The little coincidences that lead you to where you are
Sometimes a tiny event can push your life in an unexpected direction
I once sold a suit to a woman’s son while I was working at Marks & Spencer. From what I remember he was applying to join the military, and needed to look good for his interview; where I was living at the time is full of British Armed Forces bases. While he was trying on his chic new suit, I got chatting to his mother, who astutely observed that I was probably only working at M&S temporarily while I figured out what I was doing with my life. I told her I was a history graduate and that I was trying to pay off my overdraft over the course of the year before probably going to study my Master’s at Sheffield, stalling ‘real life’ for as long as I could.
The conversation could have ended there — polite chitchat getting us through our day wandering around the shop floor respectively buying and selling stuff. Instead, she mentioned a niece that she had who had gone to study in Berlin. She told me of a history course that was taught in English, was totally free, and of a city (which I had already visited and fallen in love with) in which one could live relatively cheaply as a student. She gave me the name of the university and, after thanking her and telling her son he looked great and would smash his interview, they went on their way.
I hope her son got the job because of the suit I sold him. Because if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have moved to Berlin, I wouldn’t have learned to speak German, I wouldn’t have met my girlfriend, I wouldn’t have found the job I’m doing now, and I’d probably still be living at home with my mum, miserable, commuting to Marks & Spencer to sell more suits to people going to funerals. (Don’t ever ask what the suit is for unless you want to offer endless condolences and feel really awkward for fifteen minutes. It’s almost always a funeral.)
Within the month I had looked up the course, got my papers together, and applied, and a couple of months later I received my acceptance letter. Before I knew it, I was on a plane with three suitcases of clothes and books, ready to start a new course in a new city with a new language among a cohort of total strangers.
That the things which propel our lives in unexpected directions are just coincidences might be hard to believe, but they really aren’t so mysterious when one looks at the numbers. The birthday problem is a common example of this. In a group of 367 people, the probability that two people will have the same birthday is, obviously, 100%. But by 70 people, the probability is already 99.9%, and with just 23 people, there’s a fifty-fifty chance two people will share a birthday. That’s directly based on mathematics. However, in practice, birthdays aren’t spread out equally across the year — more people are born in specific months and on specific days, presumably because there are specific times of the year when people get up to some nookie. (Valentine’s Day, I’m looking at you.) This means that in specific groups, it could be fewer than 23 people needed for the chance to be 50%. Think about that the next time you’re in a bar.
Still, coincidences seem crazy to us mere mortals, to those of us not blessed with mathematical knowledge. I know more than one person who has a tattoo that (un)profoundly states ‘everything happens for a reason’, as if that’s meant to be a consoling thought. Because we find it so difficult to see when something is a mere coincidence, people start believing in superstitions like star signs, paranormal rubbish, or religion, in an attempt to give these little events purpose.
Really, it’s much more beautiful to consider that these odd little things happen purely by coincidence in the universe, and that we have little or no control of what goes on around us. All we can really control is ourselves, our own actions, and even that is up for debate. And anyway, mathematicians have been measuring probability for ages; really, anything can be predicted to some level of accuracy if you have the right formulae. As it is, most of us don’t have the right probability equations to hand when we see a coincidence, but we have to take it almost on faith that there isn’t something bigger making the decisions for us; for as John Green wrote, ‘It’s hard to believe in coincidence, but it’s even harder to believe in anything else.’