Probability is Not Destiny

Take this headline: “Do you know that eating a daily helping of processed meat increases your risk of colon cancer by 20%?” It’s true, but not quite. It’s a true lie.

Here’s what it really means. A person’s lifetime risk of colon cancer is about 5% (thanks to modernity), and eating processed meat every day boosts a person’s absolute risk of cancer by 1 percentage point, thereby making it 6%. That’s 20% of the 5% lifetime risk.

So, put another way, if a hundred people buy a chicken burger every day from the local eatery and eat it while commuting to office, over the course of a lifetime one of them will get colon cancer (in addition to the five who would have gotten it regardless). That’s not a risk you may want to take, but it’s not a death sentence either.

It’s important to distinguish between probability and destiny. Eating processed meat every day increases the probability of cancer, but it doesn’t mean that you are destined to get cancer. Just because you are a chain smoker doesn’t mean you are doomed to die before your time.

Probability affects the multitude, it doesn’t care about the singular. Roughly 20% of people who are severely overweight live to a ripe old age without ever doing anything about it.

But, the opposite is also true. About 40% of people with diabetes, chronic hypertension, or cardiovascular disease were fit as a fiddle before they got ill. Just because you eat healthy, don’t smoke, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, doesn’t mean you have bought yourself a better life span. What you have bought is a better chance of having a better life span.

And that’s what I want to emphasise: chance, not certainty.

You are like a blackjack player (who is also an expert card counter) in a casino playing a game of odds. The card counting system (like a healthy lifestyle) works only because it tilts the odds ever so slightly from the house to you. In any particular hand, you now have a better chance of being right, but there’s also a decent chance you are wrong. And this is true not just in health and blackjack, but in life and business as well.

When it comes to heart health, there are so many variables — exercise and lifestyle, consumption of salt, alcohol, sugar, cholesterol, trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and so on — that despite our best efforts, any one variable or a combination of them can take the whole thing down. Therefore, it would be a mistake to pin the blame on or give the credit to any one component. Similarly, all the advice, best practices, battle-tested strategies, rules, laws, and frameworks to make the best decisions in life and business can only take us so far. There are too many variables that are out of our control.

Probability is not destiny. We may make all the mistakes and come out unscathed, and we may make all the right moves and still lose. But our primary goal should always be to do whatever possible to increase our odds, i.e., focus on what we can control — be it business, investment, health, or happiness. Rest is chance.

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