ad astra per alia porci

uncertainty and how to benefit from it in life (especially in university)
May 25, 2007, 6:54 am
Filed under: Lifeskills

Shit happens. It’s a fact of life. In fact, shit happened last week for me, when I went late for my scholarship interview because I recorded the wrong time on my cellphone. It was an unexpected, random, wild event that might have hurt my chances of securing the scholarship.

But the reverse also happens. Serendipitous, fortuitous events that impact our lives in a positive sense also occur. I am struggling to remember one such event to back up my claim (it might be because I respond positively to negative stimuli/occurrences and lukewarm-ly to postive ones, which might in turn explain my depressed worldview at times), but I guess for most people (except for the Haitian voodoo-cursed/seriously unlucky) good things do happen out of nowhere once in a while. One of my friend related to me a regrettable incident in which a pretty girl offered to share an umbrella with him during a rainy day and he promptly and reflexively rejected her kind offer. He probably made Lady Fortune choke on her drink and Cupid drop his arrows in surprise when he wrecked the best-laid plans of the gods with a simple “No thanks.” Good things can happen but the shit can come from your reaction. But I digress.

Statistically speaking, imagine a bell curve that tapers at both ends (yes, it’s the normal distribution curve thingy we had in JC). The Gaussian distribution is a very very vague representation of a much more complex reality in which shit/fortune happens much more often than indicated by the curve, but for the sake of simplicity let’s just utilise the example of the bell curve.

Consider the plagiarised diagram below:

Bell Curve

Now, just ignore the numbers. We are using the curve above, not the one below.

Assume the X-axis to be the shittiness/fortunate-ness of events in your life, and the Y-axis to be the probability of any event happening.

Hence, as inappropriately represented by the number 100 at the middle of the curve, painfully average and un-excitingly normal events are the most probable events in our lives. These events include going to the toilet, eating crap food court meals, daydreaming about the girl/guy/chimpanzee you will probably never get and eating noodles with chopsticks and not with your index and middle fingers.

The extreme, orange area on the left side represent the improbable shit that happens not often at all. These include the time when your pet was run over by your neighbour’s car which happened to be a monster truck in which case there probably was nothing of your pet left after the car is done with it’s movin’ and the incident where the Martians decided to transport you back in time and you find yourself naked in Hitler’s bedroom with the word “Jew” written on your forehead, literally.

The extreme, orange area on the right side represents the nice, fluffy, heartwarming things that happen in life that you feel should occur again and again. These include the event in which Scarlett Johansson mysteriously decides to be your girlfriend, the day Singaporeans decide that courtesy and giving way while taking public transport is actually a good thing and your mysterious decision to eat noodles using your index and middle fingers as chopsticks which somehow made your crush fall in love with you when he/she/it sees you doing that.

Hence, in life, we should seek to maximise the possibility of extremely good things happening and reduce or eliminate the possibility of really bad shit happening (unless you are a masochist or an extremely troubled and depressed person, or an accountant, of course).

What should we do to hedge our risk and exposure to negative events and increase the possibility of positive events in the context of university life? Here are some ideas.

