If You're Reading This You've Already Won
Putting our most fortunate circumstances into context.
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Let me tell you how the world works.
We like to believe that we are the captains of our own destinies, the authors of our own stories. We imagine life as a blank canvas, and we, the artists, determine its design. Our world is certainly littered with anecdotes and stories that support this idea.
Oprah Winfrey spent the first six years of her life living in poverty with her maternal grandmother. Oprah Winfrey is now an 18-time Emmy award-winning billionaire. J.K. Rowling grew up in a dysfunctional home with a chronically ill mother, and she lived on Social Security in a rodent-infested flat in Edinburgh after fleeing an abusive marriage. J.K. Rowling has since sold enough copies of Harry Potter to circle the equator 16 times. As a 14-year-old Hungarian kid, George Soros survived the Holocaust by posing as the Christian godson of Hungary's Minister of Agriculture. Soros has since amassed a $7B fortune, breaking the Bank of England along the way.
Everyone loves an underdog story because we all envision ourselves as those underdogs who, against all odds, triumph in the end, finding success or love or whatever is our "happily ever after."
But we have a knack for clinging to the success stories while ignoring everything else. Joseph Stalin (allegedly) once said, "If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that's only a statistic."
And for every Winfrey, Rowling, and Soros, there are a million unnamed individuals whose stories started and ended in dysfunctional homes, abusive marriages, and war-torn nations.
Life's greatest irony is that we have no control over the most consequential moment of our lives: the circumstances of our births. Sure, we are all the captains of our own destinies, but the vessels in which we pursue these destinies range from rowboats to mega yachts, and you don't choose your ship.
Where, when, and to whom you are born are far bigger determinants of one's life outcome than grit, drive, and determination.
This concept has floated around the recesses of my mind for a while, but it really began taking shape a few weeks ago when I came across the term "Ovarian Lottery" in a 2013 Warren Buffett interview.
Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You're] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren.
What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world? Do you want men to push around females? It’s a 50/50 chance you get female. If you think about the political world, you want a system that gets what people want. You want more and more output because you’ll have more wealth to share around.
The US is a great system, turns out $50,000 GDP per capita, 6 times the amount when I was born in just one lifetime. But not knowing what slip you get, you want a system that once it produces output, you don’t want anyone to be left behind. You want to incentivize the top performers, don’t want equality in results, but do want something that those who get the bad tickets still have a decent life. You also don’t want fear in people’s minds — fear of lack of money in old age, fear of cost of health care. I call this the “Ovarian Lottery."
My sisters didn’t get the same ticket. Expectations for them were that they would marry well, or if they work, would work as a nurse, teacher, etc. If you are designing the world knowing 50/50 male or female, you don’t want this type of world for women — you could get female. Design your world this way; this should be your philosophy.
I look at Forbes 400, look at their figures and see how it’s gone up in the last 30 years. Americans at the bottom are also improving, and that is great, but we don’t want that degree of inequality. Only governments can correct that. The right way to look at it is the standpoint of how you would view the world if you didn’t know who you would be.
If you’re not willing to gamble with your slip out of 100 random slips, you are lucky! The top 1% of 7 billion people. Everyone is wired differently. You can’t say you do everything yourself. We all have teachers, and people before us who led us to where we are. We can’t let people fall too far behind. You all definitely got good slips.
We have all, at some level, experienced losing the ovarian lottery. My experience came on the football field.
I was what coaches would call a "hustle player" in college. If you are referred to as a "hustle player," it usually means that you are an underwhelming athletic specimen who plays hard. Source - me, a hustle player who arrived at Mercer University as a 6'3, 230-pound defensive end with a 6'1.5 wing span.
College football as an undersized, not all-that-athletically-gifted defensive end was an uphill battle, to say the least. It took an extra magnitude of preparation and development to perform at the base level of someone who was an inch taller, a step quicker, or a few pounds heavier. And don't get me started about having a short wingspan as a defensive lineman.
As my fellow walk-ons know all too well, there was nothing, and I mean nothing, that infuriated me more than someone who squandered their athletic gifts. The 6'6 270-pound built-in-a-lab players with the grace of gazelles and the power of freight trains who failed to take advantage of their ability.
