June 23, 2009

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

My husband, a big time engineering/math geek, recommended The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. Not being a big time engineering/math geek, I was a tiny bit leery, but took the plunge anyway.

From the dust jacket: "Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance, and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar."

In this book, Mlodinow discusses topics in statistics and randomness using real life examples. Some of it is incredibly interesting. Some of it I admittedly found a little dull. Overall, though, it was well worth spending the time to read. This is not a "math book" or a textbook. Rather, it is written at a level that should be accessible to most non-mathematicians.

One of the parts of the book I found most interesting was that Mlodinow posits that much of what we attribute to individual success or failure is at least partially attributed to randomness. Is Bill Gates really that much more amazing that all the other very talented computer programmers? Or was he just someone who got a boost from random chance falling his way added on top of his abilities? Is the CEO of a faltering company to blame, or just a victim of randomness working against his or her efforts?

This book is by no means a "self-help" book. But at the end of the book, Mlodinow summed up with what I thought was the most important message to take away [from page 219]:

I believe it is important to plan, if we do so with our eyes open. But more important, my mother's experience [a story the author shares about how his mother survives the Holocaust through random chance] has taught me that we ought to identify and appreciate the good luck that we have and recognize the random events that contribute to our success. It has taught me, too, to accept the chance events that may cause us grief. Most of all it has taught me to appreciate the absence of bad luck, the absence of events that might have brought us down, and the absence of the disease, war, famine, and accident that have not--or have not yet--befallen us.

Overall, I would recommend this book. There are a few slow spots, but I just skimmed over them and found the rest of the book surprisingly interesting!

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