Barry Schwartz – What role does luck play in your life?


Barry Schwartz - What role does luck play in your life

Hello, everybody. I'm honored to be here to talk to you, and what I'm going to talk about today is luck and justice and the relation between them. Some years ago, a former student of mine called me to talk about his daughter.

It turns out his daughter was a high school senior, was seriously interested in applying to Swarthmore, where I taught, and he wanted to get my sense of whether she would get in. Swarthmore is an extremely hard school to get into.

So I said, "Well, tell me about her." And he told me about her, what her grades were like, her board scores, her extracurricular activities. And she just sounded like a superstar, wonderful, wonderful kid.

So I said, "She sounds fabulous. She sounds like just the kind of student that Swarthmore would love to have." And so he said, "Well, does that mean that she'll get in?" And I said, "No.

There just aren't enough spots in the Swarthmore class for everybody who's good. There aren't enough spots at Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Stanford. There aren't enough spots at Google or Amazon or Apple.

There aren’t enough spots at the TED Conference. There are an awful lot of good people, and some of them are not going to make it.” So he said, “Well, what are we supposed to do?” And I said, “That’s a very good question. What are we supposed to do?”

And I know what colleges and universities have done. In the interest of fairness, what they’ve done is they’ve kept ratcheting up the standards because it doesn’t seem fair to admit less qualified people and reject better-qualified people, so you just keep raising the standards higher and higher until they’re high enough that you can admit only the number of students that you can fit.

And this violates a lot of people's sense of what justice and fairness is. People in American society have different opinions about what it means to say that some sort of process is just, but I think there's one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on, that in a just system, a fair system, people get what they deserve.

And what I was telling my former student is that when it comes to college admissions, it just isn't true that people get what they deserve. Some people get what they deserve, and some people don't, and that's just the way it is.

When you ratchet up requirements as colleges have done, what you do is you create a crazy competition among high school kids, because it's not adequate to be good, it's not adequate to be good enough, you have to be better than everybody else who is also applying.

And what this has done, or what this has contributed to, is a kind of epidemic of anxiety and depression that is just crushing our teenagers. We are wrecking a generation with this kind of competition.

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me there's a way to fix this problem. And here's what we could do: when people apply to college, we distinguish between the applicants who are good enough to be successful and the ones who aren't, and we reject the ones who aren't good enough to be successful, and then we take all of the others, and we put their names in a hat, and we just pick them out at random and admit them.

In other words, we do college admissions by lottery, and maybe we do job offers at tech companies by lottery, and – perish the thought – maybe we even make decisions about who gets invited to talk at TED by lottery.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, a lottery like this is not going to eliminate the injustice. There will still be plenty of people who don’t get what they deserve. But at least it’s honest. It reveals the injustice for what it is instead of pretending otherwise, and it punctures the incredible pressure balloon that our high school kids are now living under.

So why is it that this perfectly reasonable proposal, if I do say so myself, doesn't get any serious discussion? I think I know why. I think it's that we hate the idea that really important things in life might happen by luck or by chance, that really important things in our lives are not under our control.

I hate that idea. It's not surprising that people hate that idea, but it simply is the way things are. First of all, college admissions already is a lottery. It's just that the admissions officers pretend that it isn't.

So let's be honest about it. And second, I think if we appreciated that it was a lottery, it would also get us to acknowledge the importance of good fortune in almost every one of our lives. Take me.

Almost all the most significant events in my life have occurred, to a large degree, as a result of good luck. When I was in seventh grade, my family left New York and went to Westchester County. Right at the beginning of school, I met a lovely young girl who became my friend, then she became my best friend, then she became my girlfriend and then she became my wife.

Happily, she's been my wife now for 52 years. I had very little to do with this. This was a lucky accident. I went off to college, and in my first semester, I signed up for a class in introduction to psychology.

I didn't even know what psychology was, but it fit into my schedule and it met requirements, so I took it. And by luck, the class was taught by a superstar introductory psychology teacher, a legend.

Because of that, I became a psychology major. Went off to graduate school. I was finishing up. A friend of mine who taught at Swarthmore decided he didn't want to be a professor anymore, and so he quit to go to medical school.

The job that he occupied opened up, I applied for it, I got it, the only job I've ever applied for. I spent 45 years teaching at Swarthmore, an institution that had an enormous impact on the shape that my career took.

And to just give one last example, I was giving a talk about some of my work in New York, and there was somebody in the audience who came up to me after my talk. He introduced himself. He said, "My name is Chris.

Would you like to give a talk at TED?" And my response was, "What's TED?" Well, I mean, he told me, and TED then wasn't what it is now. But in the intervening years, the talks I've given at TED have been watched by more than 20 million people.

So the conclusion is, I'm a lucky man. I'm lucky about my marriage. I'm lucky about my education. I'm lucky about my career. And I'm lucky to have had a platform and a voice at something like TED.

Did I deserve the success I've had? Sure I deserve that success, just as you probably deserve your success. But lots of people also deserve successes like ours who haven't had it. So do people get what they deserve? Is society just? Of course not.

Working hard and playing by the rules is just no guarantee of anything. If we appreciate the inevitability of this kind of injustice and the centrality of good fortune, we might ask ourselves what responsibilities do we have to the people we are now celebrating as heroes in this time of the pandemic when a serious illness befalls their family to make sure that they remain whole and their lives aren’t ruined by the cost of dealing with the illness?

What do we owe people who struggle, work hard, and are less lucky than we are? About a half-century ago, the philosopher John Rawls wrote a book called “A Theory of Justice,” and in that book, he introduced a concept that he called “the veil of ignorance.”

The question he posed was: If you didn’t know what your position in society was going to be, what kind of a society would you want to create? And what he suggested is that when we don’t know whether we’re going to enter society at the top or at the bottom, what we want is a society that is pretty damn equal, so that even the unlucky will be able to live decent, meaningful and satisfying lives.

So bring this back, all of you lucky, successful people, to your communities, and do what you can to make sure that we honor and take care of people who are just as deserving of success as we are, but just not as lucky.

Becoming Smart!

It is said that with age comes wisdom. As a "senior" I would candidly say that were I able to live my life over again but retain all of the lessons that I have learned in my life, then the new, young me would enjoy a very different life than that which I have enjoyed. Experiences (good and bad) teach us life's lessons if you apply them. My intention with this blog is to provide a constant source of wisdom to you, gentle reader, in the hope that you can avoid some or more of life's mistakes and thus enjoy a better quality of life. My sources are global because applied wisdom is what counts.

Recent Posts