Jun 5Liked by Dan Gardner

"An aggregate index combining thousands of individual stocks whose prices went up or down today for a myriad of reasons we can only barely grasp — even if we did a detailed analysis of each stock, which we did not — finished down (or up) today for reasons no one fully understands.” Classic Gardner quote. Hope you don't mind if I use this in my own practice. Fully attributed of course.

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I listen to the Wharton Moneyball podcast where four Wharton Business School professors talk about sports and analytics between themselves and with guests. For years and years they have been marvelling that hockey playoff games are a coin flip, more than other sports. In fact, in one show they computed the length of a series required to establish that the better team has won, and I think hockey was way up there in the range of best of 32.

I think there are two important conclusions to draw from this. One is to just enjoy the playoffs and take what comes. The other is to take the regular season more seriously.

I greatly dislike it when players say the regular season doesn’t matter and all they want to do is win the Cup.

The Boston Bruins were the best team in the NHL in 2022-23. They had a season for the ages. And either Florida or Las Vegas will win the Cup tournament. My Ottawa Senators didn’t play well enough to qualify for the tournament, to the organization’s shame. Three important ways of looking at success.

I’ll close by mentioning that for all the over-rotation on winning the playoffs, the personal statistics that matter most to people are almost all season-long.

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Another tendency that demonstrates recurring human bias is our choice of where and when we typically direct our empathy. It ought to be done with an impartial spirit, don’t you agree?

As a Maple Leafs fan, I would like to comfort Boston fans (this year!) with every sympathetic bone in my body, to a similar degree as that which I might extend to the impoverished, the invalid or any other soul who has suffered from Dame Fortune’s caprices. ‘There but for fortune’, after all!

Why, oh why, do I fail to live up to these expectations of myself?

On another note sparked by your intriguing post, I am now forever prevented from referring to a one hundred-year storm or flood or fire, by the excellent article by a certain Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg on the subject of The Law of Regression to the Tail. It turns out that, due to climate change, the prime reason we can have three such storms in a row is not the unintuitive nature of luck but rather that such events are not normally distributed, and if we don’t act to suppress the factors causing them, they will become more and more frequent and more and more severe.

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Of course in any dynamic activity such as professional sports, lucky bounces will occur.

But at this highest level, surely performance on the day will be the deciding factor in the vast majority of cases.

Beyond the Michael Jordans and the Sidney Crosbys who can control an outcome with their innate skills, there are also the Paul Henderson moments ... even less-than-stellar athletes can have that moment of 120% performance, that frequently makes the difference.

That is not "luck" so much as an alignment of skills and effort and intuition and opportunity.

Skilled athletes tend to "make their own luck" by applying their skills and their ability to predict what is going to happen ... so that they are pre-disposed to receive whatever "lucky break" might arise. And then their skills allow them to capitalize on "luck" in ways that a lesser athlete might not.

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I agree with this. Randomness (luck) is too often ignored as a contributor to (human) outcomes. But I will also say that sometimes human agency (or lack of agency) is is under-represented in attribution. So many times in my life I have heard about, or met, 'unlucky' people, so described, who upon closer examination, just have really poor decision making skills and bad judgement, which is as much a contributor to their problems as any randomness. Of course, how they ended up with bad judgment, can also be attributed maybe to some degree of randomness.

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Great piece. Very thoughtful. Certainly luck is mitigated over 82 games but in a single game it can be transformative.

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Great read. For good or bad it reminded me of my days as a goalie, many, many years ago (usual caveats apply - anecdote not data, personal bias, etc.). I only remember two games I ever played, well, two games and two plays specifically. We were in our local playoffs and I was ‘seeing’ the puck as I pretty much never had before and most assuredly would never again. Every team we played was ranked above us. In the first game we went to overtime and I remember diving across from left to right (days before the butterfly style) to stop a shot from one of the best players on the other team with my stick paddle. The paddle was not perpendicular to the ice, rather it was parallel, without doubt that save was pure unadulterated luck. The other player had the open net, he had the shot, only by pure chance did the 1 cm (?) thick portion of my stick keep us in the game, we won. Two games later, league final, also overtime, the best player on the other team broke down the left side, wound up and scored (heartbreak btw), just beating my glove hand. The first time was pure luck, the second time, had I been luckier we would have still been in the game, but I probably would have never remembered the play. Luck was a thing, I never felt it more than as a goalie (you have to be good to be lucky, lucky to be good).

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Although not prominent in most sports and financial reporting, there are plenty of people who well understand the role of luck a.k.a. randomness a.k.a. variance in those and other fields.

Sabermetrics, dating from the 1970s, applies these concepts to baseball. "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" was one of the earlier popular accounts of randomness in the stock market. Nate Silver applies statistical concepts to politics, and is often denounced for being "wrong" by people who don't understand the concept of probability and the problem of small sample size intrinsic to major elections. The real estate collapse of 2007 was caused by people who knew just enough statistics to be dangerous. (They understood variance but not covariance.)

But, yes, in general, we are bad at seeing randomness. We want causal explanations of things. We want to blame someone when our team loses. We blame climate change for every extreme weather event. The financial press has a glib explanation every damn day for why the stock market did what it did that day.

Yet things often happen for reasons that no one really understands. We humans, who hate uncertainty, are really uncomfortable with that.

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Great piece, even though I'm a Leafs fan. This reminds me of our current response to wildfires: "surely we should have been ready for that" or "why wasn't someone on top of this", or "the worst on record". We can figure out the possibility but not the frequency or location. and it may or may not be related to climate change, but for the most part wildfire occurrences are just random events, which can spread, obviously, but we have difficulty accepting that because it affronts our notion of human superiority.

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Great piece ... and I say that as a Leaf fan

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Great article, thanks. I just finished Taleb's Fooled by Randomness which has some interesting takes on the theme as well (thanks, by the way - your recent book's Black Swan reference sent me on a 1000-page Taleb binge).

As for hockey, as a Sens fan my perception is that they keep finding impressive/unlucky ways to lose. I would be interested in a statistic for "other team on the ice when a player or their team sets a record". My gut tells me the Sens would be #1 when looking at the years they've been in the league. Thanks for allowing me to vent :)

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I love this article, Dan. I, too, am a Boston Bruins fan, and have been since the days I listened to Saturday Night Hockey with Foster Hewitt on the radio. Besides that, though, I see the role of luck everywhere in all aspects of life, from sports to health to wealth to ability. Most people don't see it at all. I appreciate your insights, and your skill (lucky you!) at being able to express them so clearly.

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