Deep into his 1,012-page book The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, baseball analyst Bill James reveals a simple statistical formula for predicting within five percent the total number of runs a team will score over the course of a season, using only four statistics. This formula may not immediately fascinate a non-baseball fan, but I’ll let you in on a secret: hidden within the formula is the meaning of life.

After reading James’s book early in high school, I discovered that the power of statistics doesn’t stop with baseball. From financial markets and political maneuvers to climate change and medical studies, numbers seemed to govern events in all fields of life. But as I was about to turn my life over to those cold mathematical forces, I realized there was something missing in those hollow figures. It had been right in front of me all along. I simply hadn’t noticed. Let me take you back a bit to explain.

By the end of elementary school I had reached an intolerable point socially. I was, quite simply, annoying. The product of boundless energy and a relative lack of self-awareness, I would babble, shout, and sing; in short, I wouldn’t shut up. And those who allowed me close to them would be sure to receive an assault from my pestering hands. Until, like a line drive to the nose, it hit me: I had few friends, and most people did not like being near me. I had come to the realization that my presence, to put it nicely, negatively affected other people. I immediately set out to change the way others perceived me by adjusting my behavior. Moving on to middle school the next year, I had the opportunity to forge a new personality. I forced myself to leave behind old habits, making way for a new person who could build friendships more easily. I made an effort to keep my mouth closed and my hands away from other people, listening as often as talking. Simple as it was, I found myself getting more comfortable and closer to the people around me.

Four years later, having become almost a new person, I once again experienced an epiphany that changed me. The summer after freshman year, my sister passed along a book on Buddhism for teenagers and I spent that August reading about the philosophy and teachings of the Buddha and his followers. Once again, I realized I could improve an aspect of my life through conscious effort. I was most struck by one concept: a person always has the power to avoid becoming upset or angered by issues small and large. I had always enjoyed being happy, and when I realized that I could control not only moment-to-moment moods, but also my whole outlook on life, I resolved to maintain that optimistic and upbeat attitude. I never adopted Buddhism altogether, but I chose to follow this one feature of the philosophy, for I knew it would improve the way I perceived and lived my life. Again, the power of such a simple decision amazed me. Today, people close to me know that I can be counted on for a smile and fortunately that smile comes more naturally now.

Along the way, these experiences revealed to me the missing ingredient in statistics: free will. Amid the apparent determinism that accompanies any large-scale numerical analysis, each individual has a choice. And this choice has allowed me to decide where I want to take my life. While I know that all lives are subject to influence from friends, family, social convention, and natural predisposition, numbers say nothing about an individual. After all, statistics are only simplifications over a large body of particulars.

And what of the meaning of life? Bill James’s formula is only near perfect. In that five percent margin of error is where an individual’s life resides. Indicators can reveal probability, sometimes with great accuracy, but the wiggle room is in the decisions each of us makes. Like a back-up player staring down an All-Star pitcher, I work at beating the odds.

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