  1. To find the correct girlfriend/boyfriend/business partner/pet amoeba, know more people.
    1. Go to parties, wine-tasting sessions, pen-spinning enthusiasts’ club meetings etc. to increase the chance of knowing more people, since these are deliberately social sessions where the sole purpose is to get to know more people.
    2. For every person you know, your network of people you know increases exponentially. For example, knowing one friend who knows another ten friends (which is quite little) doesn’t mean you have extended your network by 11 guys. Consider the fact that these ten friends will each have another X amount of friends each; people will know you by proxy and you can use these links next time.
    3. Sampling theory at work: know more people before choosing amongst them for a girlfriend/boyfriend. Don’t just take the first person that comes along; knowing more people increases your chance of finding that Special One.
    4. What is the downside/potential shit that can happen from networking? Nothing, unless you consider spilling beer on your shirt a really negative event that will shake the very foundations of your live and beliefs.
  2. Don’t lend money, even if there is interest and even if it’s your girlfriend/boyfriend/ starving professor (Ok. Maybe you should. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
    1. Lending money involves assymetric exposure to risk.
    2. The maximum downside is you might never get your capital back because the bugger absconded with the cash and is happily sipping ice lemon tea from a tall glass somewhere in the Caribbean.
    3. The maximum upside is you will get your capital plus interest back (not even your significant other would offer to pay you more than what is initially agreed upon. This is a categorical fact. I bet my balls on it.)
    4. Max downside: loss of 100%. Max upside: gain of X%, of which X is usually below 10%. Go figure.
    5. You should only lend money when it is micro-credit, i.e. it’s a small enough amount that you are ok with losing and the potential payoffs are extraordinary.
      1. A prime example would be treating a friend to lunch or paying for his/her drink during lunch. A bowl of noodles costs $3; a canned drink costs $1.30. Potential payoff? Priceless goodwill and friendship, a good impression of you and the smile of a friend. Reject your friend’s advances to pay you back for the meal the first three times with a sheepish grin but accept the cash at the fourth.
  3. No drugs (easy to do), no sex (hard for men), yes alcohol.
    1. Drugs and sex offers limited benefits that lasts only for a short period while the potential downside risks are immense. Contemplate a life spent in a rehabilitation centre, the social stigma against druggies and being a father at the young at of 21, amongst other potential scenarios. Not good for resume.
    2. Alcohol is ok within defined limits. Getting drunk is ok when you have friends that stay sober; getting drunk is not ok when you drive after that or partake in sexual orgies that results in unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore drinking alcohol is a means to socialise too. Take risks when the payoffs are worth it and the downside is limited.
  4. The Boy Scouts were right: be prepared (especially for the unexpected)
    1. Think of things like umbrellas, tissue paper (unused and unrecycled), life insurance, loose change and the jokes you can’t seem to find when you are around members of the opposite sex. They are always most useful when you don’t have them.
    2. Academically speaking, do not try to spot topics during exams. Prepare for exams way before hand and be consistent in your work. I sound like my mum.
    3. For exams, prepare the “model” answer (i.e. what your teacher teaches you to write) and give them that in your essays, but also remember to add some spice and take some risk in expectation of a big payoff by adding a well substantiated idea that is refreshing and new. Hedge the risk of a new point of view with the beef of tried-and-tested points.
  5. Get appointed to positions of leadership – work the law of randomness in your favour
    1. Take the examples of being say, the captain of the football team or chairman of the investment club.
    2. There is assymetric risk with regards to success on the field or in your investments.
    3. If the team loses or your investments tank, you can always blame it on your lack of experience and write heroic eulogies about the value of your hardwork to become second placed or the rigour of your investment research and how the market let you down. There is always a nice, politically correct explanation for failure.
    4. However, if your team wins the championship because the opponent’s only goalkeeper mysteriously died of food poisoning or your investment club becomes the next Tiger fund, you will be the one that is most lauded for “leading the team/club” to such great heights.
    5. The beauty of being a leader is that the success of your team/club is almost always the consequence of (usually random) actions other than your attempts at “leadership”. If your team has a star striker and he scores regularly, you will benefit most from it since the success of the team at the end of the day will be seen as the result of your leadership and the efforts of the team as a whole.
    6. The point here is that you will benefit disproportionately in comparison to the amount of effort you put in and be able to rely on the bevy of random events that can lead to the success of your team by simply being a leader of something.
  6. Take a lot of risk with your cash when it comes to investing.
    1. You are young and probably won’t need the cash in your bank anytime too soon.
    2. Start a joint-venture, plunge into the stock market or even start betting horse races. You never know if things might go your way, and even if you lose your cash, it’s not as if you can’t earn it back quickly enough once you graduate.
    3. The payoff from a successful start-up or a large bet is enormous; think of Google. One big break is all you need.
  7. Wear nice clothes
    1. A seemingly shallow idea but take heed: I believe it shifts the entire bell curve of life to the right/positive/fortunate side.
    2. Simply speaking, everything that can happen to you happens to be better than it is when you are dressed badly. Think of how just being better dressed enhances the girl’s first impression of you at a chance meeting that can make or break a possible relationship.
    3. Dressing well has an positive effect on your life that increases exponentially and has a “snowball” effect. One good impression means the person is even more likely to favour you next time, and each time you interact with the person the impressions gets better and better. The more positive the image, the higher the chance of a person creating positive events for you, and unfortunately the reverse happens too.
  8. This is probably the most important point: Seize opportunities!
    1. Remember the anecdote of the friend that rejected the girl’s kind offer of shelter? He pissed in the face of Fate when she is kindest to him.
    2. Carpe diem, diem del carpe, dieme carpe etc.
    3. ALWAYS take up unexpected, positive opportunities. Sometimes the odd, unexpected event is so unexpected and alien that we reject it when we see it happen, only to regret later (think of all the “what ifs” and “should have been” moments in your life).
    4. Approach life with a sense of opportunism and positivity. Do not bite the hand that feeds you if it decides to feed you.

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To win without risk is to triumph without glory.

Comment by Toh

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