Winning With Uncertainty

One of the big surprises in the 2010 Winter Olympics is the success of Bode Miller in alpine ski racing. Bode had been a notable “failure” in the 2006 Winter Olympics, not winning any medals even though he had been dominating the regular ski racing circuit. This recent turn in fortune has lead to much comment, like this and this.

A common point made by pundits is that Bode has changed – become a parent, become more mature, etc. There’s probably an element of truth there, as most of us tend to mature a bit over four years.

But it’s also true that the circumstance of these Olympics is different for Bode than it was four years ago.  Back then, he was a featured member of the US Olympic team – a fact that wore on him:

“I had no intention of blowing it,” Miller said Sunday. Yet that was how his results were labeled, a choke job by a prima donna who didn’t care. He is so talented — he is a two-time winner of the World Cup overall championship, perhaps skiing’s most difficult title — he was the obvious focus of the pre-Games coverage. He did not, he said, enjoy being the vehicle by which the International Olympic Committee promoted its product.

“The Olympics is definitely, in my mind, a two-sided coin,” he said. “It has all the best things of sport. It has amazing energy, enthusiasm, passion, inspiration. It’s what changes lives. In that sense, it’s the pinnacle of what sports and camaraderie and all that stuff is.

“On the flip side of that is the opposite, and that’s the corruption and the abuse and the money. I’m not pointing fingers, but that’s what was bothering me, and being thrust in the middle of that, and being the poster boy for that, when it’s the absolute thing I despise the most in the world was really draining on my inspiration, my level of passion. . . I just had the plug pulled out on my most important fuel source, and it had been happening for a year, and it was just too much.”

This year, things are different: Lindsey Vonn is the face of the US Ski Team, and Bode has been able to do his thing somewhat out of the limelight. That seems fine with him:

He arrived here overshadowed by fellow American Lindsey Vonn, which was just fine. He won two medals, and spoke after each about how the Olympics had reinvigorated him.

Maybe, more than Bode “growing up,” the different context this time has been crucial to Bode’s successes. Perhaps this reflects a human variation of the Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that on the subatomic level, things can’t be definitively pinned down: we can never know exactly both the location and the speed of a particle. The more precisely we know one of those traits, the more uncertain we will be about the other.

Perhaps there is a human kind of Uncertainty Principle, in which people have a tendency to resist efforts by others to impose external definitions of who and what they are – especially if those definitions conflict with deeply held personal beliefs and values. Perhaps, in these situations, they may wind up acting in unexpected ways that may seem out of character for who they really are.

Essentially, it comes down to a question of control: if a person like Bode feels that he is no longer in control of his life – if instead he feels his life is being controlled by those who have deeply different values – then his or her personal energy will feel drained away. In such cases, these individuals will seek a degree of uncertainty, a sense that they are no longer controlled by others.

I’ve written several times about uncertainty – generally as something people wish to avoid. But as with Bode’s depiction of the Olympics, uncertainty is a two-sided coin. On the one side, too much uncertainty can be unsettling. If we feel uncertain about key aspects of our life – our relationships, our job, our beliefs – then we are likely to wish for more certainty.

On the flip side, if we feel we are too much under the control of others – especially in ways that conflict with our deeply held values – then we are likely to wish to be less controlled and more, well, uncertain. After all, uncertainty is very much tied into a sense of freedom. As Richard Feynman once said:

If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

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In a way, the story of Bode Miller sounds a lot like like a story I wrote about regarding sled dogs in the Iditarod.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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