Why Bad Odds Can Be Good For You

Sometimes I have an idea for something I want to make. When I mention it to friends, I eventually hear “interesting, but odds of it working are slim to none” And I’ll think, yes, I agree. But the idea stays on my mind. Slowly I realize I want to do it anyway. I don’t care what the odds are. I want to see how close I can get to matching the idea in my head to something real in the world. I don’t need the project to succeed, in total, for it to be interesting. And if it fails it will be far more interesting, with many lessons to learn from, than a dozen boring successes. If I only did things that had high odds of success, I wouldn’t be successful.

This is why I have trouble with the question: “What would you do if you could not fail?” It’s a fun question for poking at the specter of fear, revealing how we limit ourselves before we event consider many ideas, but it’s limiting too. If I couldn’t fail perhaps I wouldn’t do much of anything at all. It’s often overcoming a challenge that motivates me. Being superman might be a bore. When people tell me the odds for an idea working are low, I consider that ideas with great odds are boring. I agree that going to school to study widget making to be a junior widget maker at WidgetCorp has high odds, but odds of what exactly? High odds of security perhaps, but if you don’t like widgets it’s also high odds of depression. Another popular saying is nothing ventured, nothing gained. A safe venture yields only safe gains, meaning a safe venture isn’t really an adventure at all. They say most businesses fail in the two years. That most books don’t sell many copies. Why is this surprising? The interesting things in life are hard. Do you want an interesting life? Then you have to accept different odds.

Of course we are lousy at predicting odds too. We assume all people are the same and have equal chances at the same challenges. We love to throw numbers around, pretending they grant us certainty of the future when we know they do not. Variables change. What seemed the safest choice one day might become the riskiest a year later. Evaluating risk is wise, but so is evaluating the risk of overvaluing that evaluation. Now and then you have to decide to do it anyway. That despite all the logic and rationalizing there is something in your intuition and emotion that needs to take this risk in the face of what all the numbers say.

For interesting ideas bad odds are far better than zero odds. A 5% chance at a dream might be as good as it ever gets. A lifetime of strictly 90% probable choices is a sad life for many people. Sometimes in life you have to take a 10% or 20% chance now and then  just to know what a 90% choice really feels like, a sense you lose if that’s all you ever take. You learn something about yourself  no one else can give you by taking a chance purely because you want to do it. And you keep the discoveries you make about yourself regardless of the outcome. You learn more about what failure means, and how to avoid it and recover from it, things you will need in life no matter how safe you play it. Taking a chance is also the best way to meet other people willing to take chances, who, I can tell you, are full of life in ways bored, safely successful people never are. The odds of your very existence were extremely bad – you’re already a fluke – why live all of your life pretending otherwise?

7 Responses to “Why Bad Odds Can Be Good For You”

  1. Phil Simon

    Odds at the casino table can be calculated in advance. In life, though, there are far too many variables to make meaningful predictions on most creative endeavors. The real world is not a chemistry lab. Odds are much easier to calculate in hindsight.

  2. Nancy

    I am finding it more difficult to apply the word failure to situations. Things may not work out or succeed the way I envisioned or planned, but even if all I get from the attempt is a lesson learned, a new person met, or the sense of satisfaction for having tried, how is that a failure?

  3. Phillip

    Adversity is a catalyst, motivator, hero-maker. We need it. We celebrate it.

    And doing great things often takes patience and perseverance as various factors line up or cease to remain obstacles. Just yesterday I learned that it took Thomas Jefferson over 20 years and becoming President to fulfill the dream that eventually took shape as the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

  4. Bruce Harpham

    Scott, you make an excellent point here: “If I only did things that had high odds of success, I wouldn’t be successful.”

    And this point inspires me to keep moving & propose a change at the office that may raise some eyebrows…: “They say most businesses fail in the two years. That most books don’t sell many copies. Why is this surprising? The interesting things in life are hard. “

  5. John

    Odds to a young adult entrepreneur don’t compute. And that’s good, since most ambitious young adults who want big things don’t consider failure before trying. In fact, they don’t consider anything except how to get what they want.

    The benefit of of this, of course, is that later on failure doesn’t scare you nearly as much.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Yes and no. They clearly want to take risks otherwise they’d pick a stable career first. But when it comes down to what the business they want to start is they certainly think the odds of building X vs building Y are better. Their ability to assess the value of an idea might be poor, but there is an assessment they’re doing of why to go with idea X over Y.

      1. John


        Yes, they usually go with X over Y, because X feels better in some way, shape or form. Thus equaling the thing which they want. As for taking risks over going for a stable career – I don’t disagree – though it may have a lot more to do with environmental factors than simply making a decision to pursue one over the other.



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