Randomness vs. Luck

Randomness. It’s the concept that allows for the possibility “000000” will come up in a random number generator, or that your older iPod would play the same song twice in a row  (Apple has since modified the “shuffle” feature so it’s actually a little LESS random). It’s the 1 in 195,249,054 chance your PowerBall ticket will have all 5-numbers plus the powerball. In the entirety of baseball history, only one record has been set that couldn’t be predicted by randomness — Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, this according to Leonard Mlodinow in The Drunkards Walk.

In Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, it becomes clear that intelligence is not the major driving force behind success, and in Outliers Malcolm Gladwell makes clear that what makes an outlier is positioning oneself within one’s time to take advantage of opportunities. In retrospect, success appears guaranteed. In reality, it’s all in the positioning to best take advantage of opportunities — in essence to place yourself in position to be that 1 in 195,249,054, to make the most of your randomly chosen opportunity.

We cannot control randomness. We can position ourselves to take advantage of those random opportunities which present themselves to take us to where we want to go. I was a college undergraduate and an underclassman at that, struggling to put together a full time schedule when I enrolled in a 300-level course without having taken the prerequisite. On the first day of class, I arrived with my add/drop slip in hand, hoping that I could get signed into a course I had to take and get signed out of this course. From the first moments of that course, I was captivated by the professor and his enthusiasm for the course material. I not only put the add/drop slip away, I decided that I was going to take this course regardless of obstacles because it was interesting as hell, and thus set forth the direction of my undergraduate education, graduate education, and my career path.

My entire adult life was shaped by my scheduling this class in which I was presumably over my head, but by which I was completely captivated. But for my need to build a full time course load for the semester, I may still be wondering what I want to do with my life some 20-odd years later.

I was attending this school because I didn’t get into my first choice, and since I was paying my own way through school, I needed a state college. I applied to this school because my friend, whom I met because we both happened to be working in the same shopping mall while I was in high school, was going there.

Because I had done well in my undergraduate courses, and because I happened to stumble upon a recruitment brochure for a graduate program hanging in the psychology department offices, I applied to a school with which none of my professors was acquainted and was granted what was tantamount to a free ride. A completely random chain of events, and without any one of these myriad things happening, my life would certainly have been different.

There’s no good luck or bad luck. Things happen more or less on a predictable basis. Sooner or later, someone will buy that 1 in 195,249,054 lottery ticket. It’s not luck, it’s probability no matter how remote that event will happen, and the person to whom it happens is completely random. And guess what? The odds that it will happen to you specifically are even longer than that it will happen to someone in general.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because they’re random events, and sooner or later it has to happen to someone. There’s only one way to weigh the odds more heavily in your favor and that is to best position yourself to take advantage of opportunities. You cannot be the 1 in 195,249,954 if you have not even bought a ticket.

My Neighbor Tow Mater

I have a neighbor that reminds me of the Tow Mater character in the movie “Cars.” Now, if computer animated anthropomorphic automobiles aren’t your thing, “Mater” is a well-intentioned, but socially-inept and poorly maintained rusted-out heap of a tow truck. He’s a little simple, not very bright, but loyal to his friends and is always of the best intentions. And that is my neighbor.

Mater has a knack for making mistakes – he wants to follow the rules, but sometimes life gets a little too complicated for him, so he keeps it simple. He just kind of makes his living helping other cars out of their messes as the proprietor of “Tow Mater Towing and Salvage,” and it seems kind of difficult for anyone to stay too angry with him for too long – he’s often misunderstood, even though he’s acting with the best of intentions. He does the best he can with what he’s got.

This is my neighbor. He makes a living doing odd jobs, “landscaping,” and doing residential “clean outs.” He finds some interesting things doing these jobs – often expounding on these finds to anyone who asks him how it’s going for him, and is more likely than not to offer to share his bounty. He will listen when you talk, and will try to make sense and draw connections to his own experiences – even though you may get the sense he doesn’t fully “get” what you’re saying to him. He does his best to make connections, to put people and things together – more often than not, awkwardly, but he cares enough to make those connections.

Here is this genuine, thoughtful man – he’s more than a little “odd,” but he seems to me to be one of the most genuine and caring people I know. He wants more than anything to make people happy – and the funny thing is, this guy always seems happy. He walks down to the bus stop with his daughter every morning and every morning they’re actively engaged in conversation, playing games together. In thinking back, I cannot think of one time he has ever had anything negative to say about any situation or anyone. Everything in his life is an opportunity. He doesn’t have very much, he lives with his mother, and yet he seems perfectly happy in his life. One gets the sense that not a lot of people make time for this man, yet if they did, they might discover a little something.

We have this tendency to get so wrapped up in the pursuit of “life,” whatever that may be – making the sales quota, hitting that ROI, turning a profit; commuting to work, navigating the office politics, getting that email out on time; coordinating sports schedules, food shopping, balancing the check book…”winning.” And after all of that, there’s no time to read a book or enjoyment in that Sunday drive. We don’t make the time to see junior off to the bus stop. Meanwhile, our children grow up without us noticing and “life happens” while we’re too busy making other plans.

“Tow Neighbor” might just have the right perspective on things. EVERYONE can teach you something, even if they don’t know they’re teaching you.