Rack ’em Up

We underestimate the role of contingency – a fancy word for luck – in our lives. This is especially true for those who have experienced success. “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men,” E.B. White quipped.

One sunny morning in downtown Seattle last summer I came within twelve inches of not being available to write this. I stepped into a crosswalk a second before the light flashed “Walk” and felt a wind-whoosh. A speeding car I did not see had run the red light and missed me by less than a foot.

During a recent annual wellness exam, my longtime doctor Dan Friedmann detected a couple of suspicious nodules on my prostate. He sent me to a urologist who confirmed the nodules and, while he was scheduling an MRI, remarked there is a 35% chance the nodules would be cancerous in a man my age. The MRI results tossed me into the fortunate 65% pile – another speeding car missed.

Last week’s blog cited Schopenhauer’s observation that when we look back over a life from a vantage point near its end, we often can see a pattern that wasn’t apparent when life’s events were unfolding.

Sometimes luck is operating, such as when that car didn’t run me over and I didn’t have cancer. Other times there really is a pattern, organized by a chain of causation. Homo sapiens is a pattern-seeking creature. And as we look for patterns, we can fall prey to the post hoc fallacy, assuming causation merely because one event occurs before another one. Causation is comforting, randomness unmoors us. We like to see life’s events as a chain of dominoes that fall in order, each one pushing the next one down. Life as a linear chain underpinned by causation, whereas the reality is more like a three-dimensional web with specific events being the nodes.

Seen this way, life is more billiards than dominoes. Life events are like the opening shots in pool that break the racked balls and send them clacking every which way. The next bit of our life is one of those balls, but it might have just as easily have been a different one. Red instead of green; purple, not orange. A multiplicity of outcomes is hidden in every event.

I’ve stumbled across a few real-life examples of life as billiards in recent reading. Doug Matsch founded the indie rock band Built to Spill 24 years ago. Reflecting on his band’s longevity, Matsch told a Spin reporter last year, “I wouldn’t be where I was if I hadn’t lived in Seattle at a certain time, met certain people.” Billiards, not dominoes.

John Yorke in his book about storywriting, Into the Woods, says about TV writers’ careers: “Anyone involved with a hit drama immediately becomes more employable – not just the cast, but the production company – everyone. If that show’s on your resume, you can effectively double your salary,  because employers fall for a narrative fallacy. In reality, either 90% of those who worked on any show will be interchangeable, or the magic will have come only from that one particular combination of people with that particular script. But we ignore that – we see their resume and we automatically infer their part in its success.” Yorke shares a bit of advice he got when a show he worked on was a hit: “It might just have been a success despite you.”

Sam Altman, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, describes a startup’s chance of success as “something like Idea times Product time Execution times Team times Luck, where Luck is a random number between zero and 10,000.” Airbnb used to make more money selling novelty cereals – Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains – than booking bed-and-breakfast reservations. The event that transformed the company was a fluke: Barry Manilow’s drummer went on tour and asked if he could rent out his place without being present to provide breakfast. Today cereal is nowhere on the menu and Airbnb is valued at $30 billion.

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