Opinion: Percentages


Competitors in contract bridge are said to play the percentages when they evaluate between any number of reasonable actions selecting those of greatest likelihood to achieve positive result. Really most of us do it every day. We consider many variables, simple and complex, with an eye towards optimization. Perhaps, we don’t think of these decisions as being framed through a lens of mathematical probability. But be sure, we are running the numbers each time we pull into traffic, eat food we didn’t prepare, or assert a personal point-of-view to an important customer or to our boss. In each of these, we are assuming risk. Yet, we are also necessarily sifting through an extensive array of choices, each designed to maximize our chosen outcome all-the-while striving to minimize known threats.

So, it is little wonder that we modern humans employ scores of almost-clichéd expressions pointing to our fascination with the use of equations. The 80/20 rule marches out as dictum showing the distribution of the effect of a minority on the majority. And, political leaders now argue about points on a poll rather than issues on a ballot.

Some years ago while confronting a significant personal challenge, a close friend worked to counsel me through my grief. Making use of society’s affinity for percentages, he illustrated with this simple equation that our fear of failure as a social construct is misplaced. In my failure, 90 percent wouldn’t actually notice – there is some conceit in imagining that they would. Five percent of the remaining folks would revel in the pain they could see me experience – I shouldn’t give them the satisfaction. And, 5 percent of the people loved me unconditionally – in failure or not, their commitment was stalwart. It turns out, he was 100 percent right. I wish I could remember it more than 50 percent of the time.