What’s luck got to do with it?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the TED Radio Hour. If you’ve never heard it before, this show takes a theme, then pulls clips from a few existing TED Talks that tie in to that theme. The host, Guy Raz, interviews the speakers about how their talk ties in with the theme. One of the recent episodes was titled Luck, Fortune, and Chance, and one of the segments in particular got me thinking about the work we have been doing around Equity in my school district. You can listen to just the segment of the show here:

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/697809215/699112445

Mark Sutcliffe, a talk show host from Canada who is also an entrepreneur and runner gave a recent TEDx Talk on the role that hard work and luck play in our stories of success. Our society has traditionally put an emphasis on the idea that hard work can lead to success. The reality is though, that this is not true for all.

Hard work is an element of success in life, but it’s not the essential element… The secret sauce is luck.

Sutcliffe shares that he won the genetic lottery the day he was born. Because of the makeup of his family, their experiences, education level, socio-economic status, and so much more, Mark had an excellent starting point on the day he was born. Not everyone has those same chances. As a runner, Mark makes the analogy between our starting point in life, and the starting point in a marathon.

If you’ve ever run an organized marathon, half-marathon, or possibly even 5k, you’ve started the race with a timing chip attached to you in some way. When the starter at the front of the race says go, the timer starts for everyone that is right at the start line. But if you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t at the front of the pack. In the last half marathon I ran, it was almost 20 minutes between the time the starter said go and the time I crossed the official start line. Thanks to the help of that timing chip, my time didn’t officially start until I crossed that start line.

Sutcliffe shares that life isn’t quite like that. There is no computer chip that levels the playing field. As he points out, if you’re born as a visible minority, a member of a lower socio-economic class, with a physical disability, with a mental illness, or of a different sex, then you start your life further back. And, as Sutcliffe goes on to point out, “You carry that disadvantage your whole life.”

I was raised as the child of a middle class, college educated, white family. I remember conversations about the key to being successful was through my effort. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and being told that if I worked hard in life, I would be more likely to be successful. And when I think about the life that I have led, I know that I have worked hard to get to where I am. But as I come to grips with what I am learning in my work with equity, I’m beginning to realize that not every one of my students starts at the same point. Merit does not drive all success in life, and what Sutcliffe is trying to get at is that when you start your life in one of those lucky situations, chances are pretty good that we will continue to be lucky throughout our life.

In the actual TED Talk the Sutcliffe gave (linked at the end of this post), he shares his plan to run his next marathon starting 3 hours after the official start time. His reason: he wants to remember that anyone who starts life at the back of the pack is likely to get a lot less help and support. He knows that he will most likely be running alone when he runs this marathon.

Some of our students are the ones who are starting the race a little farther back. As the people in their life who make it our goal to help them learn and grow, we have to keep remembering that some of our students may have started their life a little further back in the pack. As a result of that starting point, they may need a little more support in order to be successful.

And some of you may be thinking of someone who likely started further back in the pack and led a truly successful life. Sutcliffe shares that “When the winner comes from the back, it’s an exception, not a rule.” Hard work simply doesn’t do it all.

This past weekend, as the ideas for this post were bouncing around in my mind, the following tweet showed up in my timeline:

Before my work with equity, I probably would have said something very similar. I would have believed that everyone started on an equal playing field. The reality is though, and I think Sutcliffe’s talk does an excellent job of putting it into words, is that not all of us start at the same point. As one of the “lucky ones” who got to start near the front of the pack, I now make it a point to take Sutcliffe’s suggestion of what to do with our luck: be humble; kind; and generous. I can help those who may have started a little further back than me. I do it because it’s fair, it’s smart (there’s a cost of others not having the same opportunities that I do), and it makes me happy.

What are your thoughts? As you reflect on your starting point, where were you in relation to the start line? Do you believe that you have led a lucky life, or is your position in life based solely on hard work and effort? What steps to you take to help level the playing field? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to listen to the entire episode of TED Radio Hour that the idea of this post came from, you can find it here:

https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/697805275/luck-fortune-and-chance

And if you’d like to see Mark’s full TED Talk, check it out here: