In 2012, Michael Lewis gave the commencement speech at Princeton, his alma mater. Near the end of his speech, Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Big Short, addressed luck’s role in rationalizing success. He told the graduates, who’re already winners in so many of life’s lotteries, that they “owe a debt to the unlucky.”
A few years ago, a psychology department staged an experiment using students. They broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams into a room, arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader and gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.
Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there.
It should’ve been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths.
This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.
This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group.
Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.
All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.