The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Leonard Mlodinow

I have an interest in numbers and in how the mind works. I've read a lot on both topics. Randomness has surprisingly a lot in common with both.

Maybe my interest in these topics is deeper than the average person's, or maybe the book was intentionally basic enough and with limited math elements so that it could be catered to the general public. In any case, I haven't found much new in the book in terms of concepts, probability, statistics.

It had only the very basic concepts explained and didn't go into many details. For example, it mentioned only normal distribution, out of all possible distributions, and made it feel like it's practically the only one and all-powerful. Far from it.

It had a lot of history about how concepts related to randomness were discovered, also many anecdotes about scientists and celebrities, past and present. That was entertaining, even if not very useful.

There's also a lot about the way people think, make decisions and act rationally or irrationally, and how randomness plays a factor in it. That was interesting but because I've already read a lot about decision making, there was practically nothing new for me on this topic. What's more, I feel like every book on decision making is only a shadow or a derivative of "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman.

A few random pieces from the book that I found interesting or memorable:

  • People are bad at estimating probability and randomness. Even when it's their profession. Even when they're told that they're bad at it. Even when they're told in which way they make mistakes, by how much and why.
  • We vastly underestimate how often we label someone or something as failure or success when in fact it was mostly caused by randomness (movies, CEOs, market analysts, actors, etc.)
  • Human brain always needs to find a reason. Something happens and the brain doesn't stop until it finds the reason why. Even if there's no reason at all, pure chance.
  • People equate money with wisdom.
  • There was an interesting experiment connecting a few concepts mentioned above (randomness, the need to find a reason, equating money with wisdom): Participants were playing a game of chance (e.g. coin flipping) and were told that they will be paid money for it. The goal was to guess as many coin flips correctly as possible, as a team. During the game, participants could try to persuade each other to change the guess. When participants were paid the same amount for the experiment, their decision-changing rate was the same. But when (based on a random choice) one was paid 3 times more than the other, the one who was paid more suddenly was much more reluctant to change his mind. The thinking goes: "There's a reason I earn more money. It's because I'm smarter. This means I know better and I won't be persuaded by someone less smart who earns less". Even though both participants knew in advance that who gets paid more was chosen randomly.

The biggest takeaway and learning from the book: Take more shots. The more you take, the better the chance of succeeding, even if by sheer luck. And if you've won, don't gloat. If you've lost, don't despair. Both could be determined by random forces. Just take another shot.

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