Never tell me the odds

I never cared for mathematics in school.  Algebra and geometry had their moments, but for the most part I found them rather dry and repetitive.  Perhaps it was being tasked to trudge through the same repetitive problem lists over and over, regardless of how quickly, or if, one actually understood the actual concepts behind them.  Just as bad was repeating half the same material every year.  I quickly became more interested in faster moving and less repetitive subjects like history and science.  Mathematics was something I did because it was necessary, not because I found it particularly interesting.  Now, had the educational establishment decided to emphasize the more practical disciplines of probability and statistics instead of teaching the same dry 2x+3n = 5 sort of problems year after year, I might well have ended up a math major.  As it was, I didn’t really come to appreciate mathematics until I took some college classes that dealt with things like probabilities and statistics later on in my collegiate career.

Probabilities were something I could relate to.   They mean a lot in the world of video games, and in games in general.  The probability a certain monster will appear in a game or that a particular weapon will be found are extremely important in some games.  Statistics are, of course, the accumulation of all the tiny little probabilities.  If there’s a 1% chance a monster will appear every hour, then about every 100 hours there will be about 1 appearance.  From information like this, we can know about how many times the monster will appear in a week or a month or a year.  It’s not just video games, but the whole world around us as well.  If we know how many people drive by a particular billboard, we know there’s a chance each one will notice whatever the board is advertising, and we can price it based on that information.  It’s really staggering how many things in business depend on the study of statistics and probabilities.   I started seeing probabilities everywhere in the world around me and in my own life.  Sometimes it was helpful, but sometimes less so.

When you start thinking in terms of probabilities, everything becomes a game of poker.  What jobs should I apply for to have the best odds of career advancement?  What route should I take with the lowest probability of hitting a traffic jam or missing a light?  What are the odds a woman will accept an invitation to dinner, and how many will I really have to ask to eventually get a ‘yes’?  What are the chances the Rams will come back from a 20 point deficit or should I just play Plants vs. Zombies.  I tend to play most things pretty close to what might be called the ‘optimal’ strategy.  I like to assess what the odds of success are in any given endeavor before I start.  I’m always trying to figure out whether the odds are in my favor, and I must admit, if I don’t like the odds of winning, I tend not to play.

A wise man once said “never tell me the odds”.  I didn’t really appreciate the statement the first several hundred times I heard it.  But, after learning to see so much of the world in percents and ratios, I’ve come to appreciate it.  Why?  Well, the fact of the matter is, I’ve gotten so used to doing whatever is most likely to be successful, I rarely take big risks.  It’s almost impossible for me to really apply myself to something when the odds of succeeding are (at least in my view) fairly poor.  It’s not like I can’t try, but it’s always there in the back of my mind, knowing I’m probably not going to win this one, and ultimately changing the other decisions I make in the process.  I start looking for an exit strategy instead of really putting myself into something 100%.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I feel like playing it safe has prevented a lot of possible tragedies in my life.  With my Asperger’s and depression, there are numerous ways I could have ended up in far worse shape than I am.  I say it humorously, but I think it’s true, that there’s a lot of paths I could have taken that put me in a mental institution, or worse.   I can certainly picture myself as one of those people on the streets muttering incomprehensibly to myself  because I’d withdrawn completely into my own mind.  I’m not on drugs.  I don’t have a criminal record.  I don’t drink so much I don’t remember what I was doing the next day.  I don’t have several children out of wedlock.  I’ve avoided a lot of what are considered the worst pitfalls in life.  On the other hand, I’m quite sure that there were some opportunities missed by playing the odds.  Some jobs were not taken, some possible relationships were not pursued, and some fun experiences were missed along the way.  I don’t win big, I don’t lose big.  That’s part of my nature.

The dilemma is that I’ll never really know which were the paths to glory and which were the roads to ruin.   I didn’t know then and I certainly don’t know now.  I don’t believe hindsight is really 20/20.  We tend to say that because we remember the best possible outcomes of those roads not taken, and we forget all the dangers that were clear and present when we were in that moment.  I suppose I’m not really all that different than most people.  I make the best decisions I can based on what I know at the time.  There are times, however, when I wish I didn’t see the world with such a piercing, analyzing, gaze.  There are times I wish I never knew the odds.


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