"DO YOU NOT REALIZE HOW GOOD YOU HAVE IT?" I would think to myself. "YOU ARE A DASH OF WORK ETHIC AWAY FROM HAVING A SHOT AT THE LEAGUE."
Of course, it's the curse of the gifted that they often take their gifts for granted, while the gift-less are left imagining just how wonderful their lives would be had Fortune shown them her favor.
If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you are one of the former.
Approximately 67% of my readers are from the United States. If you fall in this group, you have already won the ovarian lottery on a global scale. Even in the bottom quartile of US wealth, 75% of adults had smartphones in 2021. You have access to a US passport, the US education system, and the US labor market. You speak English. And those are just the most basic advantages for anyone born in the US of A. If you don't have disabilities, if you were born to a wealthy family, if you are white, or if you are male, that lottery ticket becomes more and more valuable. The opportunities that you are given, through no effort of your own, grow exponentially.
And this ovarian lottery transcends time as well as geography.
In the United States 100 years ago, women couldn't vote and segregation was the law of the land. 700 years ago, the bubonic plague decimated Europe, wiping out half of Paris's population in just 5 years. If you think Covid-19 is bad, imagine a pandemic that gave you a coin flip's chance of survival in New York City. That was the reality of the world before vaccines, antibiotics, and public sanitation. For most of human history, our chief concerns were finding food and staying warm. There was no time for our post-modernistic search for the "meaning of life."
Now imagine, for a moment, that you are alive and well in a first-world country in the year of our Lord 2023. You have a supercomputer in your pocket that possesses the entirety of human knowledge, our supermarkets contain an assortment of food so grand that King Solomon himself would have been jealous, you can set foot in any country not named North Korea within 24 hours for less than $1,000, modern medicine has rendered former death sentences such as polio all-but-irrelevant, and any and every career path, from medicine to law to rocket science to entrepreneurship awaits you.
An estimated 100,000,000,000 people have walked the earth, including the 8,000,000,000 on the planet right now. 100,000 years of tribal migration, empirical wars, technological advances, and reproductive luck have put you in a position that 99,000,000,000 people couldn't dream of.
You can quite literally do anything.
But man, oh man, do we squander this opportunity.
If you are reading this from the comfort of a first-world country in 2023, I want to congratulate you for winning both the geographic and chronologic ovarian lotteries.
If the sperm and egg cells that created *you* had merged in some other era or geography, you could have been a horseshoe maker's apprentice in medieval Prussia, a sacrificial lamb to the Aztec gods, A Venetian victim of the bubonic plague, or a lower-class Indian caught in the dredges of the caste system.
But instead, the majority of you are reading this from New York, or Denver, or Atlanta, or London, or Sydney in 2023. So, considering just how fortuitous our current circumstances are, I ask, no, implore you not to take that lottery ticket for granted.
As Peter Parker's late Uncle Ben once said, "With great power comes great responsibility." Out of 100,000,000,000 humans to step foot on this planet, you and I are the ones who were born with unlimited opportunities. That opportunity comes with a responsibility to do something, anything worthwhile.
So if you have a dream, have the courage to chase it. Have the courage to fail, dust yourself off, and try once more. Have the desire to explore the world around you, to travel somewhere that looks quite different from your home, to befriend someone who looks quite different from you, and have the wherewithal to take action on those desires. Have the curiosity to learn a second language, whether that be Spanish, German, or Japanese, because those that speak Spanish, German, and Japanese had to learn English to have the opportunities that you were born with. Have the drive to pursue a career actually worth pursuing, whether that means saving lives, educating others, mentoring the next generation, building new and exciting technologies, or supporting those that pursue these things. And even if your career is financially lucrative but spiritually lackluster, have the desire to develop skills and engage in hobbies worth developing and engaging in. Learn how to cook, dance, and play an instrument. Have the discipline to push your body to its physical limits while you are young, because you'll wish you had when you're old. Take the initiative to reignite old friendships and craft new ones because you need someone with whom you can exchange all of the stories mentioned above.
For the love of God, I ask you to spend your time doing something, anything, that you would be proud to share with both your ancestors and your descendants. Exchanging a winning lottery ticket for a life of mindlessly scrolling TikTok, engaging in petty political arguments, and refreshing spreadsheets certainly seems like a waste, doesn't it?
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