You may have often come across the word “probability.” The first associations with this word that come to mind are chance, uncertainty, random outcomes and more. Worse yet, those with a basic academic background in probability think immediately of rolling a die, a deck of cards, a jar with red and black candies among many popular probabilistic situations. The over-quantification of probability has taken away its real meaning: it’s a mindset, a way to think and interpret the world around us.

Probabilistic thinking is pivotal in the modern era ruled by all sorts of hidden risks and fragilities, made especially apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic. The real world does not offer a closed and bounded set of possibilities unlike a die or deck of cards, the real world is effectively unbounded and infinite probabilistically. This means certain risks and their consequences are exponentially more damaging than expected. Here’s where probability comes into play. Probability dictates what risks you should never take, due to their potentially devastating consequences, regardless of the potential gain.

Imagine playing Russian roulette for which you get paid \$1 million every time there’s no bullet in the revolving magazine of the pistol, but it’s game over when there is a bullet. Playing such a game would clearly not be a wise decision. The tricky thing about life is that such Russian roulette scenarios are often shrouded and hidden, the risk is not visible or easy to perceive. Imagine a trading strategy which brings in millions in profits with 99.999 percent probability, but trillions in losses with 0.001 percent probability. A lot of people think this would be a great strategy given the astronomically high success rate, but probability teaches us that decisions should not be made based on the likelihood of outcomes, but the outcomes themselves. A 0.001 percent chance of losing trillions is not a risk worth taking no matter what the gain. This is a metaphor for life, success is more about choosing what risks not to take rather than choosing which risks to take. Probability is therefore the science of avoiding devastation — professional, financial or physical — because future success is conditional on surviving in the first place.

The second major lesson from probability is an unexpected one: humility. A lot in life is determined by good or bad luck, pure chance, more so than many successful people would like to admit. Think about the role of chance in your own life as you’ve journeyed to college. Think about some things that fell perfectly into place or didn’t, people you met at the right time or didn’t. Think about the counterfactuals, the alternate histories, to see how central chance is to many outcomes in life.

This is not an excuse to stop working hard or to say that all effort is useless. “You make your own luck,” definitely holds true to a certain extent, however it has limitations. You can’t make your own luck when it comes to which country you were born in, who your parents are, the wealth or lack thereof which you were born into. It’s paramount to work hard, being diligent and consistent to achieve what you desire but it’s even more important to evaluate successes or failures, your own and others’, in the context of chance. It is important to remember this when succeeding or failing in life, especially when it comes to making swift judgements on the abilities of others when observing their outcomes. We’re often quick to tie our successes to our abilities while tying failure to bad luck. Probability plays equal roles in both despite our best efforts sometimes. Studying probability tells us to keep our soles on the ground in success and our wits about us in failure. It tells us to recognize how every human is an amalgamation of effort and more importantly, chance. Therefore, as you evaluate those around you, it is important to focus on aspects people can control rather than the one’s they can’t. It’s pretty hard to be born into the royal family of England, it’s easier to treat others with respect. Adjust your evaluations accordingly.

If I were to sum up the lessons from probability in one sentence, I’d use some wisdom from Morgan Housel in The Psychology of Money, “Nothing is as good or bad as it seems.”

SAYYED HAIDER HASSAN
Sayyed Haider Hassan is a junior in Morse College. Reach out to him at haider.hassan@yale.edu