The Power of the Near Miss - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Power of the Near Miss

The Power of the Near Miss

By Sean Braswell

Close Encounters of the Good Kind


Because there’s just something about the one that got away, or the sweet fruit of victory almost tasted.

By Sean Braswell

As usual, the ancient Greeks got it right. Or very nearly. They knew well the mighty agony of falling just shy of one’s goal. Tantalus, the mythological king who angered the gods when he cooked and served his own son to them (there’s no pleasing some deities), was consigned to an eternity of near satisfaction, standing in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with sustenance always inches beyond his reach.

If victory has a thousand fathers, then near victory has one loving but domineering Tiger Mom. 

Many of us who have come up short of that great job, love interest, prize or other goal know too well the frustrations of the “near miss.” But we also know its somewhat perverse power.

There’s just something about the one that got away, or the sweet fruit of victory almost tasted. And that something can be a tremendous motivator. If victory has a thousand fathers, then near victory has one loving but domineering Tiger Mom. And maybe that’s the whole point.

Who Needs Self-Help Guides When You’ve Got Dopamine?

Nowadays the gods would have plopped poor Tantalus down on a stool in front of a Reno slot machine, forever pulling a lever in search of that third cherry needed to hit pay dirt. (Let’s hope he would have at least scored some free drinks and nibbles in the process.)

Man's hand reaching for chips at casino table

AL playoffs, California Angels Donnie Moore in action vs Boston Red Sox, 10/12/1986

Casinos literally bank on the tantalizing power of the near miss. Casino gambling, not to mention lotteries, arcade games, video games and even bingo, are rife with near triumphs because they keep us playing, and more importantly, paying. Laboratory rats, when treated to a simulated slot-machine experience, will not just seek a food reward from a clear winning outcome (signaled by three flashing lights) but also in the face of a near win (two flashing lights), even if they incur a penalty when responding to that near win. Neuroscientists have shown a similar tendency among compulsive human slot machine players who, while gambling, will “experience a range of cognitive distortions that promote an overestimation of the chances of winning.”

There is something in the brain’s reward circuitry that is prone to treat near victories almost like real ones, even if it leads to irrational, and for some, destructive behavior. And that neurochemical process centers on the neurotransmitter dopamine. The rats in which the release of dopamine was enhanced were even more likely to seek rewards in the face of a near miss.

There is something in the brain’s reward circuitry that is prone to treat near victories almost like real ones. 

While games of chance exploit and manipulate our dopamine neurons, in real life the neurochemistry of the near miss seems to play a key role in ensuring that we continue to pursue a skill, task or objective for which persistence does indeed pay off, where practice can make perfect. In doing so, our neurochemical rewards and cognitive aspirations serve as our own internal self-help gurus, making sure that we don’t get waylaid by short-term setbacks and can focus on longer-term adaptive strategies.

But what happens when a harrowing near victory is of a greater magnitude than a short-term setback? Can it still be empowering?

Recovering from the Epic Near Miss

Donnie Moore, baseball pitcher, pitching on mound

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, on Monday evening, July 26, 2004.

The worlds of sports and politics are filled with potentially devastating flirtations with monumental success. One strike away from putting his California Angels into the first World Series in the franchise’s history, closer Donnie Moore gave up a decisive home run that cost his team the win in the 1986 American League Championship Series. Angels fans booed Moore mercilessly over the next two seasons, and the following summer, the depressed former pitcher shot his wife before killing himself.

After coming a few dimpled chads and a single Supreme Court vote away from being the most powerful person on the planet in 2000, Al Gore grew a beard, receded from the limelight and never ran for office again.

But for every Al Gore, there is a Richard Nixon, who regrouped to win the U.S. presidency in 1968 after a narrow defeat to John F. Kennedy eight years before. And then there is the lengthy and impressive list of performers who almost made it to Saturday Night Live: Jim Carrey, Louis C.K., Geena Davis, Stephen Colbert and John Goodman, to name a few — a list that is in many ways more impressive than those who did.

“I was just devastated, like it was just not gonna happen, and I had no more options,” Louis C.K. has said of his rejection by SNL in 1992. But the famous comedian quickly rebounded by landing another career-boosting gig, writing for an upstart named Conan O’Brien, the very next day.

So even at the top of the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment, the near miss can be a harbinger of future heights. Al Gore may not have won the presidency, but he won an Oscar in 2006 and a Nobel Prize in 2007 and has become a global influencer in ways that many world leaders never do. In the realm of business, a dejected but hopeful WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton was turned down by Facebook for a job in 2009. Five years later he sold the company he helped create in the wake of that near miss to Mark Zuckerberg for $19 billion.

But what does this mean for the millions of us who aren’t billionaires, celebrities or running for president?

“You know the old saying: You win some, you lose some,” Al Gore memorably told the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “And then there’s that little-known third category.”

That third category is ours to define and respond to, and in many ways we are hardwired to do just that. And when a resilient, dopamine-fueled persistence is not enough to get you past that frustrating fail, there’s always that other uniquely human weapon for bridging the gap between aspiration and outcome: rationalization. 

We are, after all, the only species that can tell itself, “We’ll get ‘em next time.” It doesn’t always work. But it comes close.

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