Mostly Void, Partially Stars

“Past performance is not a predictor of future results.”

I am 90 episodes deep into the wonderfully weird podcast that is Welcome to Nightvale, which tells the tale of an American desert town that is home to a Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home, a five-headed dragon, beings we cannot legally acknowledge to be Angels, and black-hooded figures that patrol the forbidden (to both people and dogs) Dog Park.

To call Nightvale weird would be an understatement, but beneath all its creepy and ominous tales, there is a sense of comedy, absurdist at times, but often strangely raw and… real. Since the strange is so normal in Nightvale, the normal as we know it is often made fun of or put in such blatant terms that we realize how weird our ‘normal’ lives actually are—and how scary in its uncertainty.

Which brings me to scariest thing in Nightvale. Not evil Glow Clouds, or soul-sucking Strangers, but “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.” If you Google the phrase, you’ll see it floating around business articles about the risks of investments. It certainly feels like a jab against the repeated use of it and how corporate they made it sound, for something that is pretty much common sense. We like to believe that our previous successes are going to translate into our future endeavors, and while it might help your chances, there are no guarantees. It’s almost become a running joke in the show, the repeated use of this saying, often in out of place ways.

Out of curiosity, I went through the transcripts of all the episodes (there’s 111 as of this writing) and a quick search shows that it’s only said in a handful of episodes. Considering that the show posts episodes only twice a month, for regular listeners it would be months, maybe even a year before the phrase pops up again. But for me, every time Cecil says “Past performance is not a predictor of future results” is like a slap in the face.

For some reason, it sticks out to me.

Often, Cecil says it after a new unexplainable thing is revealed or something horrible and foreboding just happened, in an effort to be optimistic. Just because things ended up badly before, doesn’t mean that the future is certain to turn out poorly. Past performance is not a predictor of future results.

However, I internalized the phrase differently. I even misremembered it as “Past performance is not an indicator of future success,” which I think says a lot about me, the emphasis on success. Another way you could interpret the phrase is that, how you performed or succeeded before has no bearing on what is going to happen in the future. Which, of course to me, is terrifying, because it seems like everything I do is ultimately futile and everything is really a haphazard roll of the dice. Any success I do have is a fluke that can be chalked up to mere chance.

There’s a lot to be said about being prepared. You are more likely to succeed, if you make sure you are ready to seize any opportunities that do happen to come your way (more in another post, perhaps?). But the fact remains, that there are so many external factors that are outside of your control. There will be times where you give and give and give, every ounce of effort and prepare for every minute detail—only to fail. Not for a lack of trying, but for a lack of fortune.

Which sucks, of course. But it’s also inevitable.

This has been a very long segue into me talking about how out of control I feel like in my life right now. I’ve been in San Diego living with my brother for two months now, and while I do have an internship that involves getting paid to write, it’s been not very exciting. I’ve essentially been suspended in a state of limbo, being in a place where I know I’m not going to stay in for the long run, excited about the next step but also wondering what it is, because it all depends on a certain chain of events happening just the way I want it to. And, of course, reality is not so accommodating.

So, I am very much going with the flow (which right now, seems to be pointing the rivers back home to Indonesia). Which is fine, honestly. There was the slight fear of oh no I’m back where I started before I went on my gap year, this whole thing has been a waste and I have nothing to show for it, which quickly went away once I took a few moments to get over myself.

Past performance is not an indicator of future results, after all.

Not everything has to be a goddamn metaphor, and me going home doesn’t have to mean starting back at square one. In fact, I’ve talked myself into being excited to go home. We moved into a pretty nice house a while back, and I never got to spend much time in it. Staying there for a bit long term means, I’ll have my own bed, my own room, a yoga mat to get back to doing yoga/pilates again, a piano I can practice on to my heart’s content, a spacious kitchen I can take advantage of to learn how to cook/bake. Possibilities are endless!

Slight frustration though: I’ve been thinking about what it means to “settle down” and set up roots. Not necessarily in a get-married-and-have-kids sort of way. My life has been built around moving from place to place, and there’s a certain comfort to staying in one place for a long time that I will never really have.

Building a foundation takes time. By being in one place indefinitely and being surrounded by the same people who get to see you change and grow, it makes past performance is not an indicator of future results become a more sentimental… sentiment. It’s the people who have you seen your past that have more to say about your future, usually along the lines of I know you and I know what you can do. I’ve seen itAnd I know you have what it takes to do it again. If you don’t have those people in your life, it’s hard to feel like you’ve really grown, because no one is there to really remind you of how much you’ve changed.

In terms of friends, it’s complicated. For me to have to put myself out there all over again every time I find myself somewhere new and be a different person with every batch of friends that I make. Not that I’m playacting, or pretending to be someone that I’m not. I’m an amalgamation of my experiences, a product of the things that have happened to me. When you meet me for the first time, you’re meeting a specific version of me who at that point in time is an updated version of the person I was—older, wiser, and (on good days) a better human being.

Not everyone sees how I got to that point, and of course, with time, I could let you in on the messier parts of me and my journey. But that rapport-building is nearly impossible, or becomes simply incomplete when we’re not interacting long enough for it to happen. It’s hard to believe that people are accepting of who you are, when the picture they have of you is served piece-meal. It would be nice to have someone who has seen it all—and after all this time, chooses to stick around anyway.

It’s the same thing with jobs or trying to perform. Taking a new job means essentially starting from zero—you have to navigate a new space, new people, new dynamics. You have to prove yourself all over again, build that rapport so that people have an actual past performance that they can witness and use to make predictions of your future. Things are just easier when people give the benefit of the doubt because you’ve already proven your capabilities and worth. Seniority has its perks.

TL:DR: My life has no consistency. It’s like nothing carries over, and the past is, well, past and it doesn’t matter as much any more. Every next step is a vicious cycle of starting over, putting in effort for the time being that will essentially mean nothing once you reach the next step. And without a past performance to base my present, or the future on, what foundation do I have to make sense of myself?

The answer, to that, can also be found in the weird and wonderful podcast that prompted the question in the first place. In the words of Nightvale Community Radio host, Cecil Palmer:

We understand the lights. We understand the lights above the Arby’s. We understand so much.

But the sky behind those lights—mostly void, partially starsThat sky reminds us we don’t understand even more.

—Welcome to Nightvale, ep. 25, “One Year Later”

Life is full of uncertainty. No matter which way you slice it, there will always be things that are out of your control. And while you can take past performance is not a predictor of future results to mean that all your efforts are an endlessly futile struggle, there are moments, rare moments, in between the massive void, that just… make sense. And they make you think that maybe, just maybe, the effort is worth it after all.

I mean, isn’t the void exactly why stars look so breathtaking in the first place?

—Karin Novelia, Stargazing into the Void

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