We zig and we zag — Life as a game of probability

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs said that in his Stanford commencement speech in 2005, a year after what was thought to be a successful surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor.

We don’t know how life’s going to play out, it’s full of steps forward, steps backwards, and everything in between. Sometimes that helps us and other times it hurts us. But whether we like it or not is besides the point — we have to learn to work with life’s zigs and zags. We have to learn to work with what we’re given.

When a man loses his horse, is it really a blessing in disguise? (塞翁失馬,焉知非福)

There’s an ancient fable about a man who had a beautiful and magnificent stallion that he was ever so proud of. He took great attention to caring for the horse, but in an unusual lapse of character, he accidentally left the gate unlocked one day and the stallion escaped.

The man cried both tears of sadness and anger, compelling the town to come and console him. They surrounded him and expressed great sorrow for his loss. But an old man pushed them aside and said, “Listen, you’ve lost your horse, but how do we know that it’s a bad thing?” The others told the old man to leave — what a rude thing to say!

A few days later, the man was tending to the fields as usual, and he saw some shapes moving in the distance. As they grew larger and came closer, he saw that it was his stallion! And not just his stallion, but also several fine young mares that had followed it.

Not believing his luck, the man ran to find the old man to tell him of the news. But the old man was not pleased, “Sure, your horses have returned, but how do we know that this is a good thing?” The man confused once more, left the old man alone.

Many uneventful weeks pass until one day the man hears yelling and screaming from his son. His son was riding one of the mares, but was thrown violently off her back, breaking his legs. The man picked him his son and ran with him to the old man, “Please tell me what to do! You have been right all this time! Help me!”

The old man looked at the aching son and said, “Your son has broken his legs, but they will eventually heal — how do we know that this is not a good thing!”

Sure enough, on a misty day not long after the accident, military officers marched into town drafting able young men for the upcoming war. Luckily for the man, his son escaped recruitment and probably certain death, because of his son’s broken legs.

Life as a game of probability

Regardless of the situation, the old man remained stoic and poised. He understood that the ultimate outcome of an event was uncertain, and there was no point in trying to label something as either good or bad.

To Sun Tzu, life was probabilistic, not deterministic — meaning that nothing was guaranteed and nothing was pre-determined. Every action (or inaction) came with it a degree of risk. It was our job as leaders, to be constantly assessing and re-shaping our probability of success.

If you view life this way, you realize that when you only see one side of the story, you’re missing a piece of the puzzle. When you’re overconfident in an outcome, you know your missing a critical piece of information.

Unfortunately this is harder than it seems. We’re hardwired to believing one side or another — because life is simpler and easier that way. It’s a shortcut our minds like to take all the time, but it’s a dangerous one.

Are you willing to truly give up the quest of looking for guarantees in life? How will you behave differently?

Posted in History