The Boxwooder
Number 118, May 1979
Front Cover

“The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…” – Shakespeare, Hamlet

lacta alea est.” (The die is cast.) – Julius Caesar

“Fortune, not prudence, rules the lives of men.” – Theophrastus, 327 B.C.

“None know the unfortunate, and the fortunate do not know themselves.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1747

“Fortune avails a man more than judgment.” – Publius Syrus, Sententiae, c. 43 B.C.

“Yes, success is everything. Failure is more common. Most achieve a middling thing, but fortunately one’s situation is always blurred, you never know absolutely quite where you are.” – Donald Barthelme, Great Days, 1979

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A FEW YEARS AGO when I was attending a scientific conference, a bunch of the attendees were sitting around having a drink or two after dinner, and, as so often happens among white-collar workers, the conversation first turned to the vast incomes of plumbers and bricklayers and then to the benefits of being on welfare. In a similar conversation at the Forty Acres Club at the University of Texas, I once told three of the faculty what they could do about it. I said, “Not everyone can be a professor of physics but with a little planning anyone could get on welfare. If it’s so much better than your present job, why don’t you consider it?”

But on this evening it was obvious that the tone was not resentment against the beneficiaries of welfare payments but a self-congratulatory mood laced with not a little smugness. I muttered something about success being mostly luck and was immediately pounced on as if I had committed a sacrilege. Brains, hard work, dedication, etc. was what determined success they said and luck had little to do with it.

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I considered the group as the conversation turned to other things. It was remarkably homogeneous though the people came from all over the country and each one was from a different company or university. They were all in rather middle-management positions, assistant professors to full professors, division heads in industry, GS-14’s to GS-18’s in government. Most were middle-aged or worse and most had a similar background.

The great depression and World War II form a commonality for a certain age group (now 55 to 70) that I believe is missing in others. One can almost do a profile of scientists of this age: Deprived youth, struggled to go to college, years wasted at war, GI Bill, rose above their expectations, and now able to enjoy their success. Some may have had private doubts about their success and higher-ranking people in their organizations may have considered them flunkies, but all in all they were able to consider themselves successful. I did, too, for that matter.

But this evening while the talk went on, I thought of something I had seen at, I think, the last World’s Fair in New York. One exhibit contained several hundred ping-pong balls that were suddenly released to fall through an assembly of bumpers, much as in a pin-ball machine, and that came to rest in a vertical plane with the balls stacked in compartments so that the tops of the stacks formed a perfect Gaussian normal density curve. This is the bell-shaped curve that has plagued generations of students by permitting only so many A’s and so many B’s and demanding that the E’s equal the A’s and the D’s equal the B’s while the great mass of students are clumped in the C’s.

It was not invented by teachers as a curse on students; anytime one has a large number of measurements of anything where the deviations from the mean (the arithmetic average) are random, the measurements will fit the normal curve. If it were the students’ weights or heights that were being measured, they would also fit the normal curve. The curve is centered on the mean, and the further one goes out from the mean, in either direction, the fewer ping-pong balls one finds in a stack.

In my vision that evening I saw the ping-pong balls at the far right of the mean discussing how superior they were to those at the far left and how they had, by their own efforts achieved their preferred standing.

Do I think it is all chance? Well, no, not that. Philip Zimbardo in his book, Shyness, claims that believing your success, or lack of success, is due to luck is a characteristic of shy people. I don’t quite believe it is all chance, but on the other hand, I believe chance plays a major role. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and you have to make thousands of decisions any one of which is capable of changing your entire future and about which you have almost no information on which to make a sensible choice.

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It is an exasperating characteristic of decision making that before you buy a can of beans you can consult consumer magazines and be pretty sure that you have made the proper choice, but when you must choose between courses of action, or inaction, that will surely affect your whole future life, you almost never have any real basis for your decision. In fact the more serious the decision, the less you normally have to go on. You buy a car with less definitive information than the can of beans, and you get married with less information than you buy a car.

