It’s interesting to see how people view the role of luck in their lives, and how these perceptions reflect on their own views of themselves. Recent research has shown that chance plays a far larger role in our lives than most people realize. Not everyone appreciates or is willing to admit to this fact. According to Pew Research Center, people in the highest income bracket are much more likely to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work harder than those who are poorer. People with a lot of money almost uniformly attribute their financial success to their own hard work rather than luck or being in the right place at the right time.
The problem with this view is that results of research has shown that looking at ourselves as self-made, rather than talented, hardworking and lucky, leads us to be less generous and public minded. It even makes the successful less likely to support such things as high quality public education and infrastructure that made their own success possible. It isn’t until these people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune that they are willing to contribute to the common good.
Successful people don’t like to be told how much their success is due to fortuitous circumstances. It’s not that hard work and talent don’t play a role; they clearly do. But how successful would you have been if you had been born in war-torn Sudan? Or your educational opportunities were limited by significant poverty, or lack of role models? And what would have happened to your success if you had been born unattractive, or didn’t happen to meet the individual who opened doors for your career at that dinner you almost didn’t attend? If you read about people blessed with high achievement, it’s not uncommon to find an element of serendipity contributing to their success.
One of the gauntlets facing our youth is the challenge of getting accepted at a prestigious school. The pressure starts early, and intensifies as you approach college. Driven by parents convinced that the key to success in life is having their son or daughter attend a top ranked school, and fueled by the competitive atmosphere among their peers, the stress and anxiety associated with college admissions is huge. Some parents are now in jail for trying to game the system, while those who didn’t succeed in getting accepted to the schools of their choice are faced with a sense of failure, shame, and loss of self-worth, driving some so far as to commit suicide.
There have been numerous books and articles on the college admission process, from what are the best study aids to passing entrance exams to how to write the best essay or make the best impression on the personal interviews. While these provide information on the mechanics and the processes of admission, they omit a very key and very large portion of that process – the role of luck.
My wife and I have been mentoring high school students for many years, and have attended a number of sessions with them where college admission officers try to describe how the admission process works, and the many factors that selective schools use in their choice of prospective students. Yes, there is an extensive attempt to create a holistic impression of each applicant. What is not made clear, and what my wife and I both know (she served on the admission committee of one of the most selective Ivy League schools, and I did the same at one of the top ranked West Coast schools) is that after reaching a selection threshold based on grades and requirements for each school, you are left with a large pool of candidates who are all qualified, and almost any one of which would make excellent students for the given school. Decisions for admittance are then based on luck, and minor factors which capture the fancy of the individuals making the choices. This randomness can be illustrated by the fate of a young man, who happened to be the son of one of the people with whom I worked. He finished with top grades in engineering from Cornell, a tier 1 institution, yet failed to get admitted to any of the 30 some medical schools to which he applied. This was a huge shock (and embarrassment) to both him and his family. Yet the following year, with the same credentials, he was admitted to several excellent schools, graduated from a most challenging MD/Ph.D. program, and is now a member of academia.
We understand that when we buy a lottery ticket, luck determines the winner. If we lose, we don’t experience a loss of self-esteem. Instead, we buy another ticket. If parents and students understood, that as long as applicants meet the baseline requirements of a school who gets in is often a matter of luck, they would not have this large sense of rejection and sense of profound failure. They would try again. (The topic of being able to obtain a good education outside of a prestigious institution is a matter for another blog.)