Improving The Odds

Imagine you walk into a casino with the intent to put some quarters into some slot machines. You go to exchange your dollars for quarters, but you receive a surprising offer from the teller:

You can take normal quarters that work exactly as you’d expect them to, or you can take a special coin made by the casino. The slot machines can detect the special coins, and increase the odds of winning by a factor of ten. The catch: they only work in 10% of the machines on the casino floor.

Would you take regular quarters or the special coins?

Before we discuss the answer, let me tell you about a pattern I see repeated very often. Someone will be trying some sort of general, unspecialized technique to cast a “wide net.” Examples include approaching all women in online dating the same way, or sending the same type of application to every job, or trying to close every sale with the same technique. They won’t be doing very well; a high number of attempts and no successes. Then someone will suggest an alternative – a highly specialized approach that has a proven track record of success in specific circumstances. And the original person will object that the technique is bad because it isn’t broad enough.

Here’s the thing to remember when you “cast a wide net:” you’re typically only trying to catch one fish. You’re casting a wide net because you aren’t sure where that fish is or what kind of bait to use. But ultimately, you’re probably only going to date one person or accept one job. You aren’t trying to succeed with everyone, you’re just trying with everyone in order to succeed once.

Which means, in that casino, you should hands-down take the special coin. You’re only going to play one machine at a time anyway!

Nothing in life is guaranteed. All your effort serves the purpose of maximizing your odds of success – you can approach, but never achieve, 100% success rate. Your actions are meaningful, even if sometimes you fail. But don’t be foolish. Don’t take your special coin, put it in one of the slot machines that won’t take it, and then claim that the coins are a bad idea. Take your specialized approach and apply it to the right circumstance. Your odds of success will always be better than if you just try the most general path.

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