I am convinced that chance plays a major role in almost everyone’s choice of profession. A few years ago I became interested in this idea and started asking people how they happened to become engineers or lawyers, but not Indian chiefs and was rather surprised to find so few people who had made a conscious choice. Many people had gone to college for a time and had happened to major in something, and when they got out, that’s the profession they were in. Or they had been unable to find a job in their major field, or they had lost interest in it and had completely changed areas with or without further schooling.

Only one of the people I questioned said, “When I was a boy, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer; I never wanted to be anything else, and I finally became one.” A geologist said he had professed interest in geology and signed up for a course in it one summer so he could go on a summer field trip that sounded attractive. A hydrodynamicist said he had found a part-time job working at the wave tank when he was in school at Stanford, and now all these years later, he was still doing hydrodynamics.

How did I happen to become a physicist? I don’t recall ever making a decision to do so. I wanted to be a mathematician, but the first advanced math course I took was disheartening. When I was complaining about it to a physics teacher, he said, “You are just confused; physics is what you thought math was.” I guess he was right. In any case I started taking more physics and less math.

I suppose one could argue that it is impossible to become a medical doctor or a lawyer by accident because one must go to specialized schools for a long period to enter these professions but it is clear that chance plays a major role here also. In spite of the rigors of medical school, for instance, it is well known that the real struggle is getting into medical school – anyone who gets in is capable of finishing and who gets in is largely a matter of chance. In fact this kind of thing is precisely what I have in mind when I think what the role of chance is in our lives.

There are many situations where one’s future career depends upon being chosen by someone else over people who are just as well qualified. Anyone who has ever been on a selection board knows the selections are seldom clear cut and that the choice among the top candidates might as well be made by drawing names out of a hat. I suspect that most often the final choice is made on criteria that are immaterial to the requirements of the position to be filled.

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Can people be divided into winners and losers? It would certainly appear to be true. We all know people who for no apparent cause seem to be always on the short end of the stick, and we hear people say, “He’s a loser.” In the complexities of human nature, I have no doubt that some people defeat themselves by means and for reasons they are unaware of. Also I believe it is easy to cultivate the idea of losing and turn yourself into a loser.

When a promising young boxer appears, he is matched for some time with fighters who are not expected to be able to beat him to build up his confidence and to condition him to expect to win. I think it is likely that if any of use are placed in losing situations enough times at the wrong juncture, we become permanent losers. I am suggesting that our self-confidence or lack thereof may well be due to chance – the chance that placed us in the right or wrong situation at the right or wrong time.

Whatever the underlying causes, some people seem to be lucky and some unlucky. Anyone who has been any kind of a supervisor knows that there are people who, apparently through no fault of their own, can be counted on to fail in crucial situations. Given a time when they must do a certain task, their wives or children will sicken and have to be taken to the hospital, or their mothers will die, or some other event for which they obviously cannot be blamed will take place to prevent them from carrying out their assignments. Such things happen over and over to the same people. It is enough to make one superstitious.

I always considered myself to be lucky. Numerous times I seemed to have obtained information by pure chance that turned out, a short time later to be important or even crucial. Let me give an example. One day I was leaving my office to attend a meeting at the Defense Atomic Support Agency, and as I rode down on the elevator, a man I knew only slightly said, “Have you heard about this anomalous business?” (Polywater, discussed in Boxwooder 37, was first called anomalous water.) I told him I had never heard of it, and he told me some of the astonishing details as we left the elevator at our basement parking area. Later that morning in the course of the meeting at the Defense Atomic Support Agency, an official of that agency came into the room and interrupted the meeting. He said that the agency had been getting calls from congress about anomalous water and no one in the agency had ever heard of it. “Does anyone here know what it is or anything about it?” None of the thirty or forty people said anything so I volunteered the little information I had. The man then said, “I thought if anyone would know about it, it would be someone from the Office of Naval Research.” As a result of a chance conversation on an elevator, I had upheld my agency’s reputation and had certainly done no harm to my own.

