Money and love and landing that job: The role probability plays throughout our lives.

A note from the AFC Science Advisor: Since opening, Advice Fortune Cookie has received several questions that the Cookie’s have had difficulty in answering. While they do possess many great talents (being sentient baked goods for one) predicting the future is not among them. But we do not like to leave our diners’ questions unanswered. So this week I’ll be stepping in to give a quick explanation on how probability affects our lives and fortunes and what we can do to improve the odds of success.

I live in atlanta will I ever win the lottery? I need a soulmate and to win mega mega millions from lottery?

Where’s my f***ing Husband?

Will I get this job?


Wouldn’t it be great to win mega millions from lottery? I know if I suddenly came into a large pile of cash I wouldn’t be stuck on minimum wage pouring over journal articles in the back of a Chinese bakery. Oh well, I did choose to become a scientist, and we all know how lucrative that is.

Despite my current monetary situation, I have never been tempted to buy a lottery ticket. Why? Because I understand probability. On any given lottery draw there are over one hundred and seventy-five million combinations of numbers that could make you a mega millionaire. So that lucky lottery ticket you have in your hand has to be the one out of those 175,000,000 combinations of numbers that is pulled out on draw night [1]. Those are pretty steep odds. To put it in perspective you have a 1 in 10,000,000 chance of becoming president [2] and a 1 in 12,000 chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime [3].

So if the lottery is not the way to make money what you can do instead? The best you can do is not play the lottery. Take the money you would have swapped for a certainly useless piece of paper and instead bank it in an account that earns compound interest. The beauty of compound interest is that it earns money just by sitting there. And if you put the money you would have spent on lottery tickets in each week, that money starts to earn more money. This way you go from a 1 in 175,000,000 chance to making more money to a guaranteed way of making more money.


Another of life’s great aspirations. Soulmate or husband, most people on this insignificant blue-green planet are looking for love.

There are a lot of things that influence finding a life partner. The first things that usually spring to people’s mind are: how often they interact with people, how attractive they are, how much money they have. But very few people think about probability. It’s not surprising–probability isn’t particularly sexy to most people (although the normal distribution is quite voluptuous)–but it does play a significant role in meeting your match. Dating is very literally a numbers* game.

Think about it like this. Say in your city, right now, there are 3,000 people that have compatible personalities to you that would make a good partner. Perhaps one quarter of these are within dating age, neither too old or too young, that leaves 750 people. How many of them are actually single? Let’s be optimistic and say half, now we are down to 375. Are they all the same sexual orientation as you? Probably not, let’s knock off another quarter - 281. And then we have to start whittling them down by the things that are on your specific “List”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. So here we have a hypothetical 281 people that you could potentially be happy with.

If you live in a city of approximately 400,000 people picture this as a ball pit filled with 400,000 blue balls and 281 yellow ones. How likely do you think it is that you could pull out a yellow ball at random? Not very likely you probably thought. And most people know this without actually knowing this. Which is why they attend speed dating events, join online match-making sites, or visit bars looking for other singles. This helps to some extent. Most of the yellow balls are clumped together in these areas, you have a greater chance of picking one if you dip your hand in there. You’ve probably already guessed that if you continually dip your hand in, you up your chances again of finding a yellow ball. See what I’m getting at? Single people are a finite resource. As such you have a finite probability of meeting one that is right for you. Increase your odds of success by going to where all the yellow balls are and going there often. Putting yourself out there is the first sure fire way to win at this numbers game.

My second point is a bit more personal and refers to the “List” I mentioned earlier. Everyone has a “List”, the must haves or the deal breakers. This is another useful exercise: write down your “List”. Start with the absolute must haves, and must not’s, then add the preferably will or will not’s. I’ll do one too just for kicks**:

Must have

  • A high IQ
  • Blue eyes
  • A good job - no artists!

Must not

  • have pets
  • have children
  • like fast food


  • average weight
  • taller than me
  • loves museums
  • hates sport

Next to each item write how many eligible people you think are available to you with that characteristic. Be honest. Now write a number next to the Must Haves - how many people do you think have all these characteristics in one? Logic dictates it has to be smaller than any of the individual numbers you gave each characteristic. If you think there are only 92 men with blue eyes, there has to be less than 92 men with blue eyes who also have good jobs (see figure 1).

Now look at your Must nots… I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this… The more items on your “List” the more you lower the odds of finding someone. I’m not suggesting you give up on your core values, but if your “List” is consisting of some superficial items it may be time to reassess your criteria and think about what you are really looking for in a partner.

Landing that job

I’ve pretty much established that waiting to win the lottery is not a smart way to make your money. The only option left to those not lucky enough to have a juicy trust fund waiting for us is to work for our crust, and these days it seems there is less and less crust going round.

Impressing a hiring manager is much like impressing a potential partner. And just like dating, getting a job is a numbers game. I’m not going to repeat myself, but the whole ball pit filled with blue and yellow ball analogy works here too. Apply for as many jobs as you can. The more you apply for, the more chances you give yourself for getting one.

The odds of landing a job are a little different to finding a life partner though. With romance, if you aren’t compatible you aren’t compatible. With a job, as long as you have the ability to do the job, you just need to be the best person that is being interviewed. If you interview enough, that will happen, but it’s like picking balls out at random. Instead you want to know where the yellow balls are to up your chances. Practice your interview skills, build your confidence, gain some experience volunteering and find creative ways to talk about that volunteer work. There is lots of advice out there for how to interview well. A simple Google search will bring up thousands of resources.

The point to take away from all this is that we all have some control over our lives. There are choices we make and actions we take that do have an impact on our outcomes, but probability and chance also plays a role. Being aware of where your actions stop and where sheer luck and numbers come in can help reduce anxiety and guilt. Good luck in your lives, diners. The Cookies will be back with their mystical advice next week. That is the one future I feel comfortable predicting.***


*The numbers in this section are estimates used to illustrate an example. It is an interesting exercise to look at the actual statistics of your city to understand the specific odds you have of meeting someone.

**This list is completely fictional. The AFC Science Advisor is in a very happy relationship and this list in no way reflects the choices she made regarding that relationship.

***While also acknowledging that something could occur that may prevent the Cookie’s from providing their wisdom. I have a high level of confidence but, as a scientist, cannot say with 100% certainty that any event that has not yet occurred will definitely occur in the future.