Trust in randomness

Pause for a moment and think about how you got here. Not here in the sense of “your chair”, but rather this particular juncture in your life. Call to mind the stories of how you met all the important people in your life: your roommates, significant other, boss, best employees, best friends, greatest mentors, and anyone else who’s meaningful.

When I do this exercise from time to time, I’m overwhelmed by the impact of happenstance. Every important relationship seems to be hanging by a thread of universal ether. I can almost feel fate’s strong pull in every memory that took two or three completely chance events to land me next to someone who hugely influenced my life. It makes me cherish those people even more to think that a tiny delta could have prevented us from ever meeting.

But it’s easy to forget that chance acts quantitatively. For every one instance where random events led me to a relationship of consequence, there were a thousand other random events that led to nothing. All of those get washed from memory, leading to the availability bias that we call fate.

Have more fate

Outcomes we ascribe to fate have two key qualities: chance and significance. Since we can only know significance (a measure of quality) in hindsight, the best we can do to experience more fate is to experience more chance.

Fortunately, the fateful event that changes your life has a beautiful contrapositive: a meaningless event that you completely forget, having no impact at all.

Think about that for a second. For the math-inclined, you’re sampling from a distribution that looks like this:

Yet, you have almost no sampling cost. If you experience more events, the vast majority will be mediocre and you’ll never remember them. A tiny few will change your life, and you’ll call them fate later on.

What about time? Shouldn’t you value not wasting your time on meaningless interactions so you can spend more time on the things you care about?

That concern is important, but you’re probably nowhere near the edge of that marginal trade-off yet. Consider the quality of your most fateful interaction, as a function of how many interactions and events you’ve experienced. I’m willing to bet that your curve looks like this:

The more times you drink from the fountain of random life events, the greater your best, most important outcomes will be. Being in the right place at the right time is mostly a function of being in lots of places.

(If you happen to have taken product design, you’ll note this is all adapted from Karl Ulrich’s book on Innovation Tournaments. Life events, I’ve realized, are extremely similar to ideas — the more you have, the better your best gets.)

Follow the white rabbit

Let’s make that more concrete. I’ve heard so many people complain about falling into patterns of normalcy. The complaints are embedded in different forms. “There aren’t any jobs out there for me” or “there are no quality women/men in this damn city” are common ones.

If left to its own devices, aging slowly takes its toll on our openness to new experiences. If you’re currently a slave to normalcy, take a look at how you’ve been spending your time: is it mostly with the same people, in the same places?

There’s an easy way around this: just increase the quantity and variance of things you try.

But how? Your first step is to adopt an openness mindset. It means always erring on the side of saying yes and being uncomfortable.

I’m no stranger to the ease of being lazy. When you’re done with work every day, you’re tired and just want to veg out. You’re busy during the day and there’s no way you have time to take lunch away from your desk. There’s every reason in the world to say no to opportunities that present themselves. But when your friends invite you out to drinks at that new bar, or a coworker says you should meet someone new, or you can go to that conference or house party or whatever, an openness mindset means that you say yes.

When you say yes more often, you’re sampling more from that distribution.

Trying more new things alone can dramatically improve your life events. But if you want to spend less time and maximize the effect of fewer samples, you have to push out of your comfort zone. When you’re at that dinner with five acquaintances and one person you’ve never met, sit across from the new one. Skip the boring opening dialogue and take a conversational risk. Go to a concert for a genre you’ve never listened to before. Apply for that job you’re completely unqualified for. Ditch your coworkers at that networking event and sit at a table of new faces.

When you stay uncomfortable, you’re stretching the distribution, and increasing the likelihood that your sample will be from the amazing side of the curve.

Which is why “trust in randomness” is all you need to remember.

So next time you feel yourself about to say no to an invitation, or clinging to experiences and people you’re already comfortable with, think of the openness mindset. Take the red pill this time, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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5 thoughts on “Trust in randomness

  1. Brodsky says:

    I love reading your posts Jesse; they always get me thinking and it’s a great break from academic reading. I agree with basically everything you say, but the one point I would want to challenge on this one, is whether your second curve relates directly to happiness. Our buddy Barry Schwartz might argue that the process of trying to maximize your ‘quality of best event’ may actually decrease your enjoyment/happiness resulting from it. Obviously the other extreme is worse, but the potential downside of what you suggest is interesting to ponder as well.

    • Totally agree with you, and it’s extremely important not to cross the line into full-on maximizing behavior. But there’s a mindset difference between maximizing and improving.

      Overall, I think there’s a marginal trade-off for climbing up the quality of best event curve, and there’s some friction pushing back at how happy you are from experiencing more events.

      I framed it as almost uniformly positive, though, because in my experience people don’t even get close to that line. They don’t stop meeting new people and trying new things because they’ve found one that makes them happy enough. They usually stop out of laziness and risk aversion, well before they hit the real maximizing wall.

      • Swyx says:

        well who are you to tell them what that maximizing wall is? The problem of utility based arguments is that there is really only one way to estimate the curve and that is by observation. In observation, “laziness and risk aversion” are built in as a fact of life. In general what this model is lacking is a cost function. Compare to a business consultant telling a CEO of a price-taking business that total revenue will be maximized if he sells the most product. Result? Not interested. Because in the real world we have costs.

        my only objection in an otherwise commendable piece.

  2. […] at all.  let’s challenge ourselves.  be uncomfortable.  learn skills.  follow the white rabbit, say yes, and be uncomfortable (blog via dave, the ideas are straight out of this […]

  3. […] the past year alone, several of the most life-changing moments happened because I opened myself up to the influence of randomness. When people invited me out to events, I strived to always say yes. I met some of my closest […]

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