However no matter what the source of our self-confidence, I believe the shape and content of our lives can be viewed as a result of a multitude of decisions, made by us or for us by others, and that the best representation of this is the so-called decision tree – so called because if it were drawn on paper it would look like a tree. Each decision point is a fork, and after a few decisions one is irrevocably in a different part of the tree than one would have been had the decisions been different.

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Hindsight, though by no means perfect, is at least better than foresight, and one can look backwards and sometimes tell exactly what decisions brought him to his present state. No one can judge the results of his decisions at the time he must make them. Even the ones that seem obvious may be far from so. The decisions made by others about one are also difficult to evaluate. Often what seems to be an adverse decision will turn out to be one’s luckiest.

When I was a senior in high school, I was approached by a store owner in my hometown with a proposition. He would pay for my training in a business school if I would then take a job to keep books for his store. He was talking about a one-year business school, of course, not college. This was at a time when the depression was in full force, and I had no prospects for anything, so it seemed like the luckiest thing that could happen to me.

After graduation I waited to hear from him, but when no word came, I finally went to see him. He had changed his mind, he said, because of my conduct in my paper-route affair that he had only lately found out about. Two years before, I had mismanaged a paper route into failure and had left my guarantor holding the bag for over a hundred dollars which I had not repaid.

“That’s not the kind of person we want working for us,” said the man. At that time nothing could have convinced me that this was not a tragedy and that I had lost my best opportunity. But I suppose if I had not screwed up my paper route, I could today be the bookkeeper of a small store in a small town. I don’t say that would be worse than my present situation, but it would surely be different. You might argue that chance was not involved in this episode, that I was merely reaping what I had sown, but another many might not have considered the paper route affair serious enough to disqualify me, and for that matter, it was by chance that he found out about it.

Frequently what afterwards appears to have been a major branch point in one’s decision tree turns on a trivial pivot. One of mine that I have occasionally thought of occurred early in World War II. The Air Corps advertised in the college newspaper for people who could qualify for weather prediction training. After the training one would be commissioned as a meteorological officer. The required courses in physics and math corresponded exactly with what I had taken.

I was getting restless about the war and the draft was sure to get me shortly, so I applied. In due time I was interviewed, given written and oral exams, and finally a physical exam. Everything went swimmingly until the physical at which time I was found to have a fever of two degrees. Arrangements were made for me to return in two weeks to repeat the physical. For reasons now long forgotten, when the two weeks had passed, so had my interest in becoming a weatherman in the Air Corps. Again, had I not had a two-degree fever on that day, surely my subsequent life would have been quite different.

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I have not here even mentioned the most obvious manifestation of chance in our lives – the narrow escapes from death or physical injury that everyone has experienced often enough to make him wonder how he’s here at all. My favorite example of this occurred many years ago when I was in the army. A group of us were sitting around talking when one soldier’s rifle was accidentally discharged. The bullet tore through the back belt loop off one of the soldier’s trousers and left a slight mark on his woven belt – therefore missing his spine by just the thickness of his belt. Surely he must have felt, all the rest of his life, that chance was a major factor in his mere existence.

In summary, I don’t mean to take anything away from the pride of people who believe that their efforts account for their successes in their chosen fields, but I do feel that the recognition that chance is such a major factor should lend humility to all of us and make us a little more tolerant and understanding of those who found that chance, at critical times, worked against them and left them by the wayside.

Men are not ping-pong balls, and a person’s industry and striving are certainly important to his accomplishments, but there’s no such thing as a self-made man. After one has done his damndest, blind chance may well play the determining card, and where you are on the normal curve may be as much luck as anything.

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Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Stylescript. Textstock is 70-lb. Hammermill Gray Vellum; cover stock is unknown. Edited, published, and printed by Jake Warner. Printed on a 10 x 15 C&P in an edition of 470 copies.

The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770

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