I remember hearing the story of a scam that involves emailing people and offering “perfect football match predictions“, which involves a bit of probability. I can’t find the exact story, but It is something like this:
For example, Notre Dame is playing Michigan next week, so you send 100 letters to people, predicting the outcome of the game. It doesn’t really matter whether the recipients of your letter are known to bet on college football games. The information you provide will stimulate some of them to want to bet on the game. You name your letter something swell like The Perfect Gamble. In 50 letters you predict Notre Dame will win. In the other 50 you predict Michigan will win. You write a short introduction explaining that you have a secret surefire method of predicting winners and to prove it you are giving out free predictions this week. Notre Dame wins.
The next week you send a free copy of The Perfect Gamble to the 50 who got the letter that predicted a Notre Dame victory. In the introduction you remind them of last week’s prediction and you inform them how much they would have won had they followed your advice. To show there are no hard feelings and to give them one more chance to take advantage of your surefire system you provide—free of cost—one more prediction. This week Notre Dame is playing Oregon State. You divide your list of recipients and you send 25 letters predicting Notre Dame will win and 25 predicting Oregon State will win.
After the second game, you will have 25 people who have seen you make two correct predictions in a row. Three correct predictions in a row should convince several recipients of your letter that you do have a surefire way to pick winners. You now charge them a substantial fee for the next prediction and, if all goes as planned, you should make a handsome profit even after postage and handling costs.
– perfect prediction scam http://skepdic.com/perfectprediction.html
I thought the idea was pretty genius but I didn’t really think too much about it. A few days ago, I suddenly remembered this story and realized why they were scammed. It is because they do not see the bigger, “full” picture that the scamer sees: The people who received the email naturally believed that whatever they received from the email is the “whole thing”, instead of a part of a “bigger thing”, and the trick of probability took care of the rest.
Overtime, it occured to me that this story isn’t just a hypothetical situation. In life, we are all victims of the probability scam, because we often don’t see the bigger picture. We believe whatever choices that we make are the best choices, and stay laser-focused on what are currently working on. However, if we take a step back, there are a million other paths that we can take, with many other probabilities.
Time for some examples.
Within the software engineering circle, it is pretty common to dream about joining one of the big companies like Google or Facebook. However, the chance of getting in is pretty low, and it involves some luck. The probablity is low enough that some people don’t bother to try. However, there are people who beat the odds and joined one of them, despite not being smarter than their peers. How did they do that? They see the bigger picture, they see that probability as just part of the story.
Let’s say the probability of getting into any of the big companies is very low, around 10%, 1 out of 10. Pretty slim. But what about the the denominator? It turns out that there are many great big companies out there, if you are willing to expand your narror definition of big companies a little bit. Let’s see: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netfix, Uber, Lyft, Microsoft, Airbnb, Twitter… That’s at least 10 well-known companies that you can apply for. We do the math in reverse, calculating the chance of not getting into any of the 10 and then take the opposite:
1 – (1 – 0.9)^10 = 1 – 0.349 = 0.651
There is a good 65% chance that you can get in! And that’s not the full picture yet. Usually these companies have a cool down period less than a year. This means that you get to try again the next year while you work at the next best choice. So what are the odds of getting a job in 3 years? Same calculation:
1 – (1 – 0.651)^3 = 1 – 0.043 = 0.957
That’s a whopping 95.7% that you will get in! Now you can see the power of probability.
Porfolio (Instagram, GitHub)
Let’s say you have a porfolio online, be it Instagram for your creative work or GitHub for your hobby projects. The chance of them being discovered and getting likes or stars are pretty low. So how do you increase your engagement? Again, probability, denominator, the bigger picture.
Let’s take GitHub as an example. Assume the chance of getting a star from a random stranger is 10%, again, 1 out of 10. You can work on improving the denominator instead of the probability itself, because that’s just a small part of the picture. You could post your project on various forums, such as reddit, Hacker News, Product Hunt, or many other more specialized ones such as chat channels in Discords, Telegram, Slacks. Or you could drop a message to your local tech meetup group on meetup.com and ask for a slot to present your work. I am sure they would be happy to give you some time provided your work is interesting enough. That’s how many people that you have reached? Probably a lot. And don’t forget, you can multiply your chances by doing it multiple times. Just make sure you leave a gap of a few months in between so that you don’t become a spammer. Also, what’s stopping you from working on something new and present that instead for the next time?
The two examples above are good, but they are still quite narrow in some way. We often assume what we want to achieve is very specific. Become an actor, earn a million dollars, getting 1000 starts on GitHub, travel around the world, etc. However, the chance of getting into those goals can be slim. Sometimes, we need to take detours, or find another path all together.
Take a hypothetical situation. Say you may want to travel around the world, but short on money. What to do? Well, there is not only one way to travel around the world. Instead of saving up the money, you could work on some alternative ways to increase your odds. Instead of working in your current job, you could switch to one that allows you to travel often to different places. You could relocate to different countries and use them as your starting locations of your trips so that you spend less time and money on long-distance flights. Or if you really take a step back and think about it, you don’t have to travel around the world. You could try to find and pick up another goal to achieve. Perhaps you could find cooking more fun and enjoyable than travelling around the world.