Once In A Lifetime

I want to try to explain part of why the world seems so crazy these days.

Evelyn Marie Adams won $3.9 million in the New Jersey lottery in 1986. Four months later she won again, collecting another $1.4 million.

'‘I’m going to quit playing,’’ she told the New York Times. ‘‘I’m going to give everyone else a chance.’’

It was a big story at the time, because number-crunchers put the odds of her double win at a staggering 1 in 17 trillion.

Three years later two mathematicians, Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller, threw cold water on the excitement.

If one person plays the lottery, the odds of picking the winning numbers twice are indeed 1 in 17 trillion.

But if one hundred million people play the lottery week after week – which is the case in America – the odds that someone will win twice are actually quite good. Diaconis and Mosteller figured it was 1 in 30.

That number didn’t make many headlines.

'‘With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is apt to happen,” Mosteller said.

That’s part of why the world seems so crazy, and why once-in-a-lifetime events seem to happen regularly.

There are about eight billion people on this planet. So if an event has a 1-in-a-million chance of occurring every day, it should happen to 8,000 people a day, or 2.9 million times a year, and maybe a quarter of a billion times during your lifetime. Even a 1-in-a-billion event will become the fate of hundreds of thousands of people during your lifetime. And given the media’s desire to promote shocking headlines, you will hear their names and see their faces.

Physicist Freeman Dyson once explained that what’s often attributed to the supernatural, or magic, or miracles, is actually just basic math. He explained:

In the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at the rate of roughly one per month.

The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about 30,000 per day, or about a million per month.

With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events.

Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on average, every month.

The idea that incredible things happen because of boring statistics is important, because it’s true for terrible things too.

Think about 100-year events. One-hundred-year floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, financial crises, frauds, pandemics, political meltdowns, economic recessions, and so on endlessly. Lots of terrible things can be called “100-year events”.

A 100-year event doesn’t mean it happens every 100 years. It means there’s about a 1% chance of it occurring on any given year. That seems low. But when there are hundreds of different independent 100-year events, what are the odds that one of them will occur in a given year?

Pretty good.

If next year there’s a 1% chance of a new disastrous pandemic, a 1% chance of a crippling depression, a 1% chance of a catastrophic flood, a 1% chance of political collapse, and on and on, then the odds that something bad will happen next year – or any year – are … not bad.

It’s always been like that. Even periods that we remember as stretches of good times were pockmarked with chaos. The glorious 1950s were actually a continuous chain of grief – adjusted for population growth, more Americans lost their jobs during the 1958 recession than did in any single month during the Great Recession of 2008. Same with the 1990s. We remember it as a calm decade, but the global financial system nearly fell apart in 1998, during the greatest prosperity boom we’ve ever seen.

What’s different now is the size of the global economy, which increases the sample size of potential crazy things that might happen. When eight billion people interact, the odds of a fraudster, a genius, a terrorist, an idiot, a savant, an asshole, and a visionary moving the needle in a significant way on any given day is nearly guaranteed. Social media then amplifies it, giving the impression that it’s more common than it really is.

The world breaks about once every ten years, on average. For your country, state, town, or business, once every one to three years is probably more common.

Sometimes it feels like terrible luck, or that bad news has new momentum. More often it’s just raw math at work. A zillion different things can go wrong, so at least one of them is likely to be causing havoc in any given moment.