Are you Smarter than a Pigeon?

In the name of science, I’d like to propose a new study to investigate how researchers choose the topics they study.  If my proposal finds acceptance, Jessica Stagner of the University of Florida will almost certainly figure prominently in the investigation.

Professor Stagner and her colleagues hoped to find support for evidence indicating that gamblers feel the same thrill of excitement when they almost win as they do when they actually win.  To do so, they created an experiment in which pigeons had to peck at colored markers in order to receive hidden rewards.

That’s right:  Pigeons.

And what was their conclusion?  Pigeons are smarter than people.

At least that’s the way NPR’s Shankar Vedantam sums it up.  In more technical language, the researchers believe that a near-miss creates the illusion that we have control over situations that are largely random.  This is similar to the hypothesis that people embrace conspiracy theories because they find it less frightening to believe in a world manipulated by sinister puppet-masters than to believe that events unfold for no reason at all.

This should come as no surprise.  As technology places more and more power in our hands, we feel less capable of controlling that technology and more at the mercy of others more able than we are to manipulate it.  Even the illusion that we are in control offsets the anxiety of events swirling around us faster than we can handle or process them.  By the same token, the faintest whiff of victory calms our troubled souls and allows us to indulge the fantasy that success is just within our grasp.

But there may be a more profound lesson to these studies.  Because in one sense, the mere prospect of success truly is more satisfying than success itself.

Do you remember the last time you were engaged in a really engrossing novel, a gripping action movie, a challenging business project, or a date on which all the chemistry was working just right?  Do you remember the excitement, the elation of living in the moment, the expectation of what was to come?

And do you remember the bittersweet commingling of fulfillment and disappointment when it was over?

In truth, we love to win much more than we love to have won.

Why?  Because at the very moment of success, victory, conquest, or completion, we have to face the inevitable question:  what do we do now?

How much more do we enjoy the keen pleasure of watching success draw near, of feeling the approach of victory?  And even when things don’t go our way in the end, we can still bask in the glow of that tantalizing instant when we felt victory waiting right around the corner.

The mistake we so often make is to focus on our goals with such single-mindedness that we forget to enjoy the process of attaining them.  The first day of an adventure is usually the most exciting, for it is filled with possibility and mystery, while every successive day brings us closer to the moment when it will all be over.

And what is life but our greatest adventure?  Which, of course, is why so many of us are terrified of it coming to an end.  But if we infuse every possible instant with the thrill of what might be, then all our days will be filled with the fragrance, if not the reality, of success, and all our moments will be filled with the happiness that comes from the pursuit of purpose.

This is what King Solomon meant when he wrote in the Book of Proverbs:

Fortunate is the one who listens for me, attentively waiting at my doors day by day, keeping watch by the doorposts of my entryways.

It is not so much what we find on the other side of each door, but the anticipation of always looking for the next opportunity and the next challenge, of looking forward to each success not as an end unto itself but as a stepping stone to the success that will follow and every one that will follow after that.

Indeed, in the language of Jewish mysticism, spiritual levels are called madregos, literally “steps,” because the moment we reach to top of one step we are immediately at the bottom of the next one.

After all, once we reach the rooftop we find ourselves only in the company of pigeons.

The ladder of success is scaled neither by stepping on those beneath us nor by pulling down those above us, but by recalibrating the measure of true achievement, by setting goals of intrinsic value, and by appreciating that the determined pursuit of lofty goals is itself the loftiest goal of all.


Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and radio personality, is a former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist who lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri.  Check out his new book, Proverbial Beauty:  Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a marriage between the proverbs of King Solomon and the mysterious beauty of the Mona Lisa in a lyrical medley of the human experience.



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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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