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Monte Carlo

"Wow—only two tenths of one percent of the US population has a pilot's license, and AOPA says up to 80 percent of people who start training quit before they earn one! What are my chances of success?"

With a cursory glance at the statistics, it would be easy for a prospective pilot to despair of ever earning their wings. So few people have succeeded in becoming pilots. Doesn't that mean that the odds are against me?

This line of thinking is analogous to what's known in probability theory as the "Monte Carlo" fallacy—the belief that recent past outcomes in independent trials of a random process influence present probabilities. This crops up often, such as when a baseball fan says that a hitter who's been in a slump is "due for a hit," or the scene in the movie "The World According to Garp" in which an airplane crashes into the house the protagonist is considering buying. Garp decides to buy the house on the spot, saying they'll be safe in the house because it's been "pre-disastered."

It's a funny scene, but of course it's not true. Your chances of rolling a seven when shooting dice are exactly the same each time, no matter how many times you've come up snake eyes in the past. The problem with the Monte Carlo fallacy and similar thinking is that we allow past experience to inappropriately influence our estimate of our odds of success in a present endeavor. But while past experience is critically important in guiding our present actions, and is the only legitimate basis for a true confidence, our chances of success depend much more on what we're doing right now.

I think pilots often succumb to the Monte Carlo fallacy. After 10 straight beautiful landings, there's a tendency to fear we're "due" for a bad one or we're "using up our luck." We start to feel pressure, as though with every good landing, our situation becomes more and more precarious. But if we think rationally about it, we realize this isn't true. With every good landing we're actually reinforcing good habits. Still, Monte Carlo thinking can be strong, inducing us to "blow it" in the last few seconds of the landing flare and plunk it in.

Another problem with thinking in terms of probabilities is that our chances of success in just about any real-world endeavor are immensely more difficult to calculate than the odds in a simple game of dice. A vast array of factors comes into play, and as much as we might want to compute the odds, it's just not practical. This means our odds of success are effectively unknowable.

So let's not worry about them! The best way to improve our chances of success in the cockpit is to fly, steadily gaining experience, carefully observing our results, correcting mistakes, and reinforcing effective behaviors. That's the best way I know to stack the deck in our favor.

So what are your odds of earning a pilot's license? They depend primarily on what you choose to do right now.

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