How Likely Is Your Life?

By | November 26, 2013

Check out this wonderful video from Jason Silva.

I love what Jason says about changing perspectives. Right now I am standing at a desk, but I am also standing on the surface of a planet. (Actually, I’m standing a bit below the surface, seeing as I’m in the basement.) I’m also hurtling through space, following an elliptical orbit around the sun at a speed of about 67.000 miles per hour. (And that’s just the beginning of our amazing space travels, for anyone who cares to read up on them.)

How best to describe our everyday reality? Is life a thoroughly mundane affair, or is it something completely extraordinary? Well, yes.  It’s either. It depends on how you choose to look at it.

For example, what are the chances that you would be where you are doing what you’re doing right now? Or more simply, what are the chances that you would even exist to begin with? There are a couple of ways to answer that. In basic terms, the probability of an event which has already occurred is 1. So what are the chances that you exist? 100%. That’s as mundane as it gets. But let’s rephrase the question just a little. What were the chances that you would exist, say, a million years ago, or a thousand, or a hundred, or the day before you were born?

That’s hard to calculate.

familytreeConsider this: you have two parents,  four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 great-greats, 32 great-great-greats, 64 great-great-great-greats and on and on all the way back to the beginning of time. What if your parents had never gotten together? Well, obviously, you wouldn’t be here. But what about your grandparents? If one of your two sets of grandparents had never gotten together, one of your parents wouldn’t have been born, and you wouldn’t be here.

Are you with me so far?

If one of your four sets of great grandparents never got together, one of your grandparents would never have been born, thus preventing one of your parents from ever existing, thus preventing you from existing. If one of your eight sets of great grandparents…okay, you get it. As we regress through the generations, the number of couples who had to find each other increases exponentially.

But is that any big deal? How likely is it, after all, that a couple might get together?

Again, it’s hard to say. Some couples meet at work; some meet in college; some meet in high school. Some guys marry the girl next door. There’s a lot of that typical, mundane stuff. But then you hear these other stories about how couples get together.

The comedian Aziz Ansari tells a great story about a couple who meet in the parking lot of Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They meet because the man mistakes the woman’s car for his. Think of the items that had to fall in place in order for this to happen: they had to have bought similar-looking cars; they had to show up at the same store at roughly the same time; they had to park near each other. Take any of those elements away and they might never have found each other. Ansari adds some interesting details: the guy was out shopping for Drano because his roommate had clogged the toilet. He might just as easily have gone to Ace Hardware or Target. Or the roommate might not have clogged the toilet that day, or he might have clogged it later or earlier that day.

Change any of those details, and you change not only the likelihood that the couple would one day get married, but also the likelihood that any potential children they might have would ever exist.

Here’s another example, taken from my own experience.

I met my friend Mike in grad school in 1986. I made a passing comment about a book he was carrying — we struck up a conversation and eventually became good friends. What if I had never spoken to him or that first conversation had never taken hold?

If we hadn’t become friends, he never would have hired me 5 years later to work at U S WEST.

If I hadn’t taken that job, I would not have been there to take over “the Russia project” from my friend Cap when he got sick

If I hadn’t taken over that project, I would never have gone to Russia.

If I hadn’t gone to Russia, I would never have later been sent to Malaysia.

If I hadn’t gone to Malaysia, I would never have met my friend Leslie.

If I hadn’t met Leslie, I would never have been introduced to Suraya.

If I had never met Suraya, she and I would never have gotten married.

If she and I never got married, our three children wouldn’t exist.

(If this sounds familiar to long-time readers, you’re right. It is a modified version of part of a piece from five years ago.)

Look at all the stuff that had to happen just for one couple to get together. (And, believe me, I’m leaving a lot out.) But for you or I or any of us to exist, just counting back to the great-great-great-greats, more than 60 couples had to get together. Everything had to work out 60 times over. And if you go back another generation, it becomes 120, then 240, then 480. And on it goes — we aren’t even 1000 years back yet.

People have been around in our current form for about 200,000 years. How could everything just keeping working out time and time again across all those lives in all those centuries just so that you would one day be here? The easy answer to that question is: “Well, it didn’t have to end up being me. Someone else would have been here instead of me.”

That’s true, and it’s all very well when you’re talking about other people. But personally I like the fact that I, and not some alternative, am here. Although there is currently a 100% chance of my being here, it sure feels like I beat the odds along the way.

A few years ago, blogger Ali Binazir took a quasi-mathematical approach to calculating just what what those odds are. (Check it out in infographic form here.) His approach looks at a lot more factors than just whether individual couples would ever get together — things like the right sperm hitting the right egg. Over and over and again. Plus he takes it back to the beginning of all life, rather than just the beginning of modern humans. His conclusion?

Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 1027.  The number of atoms making up the earth is about 1050.  The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080.

Okay, so we’re trying to imagine a one followed by 2.685 million zeroes. The probability of you existing is one out of that huge number. Now that’s a long shot, folks. Binazir can be way, way, way off and we’re still talking about an unimaginably huge number. Think about it like this: if you were to sit down and write out your predictions for the winning PowerBall numbers week by week for the next fifty years, and dutifully play the assigned numbers every week, and actually win the jackpot every single time…that’s probably more likely than you ever having been born in the first place.

So there’s your choice. You’re standing (or more likely sitting) at a desk or you’re flying through space.

Both are true.

Your life is a 100% certainty or it is the rarest and most extraordinary of events.

Both are true.

As Jason says in the video, the two realities coexist, side by side. You can lead a life that is utterly mundane or a life that is almost too amazing to contemplate. It’s like traveling to a parallel universe or discovering an alternative reality. But you don’t have to go anywhere or discover anything. The two lives are one in the same. All that needs to change is your perspective.

  • Cynthia Griffin

    Excellent perspective. Though you do have an extra ‘ing’ in this sentence: How could everything just keeping working out time and time again across all those lives in all those centuries just so that you would one day be here?