Home » Barry Schwartz: What Role Does Luck Play In Your Life? (Transcript)

Barry Schwartz: What Role Does Luck Play In Your Life? (Transcript)

Full text of psychologist Barry Schwartz’s talk titled “What Role Does Luck Play In Your Life?” at TED conference.


Barry Schwartz – Psychologist

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 who 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, you know 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.

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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.

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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.

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