Archive for November, 2009

The difference between success and failure is small

One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that the difference between success and failure is small. The annals of history are paved with those who almost made it, almost succeeded, got so close to their goals but failed. What’s often not told are the stories of those who almost gave up, didn’t think they could go on anymore but somehow managed to find the courage or stamina to get the job done.

If Napoleon had done a better job of pursuing the retreating Prussians, he might have prevented them from reaching the Duke of Wellington and won the battle of Waterloo. Similarly, If we didn’t build a nuclear weapon before Hitler; maybe we might have had a cold war involving the third Reich and the free world up to this day. Maybe Hannibal might have been able to win the war against the Romans if he had more support from his political leaders.

But we don’t have to stay in war to find examples. Look at the world of sports. Many professional games in the NBA are decided by 2 or 3 points, including championships. The same can be said of other sports such as American football. This year professional tennis player Andy Roddick almost beat Roger Federer playing 5 sets with the tie-break going to 16 games in the final of Wimbledon. Roddick had a couple of break points and almost won (you can see a summary of the game below).

 

This concept is especially true  in the arena of business. Many businesses would have made it if they only had just a bit more capital or they had waited a couple of years for the market to be ready for their products. Similarly, many businesses owners will tell you that they came very close to going out of business or losing a significant portion of their business. For government contractors like my company, SciMetrika, the difference between feast (winning a large contract) and famine (losing to a competitor on a large contract) boils down in many instances to only a couple of points in the scoring of the proposal. Imagine this, contracts worth several millions of dollars decided by only a few points between the winner and the top competitors!

I know personally a thing or two about being close to failing. I came very close to not getting a bachelor’s degree. At one point, I was broke and forced to abandoned my undergraduate studies to go to work. Fortunately, I went back to school, but it wasn’t easy. The first of studying for my graduate degree was disastrous. Because my wife was pregnant, I had to work full-time while pursuing my studies on a full-time basis. Part time study wasn’t an option for the program. As for my doctorate in biostatistics, there were many things that could have forced me to give up. In fact, in a class I received a P** (P for Passing; basically a B with a double minus). A failure in that class would have been the kiss of death.
So, what difference does it make? What can one do if there is little difference between success and failure? Here are a few thoughts on how and why this should motivate us:

1. Always pursue excellence:  One flaw or deflect may cause failure, but don’t give up before you leave the starting line
2. Seek to continuously improve:  We should not count on the skills we have now to be sufficient later
3. Bring intensity to the goals we are pursuing
4. Pay attention to the details; we never know what can make a difference
5. We can’t affort to be complacent, especially with early successs
6. Sometimes, there is only one chance or a small window of opportunity. That chance might not come back.
7. Persevere and never give up

November 27, 2009 at 2:27 am 2 comments

Going for it on 4th and 2

Last week (November 15th) the game between the Patriots and the Colts came down to going for it on 4th and 2 in New England territory. The Patriots had the ball and decided to go for it instead of punting. They were leading by 6 points so the Colts needed a touchdown to win. Most analysts have criticized the decision by Coach Belichick. However, based on statistics, going for it on 4th and 2 was the best decision.

Here is why:  There were two ways for New England to win: a) They go for it on 4th and 2, either they get it and run the clock or don’t get it but can stop the Colts, or b) They punt the football and stop the Colts from scoring. If they punt the football, everyone in the football universe would agree that with 2 minutes to go and 3 timeouts available, Manning had at least 50% chance of scoring. Assume that the Patriots have a chance of 40% or less to make it on 4th down. The question is what gives the Colts a lower chance of scoring (and thus increases New England’s chances of winning)? Punting or going for it? It turns out going for it increased the Patriots’ chances of winning.

The reason is that if New England goes for the 4th down, for the Colts to then win depends on two events: 1) New England doesn’t get a first down and 2) New England cannot stop the Colts on defense. Note that once the first event has happened, the second does not depend on it. Hence, we can say that once New England doesn’t get a first down, the probability of the Colts scoring is an independent event. Thus, based on statistical theory, if New England goes for it we can say that:

 Prob. Of the Colts scoring =Prob. Of Patriots not making a first down x Prob. Of the Colts scoring when they get the ball

Because the Colts would get the ball in New England territory (around the 30-yard line) if New England doesn’t get a first down, we can assume the probability of the Colts scoring to be high between 70% and 90%! But that high probability of scoring first depends on stopping N. England on 4th down. Based on the table below, it only made sense for New England to punt if their chance of making it on 4th down was only 30% or less and the Colts chances of making it was 80% or higher.

 Probability of the Colts scoring:

Prob of not getting a 1st down on 4th and 2

Prob. Of Colts scoring a touch down
given that New England doesn’t make it on 4th and 2

Prob. Of Patriots not getting a first down and the Colts score

Correct Decision (assuming that Colts have 50% chance of scoring
if they start deep in their end zone)

50%

70%

35%

Go for it

50%

80%

40%

Go for it

50%

90%

45%

Go for it

60%

70%

42%

Go for it

60%

80%

48%

Go for it

60%

90%

54%

Don’t go for it

70%

70%

49%

Go for it

70%

80%

56%

Don’t go for it

70%

90%

63%

Don’t go for it

 Personally, I think that New England had at least a 40% chance of making it on 4th and 2 while the Colts had about a 70% chance of scoring a touchdown.  Of course, the correct call was to go for it. To me, this shows that Coach Belichick is a genius. Note that the thoughts expressed here are the results of Monday morning quarterbacking. Like most people, I would have gone for it and give my defense a pep talk on how defense wins championship.

This is why Coach Belichick will go to the hall of fame the very first time he’s eligible for it. I always knew there was a difference in how winners like him assess risks and make decisions.

November 22, 2009 at 11:03 pm Leave a comment


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