Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

Echo Canyon, The Drakensburg South Africa, 2010

Leonard Mlodinow knows something about randomness. He should, he has just written a bestselling book about how it affects our lives, and why it matters. The Drunkards Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives is 222 pages of incredible insight.

The most penetrating part of the book is the rolling conclusion that we are in control of how many times we attempt something. This may seem obvious, but when there are literally millions of people out there striving to succeed, what separates those who do from those who do not? Mlondinow makes a very good point. Since so many random factors are at play in our lives, regular success comes not from luck, or from divine intervention, but rather from a hard-headed persistence to simply not quit.

When I was a young trainee scientist on the Juneau Icefield Research Program in Alaska, I was exposed to all manner of odd professors, who taught and fought over research in what must still be one of the world's largest and most innaccessible classrooms. The most irascable and oddly endearing was the founder of the project, Dr. Maynard Malvern Miller. M3 for short. Aside from being the man who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entries for Glaciers and Alaska, Dr. Miller is also part of a still-onging study that follows a group of people throughout their lives (Harvard graduates all). One of the many published studies that uses this unique data set aligns itself firmly in in the same thinking as The Drunkards Walk.

Success, they believe, is measurable. The study came up with a rough equation to explain it. Success=X(ability)times Ysquared(how hard you try). So written it looks like this:

I know, algebra was not my strong suit either, but bear with me. lets plug some numbers into the equation. So I am making a movie, and although I am published film maker, lets be realistic, I am say, a 6 out of 10 as far as skills for documentary film making is concerned. But I try really hard, to sell it, to work with the right people, to get it all together. So lets say I am a 9 out of 10 as far as how hard I try. So, it reads like this: X=6, Y=9, so square the nine to 81, multiply it times 6, and I have a success number of 486. Ok, sounds pretty good. 486 out of a thousand (the maximum number I can get). That means I will succeed almost half the time, which is about what my track record reads. But lets reverse it, lets say I am very gifted as a film maker, but not so stunning at working hard to sell it and make it happen. So lets say Ability (X) = 9, and How hard I try (Y)=6. So we plug that into the equation, and we get 324. Thats a pretty shabby score, for a gifted film maker. The less gifted, hard-working film maker will clearly outperform the gifted film maker, simply because he tries harder.

What all this gobbledy-gook means is that it matters twice as much how hard you try than how gifted you are. (Great news for many of us). This is eaxctly what Mlondonow is talking about in his book. In a world full of randomness, success goes to the person who keeps trying. Not every time, but the vast majority of the time. Don't give up.

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