Guest Guru: Alisa Singer: What are the Odds?

What are the Odds?

Artcle and illustration by Alisa Singer

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as gamblers. Yet almost without being aware of it, we all regularly crunch numbers in our minds, calculating the odds of this or that as we make the most mundane decisions in our daily lives. And when we perceive the probability of a bad thing happening to be low enough, we instinctively file the risk away in the category of “never going to happen to me” and go about our business. So we cheerfully accept the statistical possibility of death as we perform our daily grooming routines (drowning in a bathtub – 1 out of 900,900; or slipping and falling to your death in the shower – 1 out of 2,232). And we peacefully drift off to sleep at night without considering the .021% chance we will die falling out of bed.

This is probably healthy. After all, we can’t live our lives on the assumption that, despite the 182,138,880,000,000 to 1 odds, a meteor will land on our house. We’d quickly become paralyzed, incapable of performing even the most humdrum of activities. Besides, there are certain risks we’re just stuck with. For example, the chance of dying from food poisoning is 1 in 3,000,000, and of dying from choking on food, 1 in 370,035; still, we must eat. And the odds of seriously injuring yourself on the toilet are 1 out of 10,000? What do you do about that one?

Sometimes contemplating the odds can be comforting. Barbeques are more relaxing when you realize that you are 20 times more likely to be wrongly declared dead by the U.S. Social Security Department than you are to die of a bee or wasp sting. And you’ll be pleased to know that the odds of your sleepwear spontaneously igniting are about 300,000 times less than the odds that you are drunk right now as you are reading this.

Often we can find ways to change the odds to work in our favor. For example, the risk of death from liposuction is approximately 1 in 5000, roughly equivalent to the odds of dying in a plane crash. Most women will quickly calculate that they can dramatically reduce their risk of death from liposuction simply by making sure the procedure isn’t done in an airplane.

But not all the numbers are so reassuring. For example, a woman contemplating pregnancy might be dismayed to learn that the odds of her developing unusual cravings while pregnant are 3 out of 4 and that, among those that do develop such cravings, 1 out of 6 develop an overwhelming yen to chew on coal, which makes the odds that she will become a pregnant coal craver roughly 1 out of 8. But the news isn’t all bad: if she’s hoping for a boy she can increase her chances by 87% simply by eating a bowl of cereal a week.

There are valuable lessons to be learned by studying the statistics. For example, if you are looking to take off a few pounds you should be aware of these numbers: (i) During the years 1976 to 1999, obesity doubled in every state except California, so if you’re planning on polishing off that half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, do it in California; (ii) one minute of kissing burns 26 calories (which equates to a whopping 1560 calories per hour), whereas an hour of thinking only burns 1/15th of a gram of fat, so put down your Sudoku book, grab the sexiest date you can lay your hands on and in just 2.2436 hours you will have lost a pound and, possibly, gained a new friend; (iii) maintaining good posture throughout the day burns up to 350 calories, so stand up straight like your mother told you and, (v) no matter what activity you’re engaged in, you’ll burn 20% more calories doing it laughing. Laugh while you kiss and it will take only 1.870 hours to lose that pound.

Now we don’t really know who calculates these numbers and posts them on the internet to be taken as gospel*. You should feel free to create your own statistics. Here are some of mine – the likelihood is: 42% of losing five pounds a week while consuming a diet consisting solely of M&Ms and Aunt Annie’s pretzels; 29% of earning a PhD in particle physics while laying on the sofa watching every single Seinfeld episode ever made; 68% of waking up tomorrow with all of your wrinkles gone and your spouse serving you breakfast in bed; and 97% that the Dow Jones will return to 14,000 by the end of the trading day tomorrow.

Or turn fact into fantasy by embracing a wildly optimistic view. In fact, let’s suppose that all bets are off and that the most impossibly wonderful things can and will happen. Consider this. The odds of: writing a New York Times bestseller are 220 to 1; winning an academy award are 11,500 to 1; winning an Olympic medal are 662,000 to 1; becoming an astronaut are 13,200,000 to 1, and becoming President are 10,000,000 to 1. Why not assume that, in the world of anything’s possible, you’ll be the long shot – that lucky “1” person. (Someone has to be!) The lesson to be learned from serendipity is that anything can happen, so go for greatness. Sign up for space camp today, buy that lottery ticket, and start practicing your long jump.

Oh, and be nice. The odds of becoming canonized are a mere 20,000,000 to 1.

*Most of the statistics mentioned in this article were derived from, a fun website which cites credible sources such as Time Magazine, and The Week Magazine. The author cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of these figures and, in fact, would find it extremely amusing if they were all just made up.

Alisa Singer’s Humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website: or contacting her at