• Joe Cooke

Overcoming the Absolute Improbability Paradox

Wuri and Hope are twins, and their special talent is to weave fascinating stories. They are virtually alike in every detail except one. Hope likes to end her stories with an ending that her listeners are sure to enjoy, while Wuri likes to end her stories with an unpleasant twist. You’d think that Hope would be the more popular storyteller, but more often than not, it’s Wuri who tells the stories people glom onto.

For instance, Bob and Marlene were getting ready to sell their home and move to a new city. Wuri told them a story about how they would put their nice house on the market, spend a lot of time getting it ready, plan the move, announce it, and make all the arrangements, but throughout the story, Wuri made small remarks foreshadowing something awful to come. Interest rates might rise, and they might not sell the home in time to move, and maybe the sale would fall through, or at best real estate prices would drop and they might have to sell their home for less than they thought it was worth, and that would spoil all their plans, and they would end up homeless and destitute.

Hope told the same story except everything worked out just fine and Bob and Marlene took off for their new adventure in high spirits and lived happily ever after.

You can see why Wuri’s stories are more popular and engaging—they are filled with drama!

Wuri and Hope are probably both wrong, as anyone with an advanced degree in probability and statistics would tell you. Here’s why: the Universe is full of infinite possibility. Anything could happen at any moment, and even though some things are not very likely, such as Bob and Marlene’s home flying away in a tornado, it is possible. Not probably, not likely, but possible at a minute level. Less probable is that it will simply grow wings and fly away of its own accord, but still, if even extremely remotely, possible. Even discounting that to a probability of zero, there are still a virtually unlimited number of possibilities that open up every moment. For instance, it is likely that if they have the price right on their home, they will get an offer. If they don’t get an offer, they can lower the price and a whole new set of possibilities arises, including the remote but not completely impossible destruction of the entire Earth by a Vogon construction fleet with orders to make way for an interstellar bypass.

When we make a plan, we are assuming that we can set in motion a certain set of occurrences will cause our desired outcome; however, if we take into account that each moment and each action opens an entire set of new and infinite possibilities, and that we are setting our sites on just one of those possibilities, then, mathematically, we are doomed to fail. The simple probability of one outcome occurring based on the set of infinite outcomes possible is so close to zero that it may as well just be zero.

Take a simple game for example. Yahtzee®. You roll five die, hoping to get five of a kind or some other set combination. Each die has six sides. The probability of rolling a certain number of pips, such as six, is one in six. You can test this by rolling a single die over and over and noting the number of pips that show for each roll. If you roll only once, any number could show up. Theoretically, if you roll six times, you should get six at least once, but that won’t actually happen, because the random nature of the universe intervenes. However, if you roll sixty times, you’ll find that you roll a six pretty close to 10 times. If you roll six-hundred times, you’ll roll a six about a hundred times. One in six. And guess what? You’ll roll a one about one-hundred times. And a two about one-hundred times. And so on.

The simple math is this: the discrete result you want divided by the number of possibilities equals the probability of getting what you want. Your plan divided by an infinite number of possible paths that the Universe can provide equals an number so close to zero it might as well be zero. It is therefore mathematically impossible to achieve a goal according to a set plan.

So, a wise and very smart friend asked me, how then do we humans ever achieve anything?

Good question!

First of all, it’s because we are pretty amazing.

You could teach a computer to continually analyze variables as they arise in order to make corrections to a plan. In fact, we’ve done that. You may have heard the airplane analogy. An airplane is constantly being blown and buffeted off course. A human pilot spends a lot of time making course corrections. I’ve done this. A friend who is an avid flyer took me up in his plane and showed me how to make minor course corrections. Basically, he said, “Point it at that notch between those two mountains and keep it at about 1500 feet,” and then he took a nap.

I don’t really enjoying flying as much as he does, but it was a good lesson in how we humans are able to make constant course corrections. The more we practice, the better we get at it. The wind buffeted us continually and kept me busy constantly making minor corrections to our course. Every once in a while we’d hit a pocket of colder or warmer air that would bump us up or drop us down dramatically. The little Cessna 140 was completely dependent on me to keep it on course for the whole five hour flight.

Bigger planes have computers that we have created that are able to make course corrections for us based on simple algorithms. If the compass indicates a deviation, then the computer adjusts the engine speed and the flaps. It’s doing that all the time while we sleep or stare out the window.

But we haven’t built a computer yet that can dream up a destination. That’s where we are amazing. A computer could pick a destination at random, but so far we haven’t created a computer that can dream and make a dream an intention and then make that intention a reality. We are the dreamers. Also, we are the pilots of our own lives.

So, how do we accomplish anything when the statistically improbability of any single plan is infinitely large (in other words, the probability of a plan actually happening the way we plan it is zero)? How? Because the way we accomplish a dream is to make constant corrections. That can be exhausting if you are not used to it. Life is constantly offering gusts of wind and often giant drops in pressure that throw you so far off course you feel that you can never get back to aiming at the notch.

The secret to meaningful personal accomplishment is: always be revising the plan but never lose sight of the goal.

So, back to Wuir and Hope. Whatever stories you are telling yourself right now about how great things are going to be as your plan unfolds or how horrible things might be if this or that happens, the statistical likelihood of any one thing actually happening the way you predict it is pretty remote, so it may be better if you just don’t waste a bunch of time indulging your wild imagination in what might happen and instead focus on what is happening right now.

Keep your eyes on the horizon. Wake up every day grateful for another chance to do whatever needs to be done and then just do the next indicated thing. Live in the moment, but not FOR the moment. Plan the work, work the plan, and always, always be revising your plans. Side trips are inevitable, but each one teaches you something new (or repeats for you something you still need to learn.) And the more you practice, the better you get at accomplishing your dreams, and the more confidence you gain. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but eventually you can learn to embrace the conflict and the confusion and the tension and see it for what it is. Wind in your sails. Wind in your face. Wind beneath your wings.

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