Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure
Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 18, 2008
In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.
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Mlodinow’s telling central premise is that our desire for control leaves us in denial about how important randomness is. Intuitively, we prefer to construct a linear narrative that makes events seem inevitable. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were easy causal patterns to trace with hindsight, but rather less so beforehand. Individual success, too, is a lottery: JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by several publishers, Bruce Willis was a jobbing actor until he got a lucky break and even Bill Gates would have been ‘just another software entrepreneur’ but for a series of accidents. For every Rowling, Willis or Gates, how many equally talented people quit too soon because their coin hasn’t yet come up heads? Perseverance, it seems, is all.
Unfortunately, Mlodinow fails to develop this in what should have been his most provocative chapter. If the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we like to believe, what does that mean politically for the class system, social mobility and the self-justification of society’s elite? Sixties social psychologist Melvin Lerner, realising that ‘few people would engage in extended activity if they believed that there were a random connection between what they did and the rewards they received’, concluded that ‘for the sake of their own sanity’ people overestimate the degree to which ability can be inferred from success.
Would people in the US still fervently believe in the American Dream if they understood that hard work alone may not be enough? . . . .
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To watch a 42-minute video of Mlodinow discussing his book, click on the video below.
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For some a related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”