The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Leonard Mlodinow, Pantheon Books, 2008, 272 p., $24.95.

People like to think they understand their world. They seek explanations for things that go well and excuses for failures. “To swim against the current of human intuition is a difficult task,” Mlodinow notes.


In this guide to randomness, he explores how people misunderstand the power of praise and punishment, hot and cold career streaks, and the luck in the lottery, all because of a misunderstanding of the influence of chance.

But not to worry. Mlodinow provides lessons on what he calls “a field of subtlety,” from the basic laws of probability, to regression toward the mean and availability bias. The lessons are thought-provoking because Mlodinow embeds them in a history of seemingly correct but surprisingly incorrect thinking. He pulls in examples from gambling and sports, and even explains how Apple had to make its iTunes shuffle function less random so it seemed more random to listeners.

In the end, the drunkard’s walk — that unpredictable stumbling — becomes a metaphor for movement through life. Success does not reflect ability and ability does not guarantee success, Mlodinow writes. But he does leave readers with a small comfort. If a baseball player takes enough swings, eventually the player will hit a home run. So, he writes, success is more about the number of times a person goes to bat. —Elizabeth Quill

Elizabeth Quill

Elizabeth Quill is the special projects editor. She has overseen collections on topics ranging from consciousness to general relativity, and recently took a deep dive into the periodic table of the elements.

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