Why believing in small chances sounds great, but can set you up for failure

Jen Xu
4 min readDec 12, 2021

I realized recently that I’m the kind of person who believes in the smallest chances, which can be really great or really awful, depending on the situation. Here are the two different ways I’ve realized I see things:

  1. In some situations, I tend to think: there’s a small chance that this good thing could happen, so I’ll hope for it, I’ll work for it, I’ll try for it. Sounds great, but I’ll work on it even if it’s more effort than it deserves. I also have a hard time walking away if I know there’s even a slim chance that something will work out.
  2. In some situations, I tend to think: there’s a small chance that this bad thing can happen, so I’m pretty sure it’ll happen and it’ll screw my life up massively, and there’s nothing I can do. I think of all the possible contingencies and try to develop plans to avoid that bad thing happening. It’s a huge waste of time.

I developed this habit from being a catastrophizer and an occasional optimist, even though I try really hard to bury that deep down, for whatever reason. I like to think of all the possibilities that could occur in any given situation, either in hope or dread, and sometimes both.

Sometimes, I’ll pretend that a bad situation has already happened (I don’t actively do this, it just…happens), and I’ll even feel all the emotions and go through the whole process, in order to pre-emote before a situation is likely going to happen (in my head it’s likely, in reality, who knows!). Then, I think to myself, when the bad situation happens, I’ll already have felt it all, so I won’t need to go through it later on. If someone disappoints me (when in reality, it tends to be my incredibly high expectations that let me down, or I chose to trust the wrong person), I’ll think — well, I knew it all along!

Now that I’m writing this out, it sounds like the most exhausting way to live my life. I also developed this habit from being somewhat of a control freak. If I can control what happens to me, I never have to learn how to respond (and not react) to situations, right? Which is a gargantuan “if”, and an avoidance of the things that I need to work on. So I spend all this energy on the front end trying to control my exact path, but then my plans get ruined anyway (in some way I didn’t even think could happen), and then I have to spend more energy responding to the issue.

That is too much energy to spend on things that are entirely out of my control. I mean, the only thing I can control is myself. Everything else is out of my control. Easy-peasy to understand, but it’s another thing to try & live it. I’ve realized that a lot of my behaviors stem from this idea of “control”. Even though thinking of all the possibilities that could unfold in a situation doesn’t mean I’m actively controlling anything, it still feels like I’m doing something productive, which is obviously wrong.

I don’t have a good solution to this right now, other than to just be more self-aware of when I’m trying to control something or someone, or when I’m worrying about 800 different possible timelines. And then to just spend my energy doing something else and distract myself. I also need to trust that things will work out in some way. I need to trust people and give them the room to show me who they are. It took me a long time to realize that I try to control situations by constantly taking action, instead of letting things happen naturally.

In terms of hoping for great things, my title can be a little mis-leading. There’s nothing wrong with having hope for good things. We need more hope, sometimes. But what happens is that I’ll end up hoping for things that will never happen, and it’s draining. For example, I’ll never be able to change or fix someone, and I won’t be able to achieve something that I’m not ready for at the time. And instead of spending time on the things that are achievable and the people who deserve my attention, I will squeeze every little drop out of myself just to try, on the off chance that I can succeed, no matter how slim.

Again, that sounds good. It’s a workhorse mentality, what can go wrong? It’s just not efficient for my happiness. And joy is something that we don’t think enough about. We don’t place enough of an emphasis on finding pure joy and actually desiring it (insert something about stuff that sparks joy). On the other hand, achieving good things does take hard work, and it’s not always going to be easy and joyful and simple. But this is such a black-and-white way to live life, and all I am striving for right now is a little bit of a grey area. Sometimes it will be hard, sometimes there will be joy, sometimes it can be both, and all of that is alright.

I’ll always spend a little more energy on things I shouldn’t be spending energy on, because I’m always going to believe in that small chance. But learning to lower my expectations of being able to control everything and raising my expectations for the people I choose to interact with (since you don’t always have a choice) is going to be my best bet. This is important because I’ve realized I can set a low bar for people because I’m scared to ask for too much, and I’ll even sacrifice my own happiness for that.

So here’s to thinking less, doing things, and finding more joy.



Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.