Power Laws and Life

Network theory. Power law distributions. I won’t digress into explanations (for that try going here briefly then come back).

Now let’s talk about life. What does the power law say about life? It says that life isn’t fair.

How, you might ask, can a class of polynomial equations possibly have anything to say about the Master Plan in which we’re all enmeshed?

Well I think it says that, on the whole, the rich will always get richer and the poor are just **** out of luck. On the whole.

But there’s ways round these things, if you ask Mother Nature nicely…

‘Deeking’ power law structures

If life is not even-handed, and is rigged to keep the outliers in any network firmly in their downtrodden positions, it’s clear that sometimes people are able to beat the odds. Whole nations go from being wimpish developing countries to economic powerhouses; multiplicative cancer cells go into remission, a poor homeless person becomes a multi-millionaire, a gangster leaves the ‘hood and becomes a law-abiding citizen. Vicious circles (tell-tale signs that you’re on the wrong side of a power law) must be fallible after all.

A totally random collection of ways in which people will claim to have beaten such odds is as follows:

  • mind over matter
  • synchrodestiny (dust off those new-age self help books. I know you have one somewhere)…
  • faith
  • prayer
  • mindful detachment (ask your nearest zen buddhist about this one)
  • meditation
  • visualisation and goal-setting
  • working hard / perseverance

The curious thing about the vast majority of the above strategies is that they are the antithesis of working hard (the very last bullet-point in the above list). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort in the direction of the power-law ‘hill’ that needs climbing. In fact, we have a complete anti-pattern of non-direct effort.

When I witness people beat the odds, it’s almost always through non-direct effort. On the other hand when I see people working hard work, it generally leads to predictable results at best; at worst it keeps them ‘in the game’ simply to fight (perchance to lose) another day. But the truly staggering results seem to come when folks extend themselves in a slightly (or even entirely) different direction to their original goals.

It’s almost as if you see someone running a race they can never win, but when they ‘drop out’ to run an entirely different one – taking a shortcut to the finish line, for example, or defining their own race with it’s own course, start and finishing lines – they actually win.

The Gods do not appear to smile upon those who run in other people’s races with the intention of ‘running real hard so they can catch up’. In fact, everything I see around me seems to suggest that ‘catching up’ is a chump’s game. Doomed from the outset.

The race is decided at the outset.

Whoever decides where the starting line and the finishing line is, wins. Whoever holds the starting gun, wins. Whoever defines the race wins. If you come along later in your raggedy shorts, panting, thinking you’re gonna outdo yourself by running real hard… well, I’ve got news for you, kiddo. The race is over! The winners are sipping champagne and here you are, flailing about; trying to follow the path they’ve carved out for themselves. Good luck! Most guardian angels wouldn’t touch those odds with a barge pole.

If you’re mid-race under such crappy odds, I say do yourself a favour: find out where the finish line is, then take a cab. That’s right. Nature seems to prefer that you “cheat”; prefers that you ‘do your own thang’. And is that really so much to ask, asking you to seed the universe with one more original race? Is that really such a bad thing? Don’t forget that people seem to want to run in other people’s races… you’d only be helping out, by providing them with one more alternative.

And, when the chumps line up at your starting line, waiting for your gun to go off, it’ll be one new power law distribution waiting to be born. The first few who run hardest and persevere might yet join you after the race, in celebration. But the 100s, 1000s more after them are just going to be wasting their time, unless they happen to like running just for the joy of it.

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Picture: based on Owens, Jesse: running. [Photograph]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://britannica.com/ebc/art-13327

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