Playing the Odds

Millions of people play the lottery every week. Some just buy a “quick pick” ticket (which lets the computer pick for them). Some faithfully play the same numbers over and over. Some have clever schemes.

Enough people play that even though the odds are long, a few people win. Invariably the winners are interviewed, and people are interested in what made them special. Did they have a system? Did they have a “feeling” that they would win today?

It makes a good story, and we all love a good story. We’re wired for it.

If a lottery winner wrote a book called “How I won the lottery, and you can too!” would you read it? (Believe it or not, many people make a living selling such advice — it’s usually some kind of psychic deal.) Of course you wouldn’t; you’re not foolish.

But you have to wonder, aren’t most of the books in the success section of the bookstore just by people who lucked out once? Microsoft and Google both only had one major breakthrough (an insanely great licensing deal for DOS, and a great search engine respectively). Everything else they did was through incremental building and improvement. Yet everyone seems to be focused on the big win. How can I make my numbers get drawn this week in the lottery? What’s the secret?

There is no secret, of course. Roll the dice. Be prepared to lose.

The bulk of technological progress, and even financial progress, is incremental. Just look at the difference between a good investment and a bad investment. A company with a 5% rate of growth feels slow and plodding. If a medium sized company can post a 15% growth rate every year, it’s moving so fast it probably feels like it’s running off the rails.

Even so, the company growing at 5% will still double in 14 years (handy trick: take 70 and divide by the percent growth to get the approximate doubling time). Computer power doubles about every 18 months, but the industry was never driven by people looking to win a lottery. They just kept making die sizes smaller, overcoming each technical barrier as it arose, and packing more transistors on a chip. DNA sequencing technology is growing at an even faster rate.

Keep asking yourself “How can I cut this machine’s cycle time in half? How can I cut the scrap by a third? What similar product could we produce that has a higher demand? How can I cut energy use by 10%?”

If you do this enough, you’ll still win, and the odds are a lot better.

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