Caption: Shocked Man (image credit)
By Hunter Glenn
Roy Cleveland Sullivan was struck by lightning seven times. Eight, actually (if you believe him)—seven are documented.
Later in life, people began to shun him during thunderstorms, for obvious reasons. Or better said, perhaps, for obvious feelings. Anyone can understand why people felt the way they did, but were they being reasonable? Would you stand next to Roy during a thunderstorm?
Imagine how you would feel if your alarm only failed to go off when it really mattered. Or you could never find a parking spot when you were in a rush. Or you got dumped the same day you got fired the same day you got sick. How did you get sick? Because you got a flat tire, and your phone died right then, and you had to walk to find a phone. And then it started raining…
Bad karma! The universe is out to get you! You’re cursed, you have the worst luck, etc… After all, which is more likely, that these are all just coincidences, or that they aren’t, coincidences, because destiny has its hands in your life?
Well, let’s check! There are seven billion people on earth. So, every day, there are seven billion different days lived. One of those seven billion days has to be the most improbable day of all, a day so improbable it only happens once out of every seven billion days lived.
To put that in perspective, there are about 30,000 days in the life of a 90 year old. One of those days will be the most improbable of the 30,000, a day so improbable it only happens once in 30,000 days of life, once in a 90-year lifetime. Imagine the most improbable day you’ll have in your life if you live to 90, the absolute craziest! More mind-blowing than any day of your life so far. That’s a one out of 30,000 kind of event.
Well, that’s nothing compared to a one out of seven billion kind of day, and one of those happens once every single day. It’s a day more improbable than the craziest day of your life, more improbable than the craziest day in the life of anyone you know. If 200,000 people lived to be 90 years old, only one of them would have a day this crazy!
And yet, one such day happens once a day, somewhere on earth, like winning the weird lottery.
Caption: Roulette (Image credit)
You kinda have to feel sorry for that one person. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, life conspires against her to blow her mind with how ridiculously, impossibly bad (or good) a day can get. And then the next day, and for the rest of her life…? Nothing. Perfectly normal.
Nobody she talks to has ever had something like that happen to them. Some people think she must be being punished for being a bad person and avoid her, like people avoided Roy Sullivan when he kept being stuck by lightning. What would she think? Would she be able to realize it could just be chance? How would she feel? That’s the kind of thing that can really mess with your head…
Just by chance, amazing, crazy things are supposed to happen. How often do one out of a million days happen on earth? 7,000 times a day. If you’re 30, your life so far has about 10,000 days in it. Imagine the most amazingly improbably day of your life so far, one you might be sure can’t be just chance. Well, just by chance, a day like that should happen on Earth 700,000 times a day.
If more than chance is at play, then maybe these days happen more than they’re supposed to. If 700,000 people a day have a one out of 10,000 kind of day, we might say “Eh, that’s just what chance would predict.”. If we get more than that, then we can say that it can’t be just chance.
Interestingly, if we saw these days not happening at all, we would also wonder if something more than chance was at play. Maybe destiny, or aliens, or conspiracies to make people’s lives weird, or conspiracies to make people’s lives normal..
Does that seem strange? Imagine a 6-sided die. Generally, it should roll a “3” about one out of six times. If instead, we got a “3” five out of six times, we’d know that it wasn’t just chance. Probably, someone loaded the die to land on “3” a lot. But if we rolled the die a hundred times, and never once got a “3,” we’d be suspicious then, too. If we rolled it another thousand times, and still never got a “3,” we’d know that something more than chance was at play; the die was probably loaded not to land on “3.”
So, according to chance, crazy coincidences have to happen a certain amount. If they happen more than they should, or if they happen less than they should, we can guess that it’s not just chance, something else is affecting people’s lives.
Sometimes, surviving a disease is a one out of a million chance. But that just means that it is going to happen one out of those million times. We wouldn’t point to that and say that destiny saved that person or something. One out of a million means that one of those million people is supposed to get better!
This should make us question testimonials of miracle cures due to prayer or other forms of spiritual intervention. After all, we don’t get to see the millions who prayed and didn’t get cured. We only hear about the one case where someone prayed and then got better. Yet was it due to prayer or due to chance?
Most doctors never get a one out of a million cure. If they do, it might be the craziest thing to happen in their life and they might think destiny is intervening. But doctors don’t know everything (in fact, doctors’ grasp of probability is surprisingly poor).
And now, you know better than them.
Caption: Doctor (image credit)
So! The next time something crazy happens to you, remember:
Life is allowed to (occasionally) be crazy. Life is supposed to be crazy. Life is naturally crazy. One-out-of-a-thousand days will happen in your life every few years.
And the next time you hear about something crazy happening to someone else, remember:
one-out-of-a-million days happen 7,000 times a day, somewhere on earth.
Is it destiny? Maybe. Karma? Aliens? Time Travelers? Maybe…but maybe not. It might just be chance.
Learn to look at the improbable and say “Maybe” to its face. And if your friend ever gets struck eight times by lightning, maybe you’ll know not to think they’re a bad person.
Questions to Consider:
• Suppose something is so rare as to only happen once every thousand days. How many of those things would have happened so far in your life?
• Why would it be weird if a one out of a thousand day never happened to someone?
• How many one out of a hundred days would a normal year of life have? How many have you probably had in the last year? In your whole life?
• What past events have you thought are too incredible to be just chance? Do any of them now seem like they might have just been coincidences after all?
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism – for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com. He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as ABC 6 and Fox 28, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, and elsewhere.