It’s not like we got scammed when we bought into the belief that “it’s impossible to fail if we persist for long enough.” But I’d say we should’ve read the fine print because they probably had the math that explained just how far from impossible we actually are.
It’s not statistically impossible, for example, that a bunch of monkeys write Shakespeare’s Hamlet word for word if left unsupervised in a room with a typewriter and no time constrictions.
And them routines are the typewriters we type in everyday: the diets, meditations, workout sessions; the client calls, zoom meetings and writing schedules.
Each of them with their aimed ideal, the “right key to press” if you will, surrounded by a whole keyboard of not-so-right choices and decisions.
The selling point of persistence is that it doesn’t matter if you hit the wrong key some days, because you will succeed as long as you type long enough. But the fine print tells a different story: that the more we type in these typewriters of ours, the more statistically impossible success will be.
Why do our chances go down the more we persist? Let’s do the math.
If Hamlet was a single letter long, those monkeys would had 1 in 26 chance of getting it right with every attempt, given that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet.
But things get much worse as soon as in the second letter. Each letter has a 1 in 26 chance of being correct, but since the monkeys are typing keys at random, and they have to randomly type 2 exact letters in the correct order: 26x26=676.
We’re not even past the first syllable and their chance of success already plummeted to 1 in 676.
Fast forward to the 133,874 letters in Hamlet, the chance for the monkeys to get them right is 1 in 3.4×10¹⁸³⁹⁴⁶. It’s technically not zero if you give them an infinite amount of time. But what is infinity anyway?
The age of our universe is only 10¹⁷ seconds long, so you’d need a bunch of them connected back to back to accommodate the chance for these monkeys to deliver a single, complete piece of work. And since the monkeys have full editorial control, it could statistically be Fifty Shades of Grey instead of Hamlet.
And you may think we are more than monkeys typing random stuff.
We are monkeys having a go at our New Year’s Resolutions and failing in the first two weeks. We are monkeys trying to stick to our diets, which should be an easy key to press each day if it weren’t surrounded by 25 sweet temptations.
And success is never a one-key hit, isn’t it? How long can you endure without slipping into the wrong key is a matter of statistics: the more attempts, the greater the chance of failure.
Time passes and errors accumulate in a long chain of skipped days, tiny relapses, procrastination — and I’m not even counting those bizarre “ñ” and “ç” days we all had in 2020.
Now, I’m not up-to-the-minute on anti-aging lotions, but I don’t think any of us will make it even to the end of this universe to see those rapidly-decaying chances paying off. Except maybe Keanu Reeves. And the frozen head of Walt Disney, who by the time this universe starts collapsing on itself, he would’ve had enough time to acquire the rights of every atom of our Galaxy™ and rebrand it as The Mickey Way.
So, is there a chance to make the impossible a little less unlikely?
If we learned something is that our efforts can’t be random. It’s not enough to set up a bunch of routines and hope for the best. We need more than persistence; we need to be persistent in a way that keeps our odds from plummeting into a statistical impossibility.
So what’s the alternative? Well, with a slight variation in the monkeys’ workflow, they were able to reproduce Hamlet word for word in just four and a half days.
Richard Hardison discovered that in the 80s, when he wrote a software that emulated the experiment. The virtual monkeys still pressed keys at random, but they got to keep the letters that happened to be placed correctly.
“Keep the letters that happened to be correctly placed.” So, I’m talking about “learning from our mistakes”? All this fuzz about conceptual monkeys and philosophical dilemmas just to arrive at Cliche Advice no.5?
But how can we hit the right keys if we don’t know which they are?
Sure, Hardison’s experiment worked, but because he already knew how Hamlet is supposed to look like.
What about our pieces of work? Our goals and ambitions? All we have is a general idea, and we’ll never be sure how the pieces fit together until we’re done with it. If we knew, George R. R. Martin would’ve finished the goddamn novel by now.
In knowing which keys are the right ones, we are as clueless as the monkeys. Success is not a journey of persistence, but of discovery. And no one will warn us when we do hit some of the right keys. No stage lights flashing around and the audience breaking into applause as Bob Barker from The Price is Right comes out of nowhere to announce we made the right guess.
No one will notice, not even us. So tomorrow we start over with the second letter, that much unlikely to hit right than the first one.
And it’s not like the universe owes us something for “keeping at it.”
It doesn’t matter if you spent three and a half eternities writing random words; nobody is going to buy them unless there’s something of value in there. No meritocracy will come to rescue your “body of work” from oblivion if it sucks.
Here’s something that didn’t suck: vacuum cleaners before James Dyson came revolutionize their technology. They didn’t suck — which, if we are specifically talking about vacuum cleaners, then that is a problem.
He had the idea of using something called cyclonic separation to prevent the filters from getting clogged with dust and losing suction power. That was his typewriter: prototyping vacuum cleaners. The thing is, it took him fifteen years of unsuccessful attempts and financial hardships to arrive at the first successful model.
It was called the DC01 — “01” because it was the first prototype that worked, but also a number that completely disregarded the 5,126 failed attempts that came before it. That’s a lot of keys to press.
Now James Dyson has a net worth of $6.7 billion, but you know how much his persistence would’ve paid off had he stopped at prototype number 5,126? Maybe an uncrowded museum of “inventions that don’t work,” but little else.
Don’t be just another monkey.
Because persistence won’t pay off unless you are working towards your Hamlet, your DC01, anything. It will lead nowhere unless you are learning from each prototype, typing today’s key in a little more intentional and informed way than the key you typed yesterday.
1 in 5,127 might appear as a petty 0.019% rate of success, but that last prototype had a 100% chance of success. Through reflection and intention, Dyson progressively learned which keys he was supposed to press and in which order, so his chance of success went up instead of down with every attempt.
Your chances never stay the same. Either they go down by a mindless workday, or they go up by reflecting, learning, and continuously doing things differently. We don’t have eternity to try things out, so don’t be another monkey typing keys at random.