives, and the well-being of their families, because they can’t stop gambling. Everything goes. A woman speaks from her prison cell: she turned to robbing banks to pay for her addiction. She doesn’t excuse herself. But she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to be arrested. Despair.
I’ve been thinking about gambling differently this past while. Not “pure gambling” (lottery tickets, casinos, online gambling). But gambling as an essential feature of healthy, hopeful living that takes us beyond the routine.
My partner and I are building a business. Now, that’s a gamble – with our time, our lives. I’m also building this site – Elsa’s Creativity Emporium. Another huge gamble with time, energy, creativity. Columbus sailed for America. His gamble: that he would end up in the Far East. He didn’t get was he was aiming for – but the gamble paid off for the Europeans.
Farmers plant seeds. The gamble: that the season will be good. Designers design The gamble: that the design will find a market.
People fall in love, and decide to try to make a live with that person – one of the biggest gambles in life.
On the other hand, many people want a predictable salary. No gambling, please. So and so much an hour. Anything else feels wrong, out of control, dangerous. How can anyone live like that, they shudder and recoil.
An observation. Many people don’t want to gamble with work time. They want steady dependable pay. At the same time, they have a hugely developed urge, even an overwhelming urge, to gamble.
In other words, quite a number of the same people who want a steady paycheck spend a huge chunk of their everyday earnings on gambling!
“It’s just for fun.” “It’s my right.” “I have every right to do what I want with my money. I earned it, after all. It’s mine.” “Everyone’s entitled to have a good time every now and then. All those hours I work. I deserve something.”
So, though many people are entirely unable to consider working “on a gamble,” (building a business, doing creative projects that may well never pay), they gamble over and over in ways that are set up to make the huge majority of people lose.
But most of the world does live “on a gamble” – or combining the gamble with as much certainty as possible. Traditional gatherer-hunting societies for instance have the relative dependability of gathering (which brings in about 90% of food) and the gamble on what is brought in through hunting (10% of the average food supply, according to my reading). Even with the gathering part, no year is like any other year. The steady dependable pay-off (salary, berries, etc.) is not the norm.
And with that, back to gambling. I’m going to call the kind of gambling I’m used to recoiling from “pure gambling” – in other words, one isn’t gambling that the weather will cooperate with one’s efforts, one isn’t trying to make a sale, one isn’t trying to build a site or a business, one isn’t courting and hoping another will respond to us. “Pure gambling” – bingo, casinos, lotteries, slot machines, computer games like minesweeper and so on. The goal is winning in a game stacked against us, and the win builds nothing except the win. No book is written, no grain is harvested, nothing is built.
In everyday gambling – which I’ll call “part-of-life gambling”, the pleasure of winning is part of so many other things. It’s part of building a life – gambling that our reaching out to someone will pay off, gambling that our design will find a market, gambling that the move to another city where there are supposed to be better jobs will lead to a better job.
In “pure gambling,” all that other stuff has been taken out. The goal: the win. The goal: the payoff. In some forms of “pure gambling”, one does build some skills – one learns to play bingo well, to know the ins and outs of computer games. One becomes fast, the moves automatic. In other forms of pure gambling, people just, say, pull the arm of a one-armed bandit – and the craving to keep doing this that be so strong that people have resorted (or so I’ve heard) to wearing diapers so they don’t need to leave to go to the bathroom.
I’ve felt the pull of pure gambling, as well as part-of-life gambling. The time: about ten years ago. Too much stress. One day, I opened minesweeper, a computer game, and played a few games. The stress disappeared. I ended up playing minesweeper for several days, getting better and better. Wonderful and relaxing. At some point, I couldn’t get better at minesweeper. From that point on, winning or losing (most often losing), became a matter of luck. And yet I still wanted to play. Very much so.
I did what was easiest for me to do: I asked my partner to take the game off my computer (at the time I didn’t have the skill to know how to delete it myself). I don’t think, though, that I could have used the computer and not played. The pull felt irresistible. I felt deprived when the game was gone. I wanted it back. I didn’t ask for it back, though. I was able to have that much power over the pull of the game.
I did, for a number of years, turn to solitaire – not on the computer. Too dangerous. The old-fashioned way, with cards. If I played more than I thought was okay, I would put the cards in a place where it was inconvenient for me to get them – in a corner of the basement, for instance. Sometimes I would go and get them. More often I wouldn’t.
The last several years have been so busy that there hasn’t been time to reach for the cards. And I’ve noticed that the urge is gone. I want, if I have a few minutes, to take a walk, to make supper, to do nothing. I like life better that way.
I’ve been gambling enormously, these past few years, but the healthy way – doing things, hoping and planning that the projects will make it in the world.
I’m back to gambling: the good, the bad, the ugly.
