Life is full of figures. We absorb probability from elementary math and magazine charts; we learn statistics for the SAT and our economics classes. Numbers surround us. The life I lead is not based on graphs or percentages. I’ve seen the most carefully planned efforts go awry, and the most haphazard situations turn out perfectly. Whatever powers determine the outcome of an event are beyond our control.
One of the simplest probability questions is one of a flipped coin. A coin can land head or tails, with equal chances for each. But what if the coin were to land on its edge? The probability of a hypothetical coin landing on its hypothetical edge is about one in 6,000. And this is only in a very specific, theoretical scenario. Flipping a coin thousands of times probably won’t get very far.
So is it impossible? The actions we label as impossible are enslaved by human experience and skepticism. Have we seen it happen? Can we comprehend its occurrence? Everything is limited by the few millennia of human existence, made up of assumptions. Theories are created and tested, later becoming theorems, but there is no absolute test to prove possibility. In theory, under the law of aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly. But we live in a practical world with real flying bumblebees. Instead of impossible, such concepts are improbable. Improbability, which implies a slight possibility, is nevertheless possible.
In one of my favorite works by J.D. Salinger, a character describes how aiming can lead us away from our goals. In a game of marbles, he says, “if you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you sort of secretly didn’t expect too much to do it…. there’d have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.” Perhaps all the calculations and statistics lead us astray—we need to stop aiming for what is labeled “possible” and instead hit what we can. Maybe it’s a strange technique to shoot for something without aiming, but I have been known to score multiple strikes while bowling without looking. It may just be a matter of chance—but leaving matters in the hands of chance may be better than taking them into our own.
Statistics can help us to generalize when we need information, but this information cannot dictate our lives. Where would innovation be without having taken chances? Discovery is about proving the preconceptions wrong. Maybe there’s a world out there where, every now and then, a coin is flipped onto its edge. If I can find that place, you can bet that it’ll take me less than 6,000 tries.
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