The 4th Box

If you’ve ever played “rock, paper, scissors,” you know that the moral order of the universe has ordained that rock takes scissors, scissors take paper, and paper takes rock. In his latest book, “David and Goliath” Malcom Gladwell points out there is military parallel to rock, paper, scissors, and it goes something like this: heavy infantry (foot soldiers) beats cavalry (soldiers on horseback); cavalry beats artillery (slingers and archers) and artillery beats heavy infantry.

Gladwell theorizes that David’s defeating the giant Goliath in battle, while considered the ultimate upset, surpassing perhaps even the Bruins’ 3 goal comeback against the Leafs last year in the playoffs, (sorry, that was a low blow!) was a case of archer (or “slingshot” in this particular case) beating foot soldier.  Gladwell’s point is that the little guy can beat the big guy – he can overcome great adversity –if he thinks differently.

A few years ago I heard Gladwell talk about a similar theme, when he suggested that we should think of life in terms of four boxes:

First, there is the box of advantage that is a true advantage. For example, you happen to be born into a loving family that really values education. Your folks are able to send you to UCC, where you get to spend time with me. Talk about advantage. Lucky you!

Second, there is the box of advantage that turns out to be a disadvantage.  This might be that you are born into an extraordinarily wealthy family, but you are so indulged that you never develop a work ethic, and you end up leading a life of hedonistic purposelessness.  I’m told that the 2 scariest words for affluent parents are “Paris Hilton.” (An aside: You may have read about the 16 year-old North Carolina boy who was convicted last month of killing 4 people in a drunk driving incident but was given a suspended sentence because the judge saw him as a victim of “affluenza.” Egad!)

Third, there is the box of disadvantage that is just that. You are poor and receive an inadequate education, which seriously handicaps you for the rest of your life.

The most interesting box, though, is the fourth box, the one that is the disadvantage that turns out to be an advantage. Can you think of anything in your own life that appears to be a disadvantage but may actually turn out to be an asset? (Those of you in Year 2 now reading “The Odyssey” may know that the entire Homeric tradition is based on this.)

I can think of two examples from my own less than Homeric existence. First, during the summer before Grade 10, I broke my thumb playing baseball. Because I was going stir crazy, my mother, in an attempt to get me out of the house (and perhaps out of myself!) signed me up for a typing course. When school started in September, the editor of the school paper, a guy who couldn’t type, discovered that I could, and made me the copy editor. That sparked an interest in both the news and in writing that has enriched my life.

A second example is a bit more personal, so forgive me if I go Oprah on you for a minute: My father was an alcoholic and because of this, I have attended quite a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. AA’s program is built on the 12 steps and slogans, one of which is “one day at a time.”

The thinking behind this is simple: Alcoholics never get cured. They always have within them the desire to pick up a drink. Since the idea of never ever having a drink again can be overwhelming for someone with a compulsion for alcohol, AA focuses on staying sober “just for today.” The take-away is that, in almost any situation, all you need to do is figure out what you can and should do for just the next 24 hours. And just take care of that.

It is worth noting that the 4th box has had a profound effect on some inspirational political figures. Lincoln went bankrupt, had a nervous break down, and endured the death of two sons. FDR got polio and spent most of his life in a wheelchair. Bill Clinton’s father was killed in a car crash before he was born, and the future president was raised by an alcoholic stepfather who was physically and emotionally abusive.

These are not just isolated incidences; there may be something akin to cause-effect relationship with some 4th boxes. Think for a minute about Barack Obama’s 4th box: He was a bi-racial boy abandoned by his father. Not exactly what most would consider a recipe for stardom. But what does he do? He writes a best selling book about the search for his father (You could consider Obama a modern day Telemachus!), and in the process gets himself elected president. Not bad for a student who had to live with his grandparents, while he attended Punahoe School on financial assistance.  All of this happened because of his extraordinary mom and his ability to take disadvantage and make it an advantage.

I mention the 4th box today, because as 2014 starts, you are going to face your own 4th box. If this morning, for example, you are discouraged when you see the results from your first semester exams, or if you are overwhelmed when you hear about the amount of work you are expected to do this term, take a deep breath. Do not panic. Do not give in to anxiety; that “one day at a time” philosophy that has helped addicts and alcoholics stay sober, can help the rest of us live more manageable, and perhaps even serene lives.

So my New Year’s take-away is this: The next time you encounter some hardship, something that appears intimidating or insurmountable, ask yourself this question: Is this Box 3 or Box 4? The answer may depend on your attitude and your willingness to persevere. Remember the adage that “Perseverance is the hard work you do, after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” And it might help to keep your sling shot handy because paper always beats rock.


5 thoughts on “The 4th Box

  1. Dr. Power

    What a fantastic piece of writing! Actually I bought that book last week and should be reading it soon, if my work load here at university allows it.

    Thanks for the 4th box tip.

  2. I just wanted to say thank you for your recent Power Point. It is what I needed to get through my week…now broken down into 24 hour increments. I appreciate your wisdom.

  3. Hello Dr. Power,

    I never heard about the 4 boxes concept until I read your blog. I think it’s interesting and I like the way you break down your life like that. In regards to having a 4th box, I think i’ve already had one.

    Being raised by immigrant parents from a war torn country, I had a humble upbringing. What I witnessed as a child was my dad working tirelessly to provide for us and from that disadvantage a very strong work ethic was instilled in me.

    Although that work ethic was lost on me for quite a while as a child and even during some points at UCC, i’ve come to appreciate how that upbringing created a huge positive in my life.

    So yeah, I guess i’ve had a 4th box in my life and i’m glad i had it at a point early on in my life. Hope things are going well with the family and that you had a wonderful christmas and holiday break!

    from UCC ‘ 12 Old Boy

  4. I think it works wonderfully well. I enjoy how you weave the Odyssey/Telemachus theme in, and your reference to “going Oprah”–that mix of high and pop culture, formal and idiomatic voice is something I like to work into my own writing. How else are you going to reach teenagers?

    Your point about disadvantages becoming advantages is something I’ve noticed more and more as I’ve gotten older. So many of the accomplished people I know have talents or strengths rooted in a weakness. Their shortcomings, setbacks, insecurities or flaws became drives. But it’s more complicated than straw being spun into gold.

    The weakness and the strength remain inextricably interwoven. Lincoln’s darkness or depression was part of his profundity, his wisdom. If Woody Allen weren’t so neurotic, he wouldn’t be so funny, either. I once asked my father, who was a SEAL commando in Korea, what got him through SEAL training and the climb-up-the-anchor-chain-and knife-the guards kind of missions he did. “Fear of failure, my whole career,” he said. And I recall when I was a TA at UCLA, stopping by a professor’s office on the way to the coffeemaker. I asked the prof, one of the most eminent Shakespearean scholars in the country, if he wanted me to get him some more coffee, too. He laughed ruefully and said, “That’s not what I’ve got in this mug.” He opened a desk drawer, which was filled with bottles of Mylanta. “No matter what I’m writing, I always think ‘This is crap. I’m finished. This time they’ll see through me.’ The knot in my stomach never goes away.”

    He was in his sixties, his books and reputation universally admired, yet from down the hall I could hear his chronic, anxious little cough, all day long.

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