Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a book that I’ve had on my to-read list for so long that I completely forget how I heard about it or why I wanted to read it in the first place.
I was getting ready for a business trip to Corpus Christi, Texas, and sometimes when I travel for work, I am motivated to read more nonfiction – self-help books, memoirs, etc. So I downloaded this one to my Nook and dug in during my flights.
I’m not sure why I was expecting an easier read than this. The book was very heavy on probability and statistics, which were not my strong suit in high school. I scraped by in AP Statistics my senior year because I’d wanted the weighted GPA. I actually understood virtually nothing.
So this book was a difficult read, but I found it compelling in an “interesting-perspective-but-I-don’t-agree” kind of way.
What I got from this book was that the author believes that life is completely random. All circumstances and series of events can be boiled down to probabilities. The author said that this is the case for every single thing you can think of, however, he used stocks and traders and investment brokers as his examples.
It’s easy to understand, and accept, that stocks go up and down due to probabilities and there may be no other reason that a stock increases besides the fact that it was bound to do so at some point in time anyways. However, I find it difficult to swallow the fact that his viewpoint doesn’t allow much room for hard work, human choice, and perhaps a higher power.
I just can’t dismiss the fact that people make choices every day that can dramatically change their future in ways they can’t imagine. And while maybe you could argue there is still some probability in the infinite ways a person could choose (and they’re bound to choose correctly or incorrectly a certain percentage of the time), I still believe that people do have some modicum of control over their own destiny. They are not just sitting around, waiting for the odds to work in their favor. If that were the case, we would all just be playing the lottery and waiting for our turn to win, because the probability, while slim, is that there’s still a chance. Instead, we choose to go to work, to take on new projects, to pitch new clients, and to expand our network, all in the hopes that our careers will project and grow and we’ll be working toward advancement. We work hard and take on new challenges because we believe that we have a say, that life is not all random. The people who sit around, wasting their time and their chances are not the ones who get ahead. The early bird gets the worm and all that.
While I didn’t always agree with his perspective, I did find it interesting to read and understand a viewpoint that is different from my own.
This take on randomness can come as a relief if you’re using it to understand why you didn’t get the job, or why your house flooded, or why your dog got sick. Sometimes it’s really not about you, and there’s really nothing you could have done. It was random.
But other times, randomness feels to me like a limitation. You’re putting the power in the hands of statistics and letting the numbers dictate the way you think about a problem or situation.
The author also points out in his book that the majority of people get statistics and probability wrong. They incorrectly think that if the odds are 1 out of 100 and the 1 has already happened then the next 99 will be the other way. Even real statisticians get certain problems wrong, he says. So if so many professional number crunchers are wrong, then there’s a good chance that everything I’m saying in this blog post is not actually correct. Maybe I completely misinterpreted the book. I’m okay with that.
My point is, I don’t believe the theory of randomness. But in reading this book, I have opened my mind to something new, broadened my way of thinking, and continued with the idea that knowledge really is power.