September 16, 2014

BYRNE | What are the Odds?

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By SARAH BYRNE

Right now, I’m sitting in the endlessly stimulating and fascinating course known as statistics. And the professor is talking about the probability of success. Even though she only means “success” in the statistical sense, a random classification assigned to (in this case) a coin coming up heads, it made me consider the probability of success.

If you closely consider the choices you make on a daily basis, my guess is that close to all of those choices are made based on some sort of probability assessment: Odds that a boy of a certain level of attractiveness will ask you out. Odds that you can get at least the mean on the prelim without studying all night. Odds you’ll fall asleep in class if you don’t drink a triple-shot latte. Our brains are constantly computing a vast array of variables to produce these odds, which we interpret as “feelings.” If you have a bad feeling about something, your brain is telling you — based on your past and the odds it has observed — that the odds are against you. You cannot beat the odds. The odds are your master. Odds-wise, your life is one big game, and the odds are hardly ever in your favor.

As a biology student, in classes like statistics, I watch my peers struggle to put numbers to situations, to calculate the odds they will get into med school or the odds they can maintain a 4.0 if they decide to take linear algebra instead of Calc 2. Numbers are comforting in these situations: We see that if we have a certain GPA and a certain MCAT score, we have a fairly low, though frighteningly existent, chance of being rejected from every medical school in the country. If we don’t succeed, it’s easy to point to the numbers and say, “There. That’s why.”

Last week, I was sitting in my directing class, talking about casting for theatre. In the audition room, people are often cast based on nothing more than a feeling the director has that a certain person is right for a certain role. Sometimes, obviously, the director’s feeling is wrong (see Michael Cera’s upcoming Broadway debut). But, in my experience, even in college theatre, something magical happens, because we are people, and we can change and grow. Actors rise to the occasion. We cast an actor on faith and, more often than not, they become the right person for the role. We take a chance on the opportunity; we surrender to the odds, because they are so helplessly out of our favor that we can do nothing but throw up our hands in defeat. And miraculously, things work out.

If you had asked me four years ago what my personal motto was, I would have said something annoying, because I was 17 years old, and who even has a motto at 17? Only annoying people. Last year, someone asked me what my motto was, and I stole my response from my best friend, who would kill me if I took full credit for this: In the end, it either gets done or it doesn’t. When it comes down to it, the most we can do is hope for the best. There is a chance, however small, that someone wildly more attractive than you will ask you out. That you will be that kid who gets 100 percent on the prelim. That you’ll be able to stay awake without coffee because your professor gives a really interesting lecture that day.

My high school English teacher always used to say that whatever you choose becomes your first choice. Or, as I like to say, this is your life now. Once you make a choice, the consequences of that choice occur. And, in the end, it doesn’t particularly matter what the odds were. We hear a lot of talk about “beating the odds” to succeed, but do we ever really beat them? It seems to me that we play into the odds, we embrace them and so they embrace us, and we learn to live with the real world results, no matter the stats.

So anyway, I’m sitting in my stats class. I’m not paying attention, because I’m writing this column. The professor is talking about probability, and I’m thinking that the probability I pass this prelim next week is pretty high, because someone just asked what an integral was. But I guess there’s always a chance I won’t. It’s a crazy world out there.

Sarah Byrne is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She be reached at sbyrne@cornellsun.com. Let It Byrne appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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