The maths of success


How can you become more successful?

One answer was inside a TED talk by Damian Kulash, the lead singer and director of OK Go, an American rock band known for its elaborate and quirky videos.

Damian explained that in one of their videos, a giant Rube Goldberg machine, there were 130 sequences that had to take place one after the other where each sequence triggered the next.

In each sequence, something fairly simple takes place. For example, a ball rolls down an incline, a counterweight lowers an object or an object something swivels on its axis and hits something else.

If each sequence works 9 out of 10 times then its probability of working correctly is 90% or 0.9.

How likely is it the band will be successful at filming the entire set of sequences in one take?

The maths of probability is used to work this out. In the equation P^n, P stands for probability and n is the number of events.

Plugging this into the equation, the probability of each sequence working is P = 0.9 and the number of sequences is n = 130.

0.9 raised to the power of 130 is 0.000001125.

That means there is literally one chance in a million that the series of sequences will work.

In life and work, we often have to do things that follow a process, where one thing needs to be done after another.

If we aim to be quite good at each thing – and get it right 9 out of 10 times, then the more things we have to do, the less often we will be successful.

For example, if an operation in a business takes 10 steps and you are 90% sucessful at each step, the probability of success is 0.9^10= 35%.

That means two-thirds of your customers are likely to be unhappy with what they get from you.

You can improve your chances of success by doing two things.

First, increase P. Get better at doing each thing.

If you get things right 99% of the time, 0.99^10 = 0.9, which means your customers are happy 90% of the time.

Only 1 out of 10 walks away unhappy. Still not great.

Second, reduce n, the number of things you have to do.

If n was 4 rather than 10, then you would get 0.99^10 = 96%.

Now 96% of your customers are happy.

In summary, the maths of success says work on optimising the formula P^n so that the answer tends to 1.

In other words: Do less, and do it better.

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