The Drunkard’s Walk

A young woman I work with uses the word “random” a lot, often in the context, “Here’s a random question.” What I think she means is “unexpected” or “out of left field.” Technically, not “random” but close enough for government (or even marketing) work.

I thought of this as I was reading “The Drunkard’s Walk,” by Leonard Mlodinow. The book’s subtitle is “How Randomness Rules Our Lives,” and its premise is that randomness plays a much larger role than most of us realize. The title comes from the completely random movement of water molecules which resemble, in many ways, the disjointed path of a drunk trying to make his way home from the corner tavern.

Because of the hard wiring of our brains, human beings have a difficult time understanding truly random events. We have a propensity to recognize patterns where they don’t exist, attach too much significance to statistical aberrations (such as a gambler’s hot streak), and ascribe meaning to proceedings after the fact. Mlodinow makes his case in an accessible, breezy style (breezy for a scientist, that is), weaving together far-flung examples from ancient history, Las Vegas, Wall Street, pop culture and everyday life. He shows us the power of probability and chance (read “luck”) and how it is often the ultimate difference-maker.

Take, for instance, the story of a struggling New Jersey bartender, an aspiring actor making the casting call rounds in his spare time. One day he meets an up-and-coming Hollywood actress. She invites him out to the west coast and, on a whim, he takes her up on her offer. While there, he accompanies her on some auditions and gets offered a guest shot on “Miami Vice.” This leads to a tryout for the lead on a new detective show, where he implausibly lands the role against stiff competition. Maybe you’ve heard of the guy. His name is Bruce Willis.

One of those incredibly lucky breaks we here about from time to time? Mlodinow thinks so. When I mentioned this story to my wife, a believer in destiny, she said, “Of course. It was meant to be.” In other words, it simply reaffirmed her world view. But is this another example of the human mind trying to make something out of nothing? Or our ability to bend any theory to fit our belief system? My existential answer is: who the heck knows?

I bring this up because, as a writer, I’ve always harbored a secret hope that the cream will eventually rise to the top; that talented creative types (not unlike myself) are bound to break through. But, as we’ve discussed in these posts before, there are plenty of hacks who routinely sit atop the best seller lists. And I’ve personally read manuscripts from writers who absolutely deserve to be discovered. So what’s the difference? Maybe it really just boils down to luck. (Or lack thereof. Always remember, there are two kinds of luck.)

On the one hand, this is a depressing thought. On the other, it’s empowering. Because, as Mlodinow points out toward the end of his book, you can increase your chances by increasing your number of at-bats. In other words, as the carnival barker likes to remind us, “You cannot win if you do not play.” That’s why I’m staying in the game (even if it is rigged).

More on this next time.