In business and life, everything is driven by improbability. Our whole lives and every business is inherently implausible and you really couldn’t make it up. According to any reasonable expectation, what happens really shouldn’t. If you doubt this, just look – if you can bear to – at The Donald.
If you understand something about probability you can improve your life and your chances of success in your career or your business. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “literally every great thinker” – he has clearly read every single one of them – “has dabbled with it [probability], most of them obsessively. The two greatest minds to me, Einstein and Keynes, both started their intellectual journeys with it.” But for those of us who don’t have time to read all the great thinkers throughout history, I have distilled the essence into seven little rules.
Historians know that what happened usually only just happened, and could easily have turned out differently. The emergence of Homo sapiens would once have been a million to one against chance with the earliest bookmakers – and we know how stingy they are with the odds.
The Romans should never have conquered Gaul or Britain – and but for one man’s megalomania, they wouldn’t even have tried.
Christianity should never have exploded as it did; nor have turned into a Roman Imperial Cult, where heresy was punished by death and books were burnt.
China should have industrialized in the fourteenth century, and ruled the world ever since. Though industrialization was aborted by regime change, between 1500 and 1820 China consistently accounted for 30-50 percent of total world output.
Columbus should never have got funding for his ridiculous plan to find India by going West, nor should he have accidentally “discovered” America. Spain should never have become the greatest power in the world for two centuries.
King George III should never have “lost” the American colonies, and Great Britain should today be by far the most powerful and rich country in the world.
The First World War should never have broken out, nor lasted more than a few months when it did. Without the tragedy of that “Great War”, Lenin and Hitler would never have come to power and the world would probably have been spared the evils of the Nazis and communists. The Second World War and the European Union would never have happened either.
On the positive side, the emergence of first maritime and then industrial capitalism were very lucky accidents. So too was the discovery of penicillin and most other inventions that have transformed our lives. Without the birth of Steve Jobs and a perhaps a few hundred other people, we would all still be using IBM computers, and they would be very slow, unfriendly, and cost a fortune. Man’s new best friend, the smartphone, would not exist. Since the birth of any individual relies upon a chain of previously quite incredibly unlikely meetings and sexual attractions, it follows that any event or invention dependent on a few individuals just should not have happened.
I may be exaggerating slightly, but I am not writing this purely for amusement. Everything I say above is plausible or probable, and if I had more time and space and you had more attention, I could prove it. I may well do so in a future book. The key question, though, is So What?
Action Implication #1 – Hope
However poor, ill-educated, or miserable you are, that need not be the case in the future. If life is so implausible, you can change everything.
Every human being has the internal resources to do amazing things. Not everything of course. But if you focus on just one objective – meeting a kind lover, getting a boss who is going places so that you can too, saving enough money for financial independence, gaining a unique skill, or constructing the kind of life you want – you can realize your one objective. Much more implausible things have already happened in your own life.
Humans are the only life form we know that have the magical power of thought, imagination, creativity, and utter determination. You have these power too, if you choose to locate and nurture them within yourself, and if you concentrate on just one super-objective and refuse to be distracted by anything else.
It should come as no surprise that successful people believe their fortune derives from their own wonderful skills or their hard work. Yet there are many unsuccessful people with wonderful skills too. There are millions of people who work incredibly hard and never succeed. Skills and hard work are all very well, but in almost all cases of success, luck at critical points is what makes a great leap forward possible.
The luck to be born rich, or in a rich country, or of parents who are going to rig the odds of success in your favour in oh-so-many ways.
The luck to meet someone who has a bright idea that you can ride, perhaps ride a thousand times better than they ever could.
The luck to work in a transforming organization – one of great self-confidence and growth, which believes itself to be on the right side of history, and therefore triumphs.
The luck to work for a boss who is already on the way to fantastic success.
The luck to read a book that contains one of the few principles of success that really works.
The luck to live in Silicon Valley.
Now, luck is not entirely random either. Luck is not always luck.
Why? Because you can choose to position yourself in places where you are likely to become lucky.
For example, you can’t choose your parents. But you can choose your boss or where you work or what you read or where you live.
Action Implication #2 – Go to Lucky Places
Choose the few places in life where luck is manifold, where luck overflows, where luck is in the air, where luck is the rule and not the exception. Where luck defies luck. What I call predictable luck, almost-inescapable luck.
As Leonard Cohen sang, look for the Joker card so high and wild you will never need another.
The 80/20 principle applies to predictable luck too. Some luck is fortunate. Other luck really does transform your life, moving it up a whole new level of consciousness and good fortune.
Action Implication #3 – Move Heaven & Earth to Find the One Thing That Will Make All The Difference
It depends on your super-objective. Finding a boss who is going places will always work if you tap the opportunity fully. But why not find a boss who is going to go so high that they will take you into the third heaven? Finding a kind lover will always make your life happier but why not find the most extremely kind (and fun) lover possibly available to you? Going to a transformational school or college or organization is always going to transform your skills, attitudes, and confidence, but why not go to the one which is perfect for you. You generally only get one shot at decisions such as these. Go for the very, very best.
Most people believe that more information is better than less, that it improves decisions and the probability of success. This is not so.
When I was seventeen, I went hitch-hiking around Europe. I had very little money, and I wanted experiences that were quite different from those to which I was accustomed. When I had been at home, I read at least one newspaper every day. When I was backpacking, the total number of newspapers read in four months was precisely zero. From time to time I would see dramatic placards for newspapers, and on one occasion I even wondered if there had been a terrible nuclear accident. (There hadn’t). During this time, I saw zero seconds of television, and it was long before the internet. I found the absence of news liberating – it didn’t bother me at all. Today it is almost impossible to go on a “news fast”, even in a monastery, but I wish it were.
Most information, especially from “experts”, tells you less than nothing, and distracts you from thinking about how to find your Big Leap.
Action Implication #4 – Don’t Search for Information
Search instead for a few memorable principles you internalize and think about as you go about your daily life.
This is the Black Swan territory about which Taleb has written so well. Since then, events continue to demonstrate that conventional estimates of probability just don’t work. You could have got more than 800-1 against the hard-left pacifist Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the British Labour Party – before he won in a landslide. And 200-1 against Donald Trump becoming US President – which is now very short odds.
The Black Swan phenomenon is very useful for those prepared to take a chance.
Action Implication #5
Back outsiders – companies, individuals (such as potential bosses), and social movements that have already demonstrated the ability to move up quickly, while they still remain long-odds outsiders. Keep your eye glued to the rear-view mirror, looking for the car moving up ever so fast.
The 80/20 Principle invites you to look for the few people, events, methods and ways of thinking that take little energy but have massive results. Improbabilities are one such phenomenon. Improbability is not arithmetic. Improbability is something to be observed, savoured, cultivated, and followed, to be thought about and consume the power of your subconscious mind.
Back in 1997 I contrasted 80/20 analysis – something quantitative and hard-edged – with 80/20 thinking, “the application of the 80/20 Principle to daily life, for non-quantitative applications of the Principle.” In 2004 Nassim Nicholas Taleb said something comparable – “Mathematics is not just a ‘numbers game’, it is a way of thinking … Probability is a qualitative subject … Mathematics is principally a tool to meditate, rather than to compute.” Amen.
Action Implication #6 – Think Improbability Without Numbers
Numbers are the words, but the concept of improbability is the music. Keep the tune of improbability playing in the background of your mind. Envisage the improbabilities that could impinge on your life or business and raise it to a new level. Capture improbable outcomes by improbable actions. Be unpredictable, especially to yourself. Constantly ask yourself – what beautiful improbable outcomes could I create or benefit from? Brood on them, dream of them, let them form in your mind as future states, live them in your mind before you live in them in reality. Defy the odds because the odds are wrong, if you decide they are – and can see a way to re-create reality. The odds are wrong because nobody else knows what you are going to do.
Being born as a unique individual with genes derived over generations, being the offspring of parents who had to meet and fall in love, and for whom their own birth was, for the same reason, incredibly improbable, and so on – the chain of events that has led to your existence is so improbable that it is a mystery and miracle of cosmic proportions.
Action Implication #7 – Embrace Improbability
Rejoice in the miracle every day. We are all improbable. The world is stuffed full of people, every one of whom should not – statistically – exist, yet each one of whom thankfully does. We are like the survivors of a calamity, thrown together in a creaky rowing boat to help each other survive and prosper. If we are improbable, then perhaps we are meant to lead improbable lives, not copy-cat lives. Never do anything to betray the glorious improbability that is your birth-right, you salvation, and your destiny.