Want to Be More Successful? Stop Making the Worst Comparisons You Can Make: Upward Counterfactuals

Alex Palou.
Alex Palou. Photo: Courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing.

My conversation with IndyCar driver Alex Palou ahead of this year’s Indianapolis 500 about overcoming disappointment and savoring success.

After the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, a team of researchers analyzed the body language, facial expressions, and interviews of every athlete who won a gold, silver, or bronze medal to assess their relative levels of happiness.

You would think the gold medalists would be happiest, followed by those who won silver, and then by those who won bronze.

Nope: While the gold medalists were the happiest, bronze medalists seemed much happier than silver medalists. Why? Counterfactual thinking.

In simple terms (handily enough, the only terms I understand), counterfactual thinking occurs when we imagine how things might have turned out.

When something significant happens, like winning a medal or building a successful business, we think about alternatives to our current reality to place that event in context. Using a downward counterfactual by comparing your thriving business with all the startups that fail should make you feel good about yourself. Using an upward counterfactual by comparing your business, however thriving, with a unicorn startup will likely make you feel worse.

Counterfactuals are all about comparisons — between where we are, and where think we should (if only) or could (had things not turned out so well) have been.

All of which could lead you to think that when 2021 IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou finished second in the 2021 Indianapolis 500, he would have felt incredibly disappointed, especially since he was leading the race with just two laps to go.

You’d be right.

But also very wrong. Palou, whose primary sponsor this year is the American Legion’s Be the One initiative (more on that in a moment), was disappointed.

For about a minute.

“I was obviously a little sad,” Palou says, “because if the race had been two laps shorter we would have won. But when I was growing up in Spain watching the Indy 500, I remember seeing how pissed off P2 (second place) always seemed. P2 obviously isn’t P1, but it’s still an amazing achievement. So after a minute I stopped feeling disappointed and started feeling really happy and really proud of myself and my team.”

That Palou was able to apply a downward counterfactual is even more impressive considering the physical and mental toll IndyCar places on a driver. Training for the physical challenge is, while not easy, relatively straightforward.

Preparing for the mental challenge required to maintain extreme focus, lap after lap, at speeds of over 200 mph while managing the car and the race — managing tires and fuel, adjusting the car’s balance, brake bias, anti-roll bar, communicating with the team, balancing race tactics with race strategy — Palou ends a race more mentally exhausted than physically.

That’s why he thinks the most important skill a race driver needs is the ability to multitask — or rapidly sequential-task — for hours at a time.

“When I started out in karting,” he said, “it was just steering and pedals. At this level, the amount of things you need to do and manage is massive, and while you can train for the mental side, it’s still not the same. If I lose focus for five seconds in a mental training exercise, no one notices. If I lose focus for five seconds in the car, it’s over.”

Combine mental exhaustion with a heartbreaking loss and maintaining perspective can seem impossible. But that’s where experience also plays a role. For two years, Palou raced in Japan, a country with just seven racetracks. That meant many drivers had a thorough knowledge of and extensive experience on each circuit.

“It was tough,” Palou says, “and I had to push myself a lot. That experience — knowing that even if I’m new, if I commit to putting in the work I can do well — helped when I came to IndyCar, especially in terms of racing on ovals. I had never raced on oval circuits before, but instead of being intimidated, I just saw it as something new for me to learn.”

That learning also applies to his team’s primary sponsor for 15 of 18 races this year, Be the One. The campaign’s premise is simple:

  • Ask the veterans in your life how they are doing.
  • Listen when a veteran needs to talk.
  • Reach out when a veteran is struggling.

In short, “If you had the chance, would you be the one to save a veteran’s life?”

Be the One is different than most racing sponsorships designed to promote companies or products. While only 26, Palou is a veteran racer long accustomed to brand partnerships. But not like this one.

“At first I wasn’t comfortable talking about it,” he says. “Not because I don’t believe in the program, but because I’m not a veteran. I don’t have any veterans in my family. So it felt awkward talking about something I knew little about. But then I started talking to some of the veterans on our team. I heard stories from veterans that come to the track. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m much more comfortable. Veterans don’t care if you haven’t experienced what they have. They just want you to reach out, and listen.”

“I’m happy to spread the word,” Palou says, “and it’s been incredibly rewarding.”

And, possibly, it will help Palou apply downward counterfactuals in the future. (Even though he’s already really good at it; when he won the series championship in 2021, instead of feeling relieved that he hadn’t lost — a common feeling among those who achieve lifelong goals — he just felt happy.)

When things don’t turn out as you’d hoped — or when someone else is or appears to be doing better than you — it’s normal to be disappointed. It’s normal to be regretful, or envious, or sad. (Shoot, it’s human to be disappointed, regretful, envious, and sad.)

We can’t always control what happens, but we can always control how we respond. Another business seems more successful? Think about all the businesses that failed. Another employee got promoted? Think about all the people who wish they had your job.

Things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped? Think about what you learned from the experience, and what you’ll do differently next time.

That’s the real power of downward counterfactuals: Instead of feeling defeated by what could have been, feel encouraged by what is.

Because that will provide the enthusiasm and motivation you need to make what you hope will be, a reality.