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← What role does luck play in your life?

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Showing Revision 5 created 09/17/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Hello, everybody.
  2. I'm honored to be here to talk to you,
  3. and what I'm going to talk about today
    is luck and justice
  4. and the relation between them.
  5. Some years ago,

  6. a former student of mine called me
  7. to talk about his daughter.
  8. It turns out his daughter
    was a high school senior,
  9. was seriously interested
    in applying to Swarthmore,
  10. where I taught,
  11. and he wanted to get my sense
    of whether she would get in.
  12. Swarthmore is an extremely
    hard school to get into.
  13. So I said, "Well, tell me about her."
  14. And he told me about her,
  15. what her grades were like,
    her board scores,
  16. her extracurricular activities.
  17. And she just sounded like a superstar,
  18. wonderful, wonderful kid.
  19. So I said, "She sounds fabulous.
  20. She sounds like just the kind of student
  21. that Swarthmore would love to have."
  22. And so he said, "Well, does that mean
    that she'll get in?"
  23. And I said, "No.
  24. There just aren't enough spots
    in the Swarthmore class
  25. for everybody who's good.
  26. There aren't enough spots at Harvard
    or Yale or Princeton or Stanford.
  27. There aren't enough spots
    at Google or Amazon or Apple.
  28. There aren't enough spots
    at the TED Conference.
  29. There are an awful lot of good people,
  30. and some of them
    are not going to make it."
  31. So he said, "Well, what are we
    supposed to do?"
  32. And I said, "That's a very good question."
  33. What are we supposed to do?

  34. And I know what colleges
    and universities have done.
  35. In the interest of fairness,
  36. what they've done is
    they've kept ratcheting up the standards
  37. because it doesn't seem fair
    to admit less qualified people
  38. and reject better qualified people,
  39. so you just keep raising
    the standards higher and higher
  40. until they're high enough
    that you can admit
  41. only the number of students
    that you can fit.
  42. And this violates a lot of people's sense
    of what justice and fairness is.

  43. People in American society
    have different opinions
  44. about what it means
    to say that some sort of process is just,
  45. but I think there's one thing
    that pretty much everyone agrees on,
  46. that in a just system, a fair system,
  47. people get what they deserve.
  48. And what I was telling my former student

  49. is that when it comes
    to college admissions,
  50. it just isn't true that people
    get what they deserve.
  51. Some people get what they deserve,
    and some people don't,
  52. and that's just the way it is.
  53. When you ratchet up requirements
    as colleges have done,

  54. what you do is you create
    a crazy competition
  55. among high school kids,
  56. because it's not adequate to be good,
  57. it's not adequate to be good enough,
  58. you have to be better than everybody else
    who is also applying.
  59. And what this has done,
  60. or what this has contributed to,
  61. is a kind of epidemic
    of anxiety and depression
  62. that is just crushing our teenagers.
  63. We are wrecking a generation
    with this kind of competition.
  64. As I was thinking about this,

  65. it occurred to me
    there's a way to fix this problem.
  66. And here's what we could do:
  67. when people apply to college,
  68. we distinguish between the applicants
    who are good enough to be successful
  69. and the ones who aren't,
  70. and we reject the ones who aren't
    good enough to be successful,
  71. and then we take all of the others,
    and we put their names in a hat,
  72. and we just pick them out at random
  73. and admit them.
  74. In other words, we do
    college admissions by lottery,
  75. and maybe we do job offers
    at tech companies by lottery,
  76. and -- perish the thought --
  77. maybe we even make decisions
    about who gets invited to talk at TED
  78. by lottery.
  79. Now, don't misunderstand me,

  80. a lottery like this is not
    going to eliminate the injustice.
  81. There will still be plenty of people
    who don't get what they deserve.
  82. But at least it's honest.
  83. It reveals the injustice for what it is
    instead of pretending otherwise,
  84. and it punctures the incredible
    pressure balloon
  85. that our high school kids
    are now living under.
  86. So why is it that this perfectly
    reasonable proposal,

  87. if I do say so myself,
  88. doesn't get any serious discussion?
  89. I think I know why.
  90. I think it's that we hate the idea
  91. that really important things in life
    might happen by luck or by chance,
  92. that really important things in our lives
    are not under our control.
  93. I hate that idea.
  94. It's not surprising
    that people hate that idea,
  95. but it simply is the way things are.
  96. First of all, college admissions
    already is a lottery.

