“With that, [Billy Beane] walks out into the clubhouse, closing the door behind him, and begins to storm around. Past the trainer’s room…and, finally, past the video room where Paul DePodesta stews on the improbability of the evening. Paul already has calculated the odds of winning twenty games in a row. (He puts them at fourteen in a million.) Now he’s calculating the odds of losing an eleven-run lead. (‘It may not be fourteen in a million but it’s close.’)” ~ Moneyball
The year is 2002. The Oakland Athletics, to cope with high baseball salaries and a low budget, revolutionize the way their team looks at baseball statistics. By finding players overlooked by every other team for their perceived flaws, the Oakland A’s put together a team that is able to get runs and win games. Throwing years of conventional baseball wisdom in the face of analysts, scouts, and managers, the Oakland A’s success is one topic of Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball (now a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Without giving away too much to people who haven’t read the book or seen the movie (or followed baseball history, for that matter), the road to success isn’t exactly smooth. While the statistics may be accurate, anyone who has ever gambled knows just because something is probable does not mean it’s a sure thing. On September 4, 2002, the Oakland Athletics faced off against the Kansas City Royals for what could be their 20th win in a row, the longest winning streak in American League history. Oakland quickly goes up 11-0 in the third against Kansas and all seems set to bring in the win.
Then everything goes to pot.
Over the next five innings, Kansas manages to score 11 runs, while Oakland doesn’t get a single run, tying the game. To everyone, the game looks all but lost. Behind the scenes, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, come across Paul DePodesta, the assistant general manager and brains behind the team’s statistics, anxiously calculating the odds that they got where they are and the odds that they could lose it all.
14 in a million!
The other night, I was playing Risk and one player ended up rolling triple 1s, the worst roll you can get in the game. The probability of getting that roll is 1 in 216, or .46% – nothing compared to .0014%, but still highly improbable compared to other rolls. As the dice landed, the roller threw his hands in the air, exclaiming how unlucky his rolls were. We all quickly agreed, thinking how we would feel if that were our situation.
As we pondered the unfortunate roll, it occurred to us that triple 1s wasn’t the only roll with that low of a probability. As an astute reader, you may have realized that any triple using three dice has the exact same probability! (Check it out: Dice Probability Calculator)That means for him to roll a triple 1s, he was just as likely to roll triple 6s, one of the best rolls in the game!
“I guess that actually means you are lucky,” my friend said.
Of course, by “lucky” he meant the roller had something improbable happen to him. However, the roller certainly did not see it as lucky himself. It seems then, that our perception of luck is not about the probability of something unlikely happening, but the probability of something unlikely happening when we want it to happen. Instead of Risk, if we were playing a game where lower rolls equaled better outcomes, the roller would still have thrown his hands in the air but for a totally different reason.
As we have already shown, though, an uncommon positive event is just as probable as an uncommon negative event (as long as these extremes exist, which is another discussion). Both happen with equal frequency in our lives, we just notice and remember the events differently (there is plenty of evidence to suggest pessimists dwell of negative events more than optimists, and vice versa). Therefore, “luck” as we understand it is a function of our memory and expectations.
Fortunately, we have the power to alter these perceptions. By seeing and dwelling upon all unexpected events not as obstacles towards designing our perfect world, but as forays into new experiences that continually nurture our growth, every improbability can be “lucky.” Once we accept the capricious nature of life’s events, the only “unlucky” events are the ones that maintain the status quo. “Unlucky” becomes synonymous with “uneventful.” While it is easy for us to appreciate a predictable environment, it is important to understand that the beauty of life comes from experiencing, coping with, and learning from unexpected situations.
Of course, this is could be the poster child for “easier said than done.” As Billy Beane stalked through the halls, I am confident the last thing on his mind was how exciting it was to lose the 11-point lead. But I hope maybe the next time something unexpected happens, even negative, you will at least think about how much more exciting your life has become because of this one improbability.