Statistical Thinking for Success in Life and Career

We statisticians are asked to consult about evidence in every subject. Your graduation today provides evidence to conclude that you have greatly increased your chance for a successful career. When we ask faculty members what are the job opportunities for  majors in their field they always emphasize that the demand is better for better students. A problem of great concern to researchers on education, from kindergarten to college is: What can be done to stimulate students to perform best, and thus increase chances for career success and happiness in life?

Many educational researchers agree that it is not enough to have a high IQ, intelligence quotient, and the high grades that come with it. To be best one needs more: a hook, an  extra quality. We call the hook that distinguishes the best from the rest CQ, character quotient. By CQ we mean the following manifestations of character: Conversation—the quality of rarely being bored; Curiosity, a passion for learning; Commitment—a grit and devotion to completing the job; and Compassion—a concern for others.

The best students need to be able to cope with failures and problems, and improve their luck by trying to make opportunities (i.e. good luck) out of problems (ie. bad luck). Progressive Insurance started on its road to success because its founders, Joseph Lewis and Jack Green, achieved the insight that when your customers are unhappy you thank them for letting you know so that you can improve your service. In the same sense, when you get a low grade on a midterm exam, your insight should be to regard it as both bad news and good news: It teaches you what you don’t know so that you can learn it for the final exam.

To be the best you can be, it helps to also practice the statistical “law of np.” Your average number of successes is the product of n (the number of attempts you make to succeed) and p (the probability of success on each attempt).  The value of p may be very small and beyond your control. But the value of n is under your control, and you should make it as large as possible. A quick way to summarize this advice is “If at first you don’t succeed, try again!”

Another quotation to keep in mind as one seeks to perform best is from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I?” We believe that indispensable to happiness is an attitude of gratitude. Studies prove that when you express gratitude you increase your own happiness, as well as the happiness of those to whom you express gratitude. It is for good reason that parents often try to instill in their children an attitude of gratitude.


Statistical thinking helps one’s success in life and career by quantifying uncertainty using probability. It is important to distinguish between outcomes that are conceivable (i.e. zero probability), possible (i.e. positive probability for an interval of similar outcomes), and probable (i.e. positive probability). Statistical thinking is used to answer questions about what one knows and how one knows it, based on analysis of data more than expert opinions.

The final advice we have: Prepare for change! Previous generations expected to have the same employer for a lifetime. You may have to reinvent yourself and change careers as often as every 5 years. Never stop learning, and try to be aware of trends. Avoid unnecessary worry about your future while preparing for it and enjoying the present. Especially enjoy this day of Commencement.

Michael I. Parzen D.Sc ’93 is the Senior Lecturer on Statistics in the Harvard University Statistics Department. Emanuel Parzen ’49 is Distinguished Professor of Statistics at Texas A&M University.


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