So they are different words. And having introduced that idea, the idea of luck as relating to fortune is a very classical idea that runs through very strongly in the Greco-Roman world. The idea of chance, the idea of probability, is a post-Renaissance idea that started with gamblers and theories of games, and then grows into a discussion about chance and probability and ultimately of risk. But the question of how much of our life is determined by a force, sometimes called fortune or destiny or luck, is two-and-a-half-thousand years old in the West — back to the times of [the goddess] Tyche in Greece or Fortuna in Rome.
Understanding the relationship between our own agency and that which is beyond our control is thousands of years old. Are good luck and bad luck self-perpetuating? Does one piece of good luck lead to more good luck? One of the mistakes we make about understanding luck is that we tend to view it like a weighing mechanism, with good luck on one side and bad luck on the other.
In actual fact, we should imagine life more like a stream coming down a mountain.
Planning Around the Weather
Luck is like the boulder in the stream that diverts it and makes it a different stream by the time the next bit of good or bad luck happens. There is a big sociological literature about cumulative advantage. He shows that kids who are old for their school year tend to be promoted in their sports teams when they are young and are singled out as being talented and are given more attention and coaching. This makes them better at sport. They started out just getting attention because they were bigger and more physically developed because they were old for their year.
That then starts to become a very real advantage, because once they are singled out and given extra coaching they do become better. That is called a cumulative advantage, where an early stroke of good luck — being older and therefore more physically developed than your classmates — self-perpetuates and you become more and more lucky. But there are no real clear answers or conclusions, are there?
See a Problem?
Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and how they successfully used rigorous and innovative statistical analysis to improve their chances against wealthier clubs. Why did you choose it?
I discovered it when I was in the US and was a visiting writer at Harvard in I think I was one of the only English writers to talk about this book when I came back to Britain at the end of that year. I wrote a review of it and I tried to use it practically when I was captain of Middlesex — we used some Moneyball -like statistical methods to inform our selection of our Twenty20 teams. So my interest in it started off as intellectual, but then became practical. Moneyball is a superb book and credit should go to Michael Lewis for turning a book about baseball statistics into a bestseller and for attracting readers who do not like or have any interest in baseball.
He makes the strongest possible case for using thinking to help win more games and using statistics to work out how a baseball match is won. He breaks down how those runs are scored, who it is who is scoring, in much the same way as a financial analyst would do it. Since then, every baseball team, including the very richest, have tried to adopt this method. What I take from the book now is that we would be crazy not to use the latest mathematical tools to help understand how games are won and lost, but I think the book takes to an extreme the idea that human judgements are absolutely obsolete in the face of scientific data.
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That idea has been shown to be a little dated. The Oakland Athletics team did, but that was assisted by their business model. I think success in sport will always be a mixture of statistical based analysis and human judgement. One without the other will never be enough. I think what Michael Lewis did brilliantly was expose the clubbability of professional sport.
There is a tendency to be very suspicious of new thinking and I experienced this too. Your next choice is A Suitable Boy.
How did that come about? I can remember my dad telling me later on, in the late s, that one of his ex-pupils was going to be the greatest writer of his generation. When I was in my teens Vikram came to talk at his old school, where I was studying, and he stayed with us. That was when I got to know him and when my father got to know him again.
Then, independently, we became friends in the adult world. I bumped into him when I was playing cricket in Australia and he was giving a talk. We now live around the corner from each other in west London. It takes a while to get a sense of who everyone is and to feel comfortable with the various characters and families. Funnily enough I interviewed Vikram in India at a cricket match, and cricket is one small thread in the book. Some of the crucial scenes happen at cricket matches.
Then I'll need to work hard to make some feel lucky, and some feel really unlucky and see what happens next. Right everyone, my golfers. Thank you so much for being here today.
Ed Smith on My Life and Luck | Five Books Expert Recommendations
I've broken you up into two groups. Now you three, you are my lucky group. Amy's going to hand over a lucky putter for you. This lucky putter is going to give you some great scores today so good luck and have fun. Now you three, I'm afraid you are my unlucky group. Amy's going to hand over the unlucky putter for you.
Statistical Rigor and the Perils of Chance
I would say good luck but, do the best you can is probably all I can say at this stage. Alright, shall we play, let's do it. Lucky group follow me, followed by the unlucky group. It's stuck under the bridge. Oh wow that's seriously unlucky. But can Priming really influence your confidence so much that it changes real outcomes.
As the game progresses. Oh no I can't believe that. That was pretty unlucky. Random question for you Graham, how much do you think Uluru weighs from the ground up? Alright, so the results are in and they're very, very interesting. Now our unlucky group, you did the same number of holes in twice as many shots as our lucky group. Now this was actually based on a German psychology experiment that showed that Priming can actually make people feel lucky.
Now Amy, do you see yourself in this game?
Yeah don't worry about it, like it happens to the best of us so you're completely normal it's all good. My priming was a bit too successful. But, it makes the same point. Priming is a pretty well known part of psychology.
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Like a stimulus like being told you're lucky or unlucky can change the way that you respond, by either giving you confidence or chipping away at it. And we do seem to be pretty susceptible. But at the end of the day, confidence can be fleeting. For luck to last, you want to build on something more durable, even eternal.
The Deceptions of Luck
I believe that thing is maths. I know what you're thinking. Now we're getting to the really hard maths but it's not quite like that, but even when something seems simple, say the chances of two people sharing a birthday, the maths can run counter to our human intuitions. Up here at the Clovelly Bowls Club, a rather pleasant and sedate place on the edge of the ocean where my mathematician friend, Sophie, is celebrating a birthday. For now let's just assume that everyone's birthdays are spread over the year equally and we're not in a leap year.
One for every day of the year, plus one to be sure. Everyone can, can you gather around please. I need 23 people for a little bit of a maths experiment, are you in? Ok, alright. So, we're going to do a little bit of a birthday speed dating. I want you to go around and check whether the next person, any person has the same birthday as you. You ready? And we aren't just looking for the chances that my birthday matches with someone else's, but the chance that there's a pair in the bigger group. But the maths is undeniable. This is proper maths, and if it messes with your head, I guarantee in a couple of minutes it will make complete sense.
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We just need to come at the birthday problem from the other side. Right, so why is it 23 people? Let's imagine a scenario where out of our 23 party people that no-one shares a birthday right. So Soph, it's your birthday today.