The good. This is when we take gambles in life, gambles that come from as much knowledge and experience as possible. Even then, it’s important that we check out the risks as well as possible – because in everyday life just as in a casino, one can gamble away one’s savings, one’s home, and so on. I took a gamble fifteen years ago: I had work (flight attendant) that was dependable but didn’t satisfy me. I was finishing my Ph.D. when the airline hit hard times and offered a golden handshake to people willing to leave. I didn’t have full-time college or university teaching lined up. Worse, there was hardly any teaching of any kind available where I lived. Still, I took a gamble. After all, I had an almost completed Ph.D. in hand, and had been doing university teaching part-time for years.
It wasn’t an instant win. But I finally got college teaching, and eventually even steady college teaching. And that again isn’t an instant fix, like a casino win. It means having to work at making the teaching successful, learning how to make the more difficult classes work (when one can), etc. There are ongoing challenges.
I think of Crick and Watson, who worked on figuring out the structure of DNA – and only after 10 years came to the realization (through a dream) that there was a double helix. They gambled with 10 years of their life.
I think of Banting, who figured out how diabetes can be controlled through insulin. So much time and effort, done despite the lack of success of others.
The dangerous good. I am thinking of people my parents knew. Not gamblers of any sort. They had built a financially successful life through steady paid-by-the-hour work. Then their 20-year-old son saw a “golden business opportunity”. A local successful business was for sale. The parents mortgaged their house to the max to buy it. In a year, the successful business was destroyed through a serious of stupid choices made by their inexperienced son who had all kinds of ideas for “improving” it. The parents lost everything.
The bad. Pure gambling, when it’s more than an occasional pleasure. My mother would buy an Irish Sweepstakes ticket at a time when gambling was illegal in Canada. She got a thrill out of doing something illegal. Also the ticket was a kind of miracle hope for an instant fix to all the everyday financial struggles. But it was a small cost.
For all too many people, the cost is high – financially, and in time and focus. Apparently over 15% of Canadian teenagers have at least a moderate addiction to what I call bad gambling.
Of course it can also give some kind of gratification to people leading small boring lives. Bingo halls enthrall thousands of people week after week.
The gruesome. This is when the pure gambling urge takes over someone’s life, and often destroys everything else in that life. Couple life, parenting, other interests.
What to do? One, recognize the intense power of the “gambling pay-off pull.” There it is, the jackpot – like a carrot to a donkey. Not easy to resist.
Societies and countries which outlaw gambling – like both Canada and the States used to – recognize the destructive power of “the pay-off pull” central to pure gambling.
Personally, I find it insane to take away the laws that prohibit gambling without at least, at the same time, mandating huge public education – from earliest childhood on – on the destructive power of “the gambling pay-off pull.”
It’s like no longer ensuring that water is drinkable, but not doing anything so that people each take care of their own water supply. Can you imagine a huge campaign against providing drinkable water on the basis that this tampers with individual liberty? that each person has the right to drink the water of one’s choice?
And yet to go back to good gambling. I will now call it “integrated gambling” – gambling as part of other activities. The same intense pay-off pull may help us through tough times. We practice and practice a difficult guitar piece – we know there will be a pay-off and the high of getting there (at least for a moment, before we move on to the next challenge). We put in long hours working with a child with learning difficulties – and we exult when learning happens. Pay-off.
Good gambling. I’d say that’s a core part of human development. It keeps us going – we’re not only doing whatever it is (trying to keep the corps alive in a hard season), but longing for the pay-off. And when it does happen, euphoria, a natural high. Yeah!!!
Good gambling combines with creativity. It helps us move out of ruts, into the unknown. Something in us knows this is a good direction. There is a pull from deep inside ourselves.
As with so much about us, it’s easy to mess things up.
Gambling – well. Gambling combined with a project, a goal, an end that does not have to do with gambling, a goal in itself that usually leads to further development.
Gambling – bad. Gambling for the lure of the win, the pay-off – usually unrelated to the efforts we put in. (There was nothing my mother did, that would make her more likely to win the Irish Sweepstakes than what anyone else did – it was just luck. And she never won.)
Gambling – gruesome – when “pure gambling” has taken over someone’s life.
All it takes is a tiny change inside ourselves to go from the good to the bad to the gruesome – a disconnection of the pay-off pull from something constructive.
I started with words from a song I wrote years ago, on a gamble Western society gives huge value to: love. Young people are expected to find a partner to live with, taking a huge gamble with their lives. I would call it a central healthy gamble. And again here, it’s been found that, time after time, learning is important. People who have been around healthy love relationships are way more likely to have the love gamble pay off.
I think we need to learn to gamble well – to do the right kind, and do it well.
I’ll end with lines from that song – when can be about the best of a good gamble