What Are the Odds?

What Are the Odds?

Kevin McMullin

The odds of being injured by a toilet are 1 in 10,000.

It is less likely that any of us will be visiting the ER for a pogo stick related injury. That works out to 1 in 115,300.

Setting aside, for the moment, the entertaining (and unlikely) notion of using the word “toilet” as a subject for various transitive verbs, I am fascinated by the unlikelihood that swirls all around us. You can find the odds for all kinds of things on the internet.

Odds of being killed by an asteroid impact: 1 in 74 million

Odds of being bitten by a shark: 1 in 11.5 million

Odds of being killed by an animal in Wisconsin: 1 in 1,122,230

Odds of a flipped nickel landing on its edge: 1 in 6,000

Odds of getting a double yolk egg: 1 in 1,000

Odds of the Cubs winning the 2018 World Series: 1 in 750

Odds of being left handed: 1 in 10

Odds of getting a divorce: 1 in 2

Of course, our lives are not completely determined by chance. For example, I had to put myself in the vicinity of a pogo stick to be injured by one.  Still it’s amazing what an impenetrable forest of chance we wander through every day of our lives.

Odds of being born: 1 in 102,685,000

Odds of a plane crashing; 1 in 11 million

Odds of finding a pearl in an oyster: 1 in 12,000

Odds of being born on Leap Day: 1 in 1,461

Odds of a false positive on a Cologuard test: 1 in 10

The older I get, the harder I try to reduce the effect of chance on my life. It helps me feel more, in Henley’s words, “master of my fate.” But I don’t think I’ve made much of a dent. And I suspect that our lives are way more determined by chance than any of us care to admit.  We notice it most, I think, when the bad stuff happens.

 Odds of being hit by satellite debris falling from space: 1 in 21 trillion

Odds of being struck and killed by lightning: 1 in 174,426

Odds of developing an acoustic neuroma: 1 in 100,000

Odds of being involved in a fatal car crash in Wisconsin: 1 in 4,925

Odds of being shot: 1 in 300

Odds of losing a limb: 1 in 200

Odds of being audited by the IRS: 1 in 100

Odds of being sexually assaulted before the age of 8: 1 in 50

Odds of getting cancer: 1 in 2.5

The good stuff either we don’t notice, or we’re inclined to attribute to our skill, or our having earned it.

Odds of getting a perfect NCAA bracket: 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808

Odds of winning the powerball: 1 in 290 million

Odds of becoming a movie star: 1 in 1,105,000

Odds of being dealt a royal flush: 1 in 649,740

Odds of having a child who is a genius: 1 in 250*

Odds of having hazel eyes: 1 in 20

Then there are the odds that are harder to calculate. Some of them are visible: the body count after a bombing; the home you grew up in; the missing limb; the wealth you inherited.

But there was no way to tell that the woman who sold me balsamic vinegar today was left without peripheral vision after a high school bout with meningitis. Or that my father-in-law was a Holocaust survivor. Or that the guy that helped us move into our house had PTSD. I don’t know what accidents, weather, economic conditions, wars, or traffic snarls the people I chance to be with have come through. Or what gifts, advantages, or largesse they have received. Our lives are full of haphazard catastrophes and random blessings.

What are the odds, for example, that I would find exactly the right obscure bolt for the trailer repair I needed at my dad’s neighbor’s house the very night it broke down?

What are the odds that I would stumble on my long lost group therapy friend from Chicago at a coop in Seattle, only to discover that he was living two blocks away from the home my wife and I had just moved into, with a daughter the same age as ours?

Or that I would run into the Kellogg Foundation Grant reviewer in the middle of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area just as I was writing my environmental musical about shoreline protection?

What are the odds of us meeting our spouses?

Or of living in our community?

Of having you as a friend?

Of finding our jobs?

What are the odds of knowing somebody more or less fortunate than ourselves?

What are the odds of being lucky?

What are the odds of living lives full of unlikely events?

What are the odds of having the chance to share them with each other?


*Well… I think she’s a genius.

Another perspective.

And another.


This is great. (I loved the linked poem too) It made me think of the opening to Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything (which I’m fairly certain we’ve discussed before). Here is an abridged version of it:

“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living thing that have existed since the dawn of time, most-99.99 percent-are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely -make that miraculously- fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.”