Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow

Many things we see as factual are in fact random. Mlodinow explores this illusion with humor and insight, making for a pleasant and informative read. One of the most interesting sections was the discussion of the law of small numbers and the exploration of executive success. “Executives’ winning years are attributed to their brilliance, explained retroactively through incisive hindsight.” Mlodinow believes this is nonsense, and supports this belief quite effectively. “We should expect, by chance alone, about 1 in 10 CEOs to have five winning or losing years in a row. What does this tell us? It is more reliable to judge people by analyzing their abilities than by glancing at the scoreboard.” My experiences with various CEOs makes me wish that this was a widely held opinion, because very few executives I’ve known have been what I’d consider successful.

What sets The Drunkard’s Walk above similar books is that not only does Mlodinow explore how we are fooled by random patterns, but how we fall prey to them. Because humans want to feel like we have control, we abhor randomness; this is why we often mistake luck for skill. Our need for being in command of ourselves allows us to find patterns where they often don’t exist. The discussion and analysis about how randomness rules our lives may seem that true fortune is more a factor of luck than skill. Mlodinow shows in more than one place, though, that this isn’t necessarily true. “Successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set — the set of people who don’t give up.” While ability clearly is a factor, “the cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic.” In other words, there are talented people that fail, and mediocre people that succeed; but, mediocre people that give up easily are rarely successful. A solid conclusion to a solid book.

First Sentence:
I remember, as a teenager, watching the yellow flame of the Sabbath candles dancing randomly above the white paraffin cylinders that fueled them.

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