A quick glance at the cover of Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” (Pantheon, 2008) may trick you into thinking it’s a self-help book or something related to alcoholic beverages, but it’s not. The book’s title actually comes from a mathematical term that describes random motion in nature. (Think of the wave patterns created by a large body of water.) And it’s this unpredictable randomness, according to the author, that impact things like wine ratings, performance evaluations, political polls, investments and your kid’s grades. Whether we realize it or not, randomness or chance plays a large role in our everyday activities.
For example, how was it possible for Roger Maris to hit 61 home runs and beat Babe Ruth’s single season home run record back in 1961? Up until that time, Maris had never hit more than 39 home runs in a year. While we can never know for sure if Maris was greater in 1961 than Babe Ruth in other years or just a beneficiary of luck, coin-tossing models very closely match his performance, including both the hot and cold streaks.
Another pestering question is this: Why do people that appear headed for success fail, while others who appear destined to fail, succeed? Mlodinow explores this question by considering what happened to Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
In 1980, as a group of IBM employees were working on a top-secret computer project, they came into contact with a young Gates. IBM needed an operating system for its planned home computer. Gates referred IBM to Digital Research and an agreement between the two companies never amounted to anything. As it turns out, IBM came back to Gates and an agreement to license the DOS (disk operating system) from his small computer firm was struck. Many computer professionals claimed DOS was no better than competing programs like Apple’s Macintosh, but Gates still got the deal and from there he built an empire.
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Was Gates more brilliant than his peers or did chance crown him? Mlodinow writes: “Had it not been for Digital’s uncooperativeness, IBM’s lack of vision, or the second encounter between Jack Sams (an IBM employee) and Gates, he might have become just another software developer rather than the richest man in the world.”