The Drunkards Walk book review

Luck is real, and it has consequences. That’s the thesis of Leonard Mlodinow’s not-so-subtley named, fascinating book, The drunkards walk: how randomness rules our lives.  Part crash coarse on applied probability and statistics, part scientific history, part philosophical discussion, The drunkards walk proves beyond doubt that chance events have profound impacts on our lives. If you don’t believe this,  read the book, watch Run Lola Run, meditate on a feather or plastic bag floating in the wind, and get back to me.

Back? Depressed? I can relate. Realizing you’re subject to the tyranny of fate, at least at first, means losing an illusory, yet comforting sense of control. However, random chance, like the coin so often used to illustrate it, has two sides. The coin taken as a whole has another meaning entirely.

Flip 1:
Side One: Some people are unlucky.
No matter how good you are at your job, how pure your moral character, and how much you may deserve it, there is a small possibility you may lose. In fact, the laws of probability guaranty that some people will be just plain unlucky. That other jerk might get the girl, the house, and the money.

Side Two: Some people are lucky.
If that’s you, great. For the rest of us, the more we throw the dice, the more the results will reflect our true ability. We’ve all heard stories of some famous novel or screen play being rejected 20 times only to finally be published and go on to be wildly successful. If you fail, try again. Further, failure may not be a reflection on your ability. You may simply be in the wrong place at the right time. Failure may hurt our ego and our wallets and even our relationships, but consider the rewards of finally making it. It may only take one big break, and even poor, unlucky bastards get lucky once in while.

The whole meaning: The only way to  transcend the tyranny of fate is to not focus on external rewards or circumstances. This is what is called intrinsic motivation. Find something to do because you love to do it. That way, if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, at least you’ll have fewer regrets.

Flip 2:
Side 1: The greater the sample size, the more predictable things get.

On the whole, our behavior is pretty predictable. For example, take driving. Predicting exactly how many miles one person will drive in a year is pretty difficult. But predicting the behavior of all of the US is remarkably easy. Despite all billions of individual decisions individual americans make about driving each year, the overall total usually only varies by a few percent. Facts like these, while useful, can seem dehumanizing. It makes us seem like automatons without a sense of freewill. Over-reliance on bell-curve type thinking makes human behavior and culture seem like rubber ducks circling the drain, inevitably being pulled towards a stereotypical, predictable, and mediocre mean.

Side 2: The smaller the sample size, the more unpredictable things get.

In aggregate, our behavior may be predictable, but on the scale of our own lives and our interactions with eachother, things get very messy and very interesting. Psychologists and sociologists, just like meteorologists, can bore you for hours droning on about large scale patterns. Ask them the weather tomorrow, or what one person will do or think in the future, and often the will get it wrong. Despite the predictability of the aggregate behavior, there is a tremendous amount of variability at the smaller scale. At this level, we are free to make our own decisions and marvel at the little chance occurences that make life so damn interesting. Further, in human systems, just as in atmospheric systems, small chance events can lead to large changes. This is the butterfly effect. While individual actions may not always change the overall system, some will because that action occurs at just the right time and place. In fact, over the long term, some individual actions will have profound effects on the overall system. The laws of probability require it. Be the change you want to make in the world. You might be the lucky butterfly.

The whole meaning: We exist at many scales simultaneously; as individuals, as couples, as families, as communities, as societies, and as members of ecosystems. At the the scale of societies and cultures, behavior often seems predictable, yet irratractable due to the momentum of the system. Yet large scale phenomena are always the product of many smaller actions with a natural amount of variability. To change the behavior of the system, we need to bring about change at the smaller scales of life, at the individual and family level.

Flip 3:
Side 1: Many events are simply random.
Many of the events we attribute to serendipity, miracles, and ability are simply random events. You know that story about how you met your true love? You were on a business flight you weren’t even suppose to be on because your colleague was ill and you had to go in his place, and you just happened to be moved up to first class because the flight attendant spilled beer all over you. Then there she was, the one, holding a glass of wine, wearing a smile, and miraculously there was an empty seat beside her.

However, is this situation that miraculous? It might have been incredibly unlikely to happen to you, but a story like this has probably happened to someone, and will happen to someone again.  There are about a bazillion cancelling on bussiness trips and lots of flustered flight attendents spilling booze. Plus, when you get on an airplane you almost expect the neighbor in the next seat to be a crying baby or an oversized man named Wayne. The pleasant surprise of this not happening for once makes the a beautiful woman sitting next to you even more attractive.

The fact that so-called miracles can be predicted by theory is kind of a buzz-kill.

Side 2: Many events are simply random.
It’s all about your interpretation. Just because something odd happened to you, and it can be predicted and described by the laws of randomness, does not mean it is meaningless. Does the fact that you randomly met your true love on that plane make the story less meaningful? One of the wonderful things about being human is that we get to create meaning and weave our own life stories. While the cause and effect in these stories may not be entirely true, the meaning we give them makes them powerful. If those stories and events shape the way we act and what we create in the future, we make them real.

The random nature of life can also give us a sense of adventure and hope in difficult times. Just because I’m sitting next to an obese man named Wayne this flight, doesn’t mean I won’t sit next to a hotty next time.

We truly have it both ways. We can cherish old memories and create narratives for our lives, while waiting expectantly and optimistically for tomorrow. On the other hand, we can be tormented by past injustices, weave negative, painful storylines, and wait with anxiety and fear for future events. This is the difference between mental disease and mental health.

The whole meaning: Being a functional human means being an opportunist. It also means having a selective memory. When you see opportunity knocking, answer the door.  When shit happens, deal with it, learn from it, and move on. Don’t let the stench linger and distract you from missing a good thing.

Resilience in the face of randomness

So life is random. What’s the point? How does knowing this help me become more resilient in modern life? First, consider the words of Wisdom from IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson. When asked how to be successful, he answered, “double your rate of failure”. The more we try, the more our results reflect our ability, and the more likely we are to get a lucky break.

The second take home point is this; embrace the chaos. Back in the day, people prayed. Irrational sillyness right? Wrong. I still pray once in a while, even if God is a drunken gambler who I know doesn’t give a damn. Prayer is an act of acknowledgment. Much of my life is at the mercy of a lower or higher power. This affirmation helps me put more emphasis and feel more grateful for what I can control, and makes me feel lucky to given what I have. As Nietzsche would say, armor fati-love thy fate. The only thing we can control about chance events is our reaction to them.


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