Our random lives

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Life is constructed of a random series of experiences based, more or less, on luck. This is the basic summation of Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkward’s Walk: How Randonmess Rules Our Lives.

In the prologue, Mlodinow writes, “The goal of this book is to illustrate the role of chance in the world around us and to show how we may recognize it at work in our human affairs … and … see life in a different light and with a deeper understanding of the everyday world.”

Life is unpredictable and difficult to interpret. Mlodinow uses science and mathematics to back up this claim. He shows the difference between statistics and probability. He shows the importance of luck, or randomness, in our lives.

The book is written so the average person can understand the basic principles of randomness and logic that won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in 2002.

In lab animals, studies prove time and time again that rewards yield better results than punishments. Yet, instructors, coaches and employers have the opposite experience with their human subordinates. Mlodinow follows Kahneman’s argument that the punishments aren’t actually creating the improved performance, but they would have improved anyway due to continued practice.

Other examples are given from the past and present of how perceptions deceive us. Scientific studies show that when faced with uncertainty, we often judge our decisions emotionally and therefore irrationally. Even though the world is random, people look for patterns and, as a result, often misjudge situations.

For example, he reports that 26 publishers turned down John Grisham’s initial manuscript before it was finally accepted. Now, he’s a best-selling author. Mlodinow questions how many other potential successes merely gave up. Nine publishers denied J.K. Rowling before someone would publish her first Harry Potter novel.

Perseverance is the essential trick of successful people. Also, it shows the folly of statistics because of such a small sampling, similar to personal experiences. Mlodinow says it is human nature to use a limited number of personal experiences to create a bias without actually having enough data to come to an accurate conclusion. If Grisham or Rowling had stopped after nine rejections, thinking that was solid proof of their failure, they would have never gone on to sell millions of copies of their books.

Looking at the other side, publishers never know from a first read if they have the next best-selling novel in their hands or the biggest flop. Mlodinow considers this part of the randomness.

Mlodinow uses solid examples to back up his arguments, often providing proof for things that at first glance seem counterintuitive. He packs the book full of history, theories and data but still retains a conversational tone that prevents it from coming across like a textbook.

He uses examples not just from the publishing realm, but also from medicine, sports, gambling, Hollywood and other areas. He shows how randomness rather than superiority played into Bill Gates becoming the richest man in the world.

Mlodinow shares an interesting concept that might be helpful for students, especially those graduating. But the actual advice he offers is limited, even though he claims that as one of his goals in writing the book.   

Basically, the moral of the story is to not give up, because the more times you try, the more chances you have at success.
 

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