  97. It's just that the admissions officers
    pretend that it isn't.
  98. So let's be honest about it.
  99. And second,

  100. I think if we appreciated
    that it was a lottery,
  101. it would also get us to acknowledge
    the importance of good fortune
  102. in almost every one of our lives.
  103. Take me.

  104. Almost all the most significant
    events in my life have occurred,
  105. to a large degree,
  106. as a result of good luck.
  107. When I was in seventh grade,
    my family left New York
  108. and went to Westchester County.
  109. Right at the beginning of school,
  110. I met a lovely young girl
    who became my friend,
  111. then she became my best friend,
  112. then she became my girlfriend
  113. and then she became my wife.
  114. Happily, she's been my wife now
  115. for 52 years.
  116. I had very little to do with this.
    This was a lucky accident.
  117. I went off to college,

  118. and in my first semester, I signed up
    for a class in introduction to psychology.
  119. I didn't even know what psychology was,
  120. but it fit into my schedule
    and it met requirements,
  121. so I took it.
  122. And by luck, the class was taught
  123. by a superstar introductory
    psychology teacher, a legend.
  124. Because of that, I became
    a psychology major.
  125. Went off to graduate school.

  126. I was finishing up.
  127. A friend of mine who taught
    at Swarthmore decided
  128. he didn't want to be a professor anymore,
  129. and so he quit to go to medical school.
  130. The job that he occupied opened up,
  131. I applied for it, I got it,
  132. the only job I've ever applied for.
  133. I spent 45 years teaching at Swarthmore,
  134. an institution that had an enormous impact
    on the shape that my career took.
  135. And to just give one last example,

  136. I was giving a talk about
    some of my work in New York,
  137. and there was somebody in the audience
    who came up to me after my talk.
  138. He introduced himself.
  139. He said, "My name is Chris.
  140. Would you like to give a talk at TED?"
  141. And my response was, "What's TED?"
  142. Well, I mean, he told me,
  143. and TED then wasn't what it is now.
  144. But in the intervening years,
  145. the talks I've given at TED
    have been watched
  146. by more than 20 million people.
  147. So the conclusion is, I'm a lucky man.

  148. I'm lucky about my marriage.
  149. I'm lucky about my education.
  150. I'm lucky about my career.
  151. And I'm lucky to have had a platform
    and a voice at something like TED.
  152. Did I deserve the success I've had?

  153. Sure I deserve that success,
  154. just as you probably deserve your success.
  155. But lots of people also deserve
    successes like ours
  156. who haven't had it.
  157. So do people get what they deserve?

  158. Is society just?
  159. Of course not.
  160. Working hard and playing by the rules
    is just no guarantee of anything.
  161. If we appreciate the inevitability
    of this kind of injustice
  162. and the centrality of good fortune,
  163. we might ask ourselves
  164. what responsibilities do we have
  165. to the people we are now celebrating
    as heroes in this time of the pandemic
  166. when a serious illness
    befalls their family
  167. to make sure that they remain whole
    and their lives aren't ruined
  168. by the cost of dealing with the illness?
  169. What do we owe people who struggle,
  170. work hard and are less lucky than we are?
  171. About a half century ago,

  172. the philosopher John Rawls wrote a book
    called "A Theory of Justice,"
  173. and in that book, he introduced a concept
    that he called "the veil of ignorance."
  174. The question he posed was:
  175. If you didn't know what your position
    in society was going to be,
  176. what kind of a society
    would you want to create?
  177. And what he suggested
  178. is that when we don't know
    whether we're going to enter society
  179. at the top or at the bottom,
  180. what we want is a society
    that is pretty damn equal,
  181. so that even the unlucky
  182. will be able to live decent,
    meaningful and satisfying lives.
  183. So bring this back, all of you lucky,
    successful people, to your communities,

  184. and do what you can to make sure
    that we honor and take care of
  185. people who are just as deserving
    of success as we are,
  186. but just not as lucky.
  187. Thank you.