The reality of the lottery of birth (also known as the lottery of life, birth lottery, and/or life lottery) is something we seem to forget over and over again.
We like to think that we are in control of our lives. That we are responsible for our successes and failures. That we can and should take credit or blame. But, as you’ll quickly see here, life isn’t that simple. In fact, there may be far more out of our control than what is actually in our control.
Buckle up! Your ego is about to take a humbling ride.
“Birth is life’s first lottery ticket.” — Jeffrey Archer
The Lottery of Birth — All the Things You Don’t Control in Life
What is the Lottery of Birth?
Start by watching this short TED Talk by Raoul Martinez. It should be required viewing for all humanity. I also watched Raoul’s full documentary Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth, but I actually think his TED Talk is more impactful.
Let’s recap what Raoul is telling us:
- “We do not choose to exist.”
- “As newborns, we’re not responsible for our own natures, we’re endowed with genes that we didn’t ask for.”
- “We’re faced with a world that we played no part in creating.”
- “We do not choose what environment we grow up in.”
- “We do not choose our identity, we inherit it.”
“Our starting point in life is one of complete dependence on forces—genetic and environmental—that we don’t control. And these forces can shape us into many things … The people we become, the lives that we lead, the beliefs and values that we learn to hold, owe much to the lottery of our birth.”
Real Life Examples of the Lottery of Birth
What ticket did you get in the lottery of life? This is an incredibly powerful TED Talk by Christina Rickardsson:
As is this one by Yasmine Mustafa:
On the flip side of the lottery of birth, look at someone like Warren Buffett: white, male, born in the US, and wired to succeed in a capitalistic market system. The good news is that Warren is very aware of his lucky winning lottery ticket—he even helped popularize the thought experiment of the “ovarian lottery.”
The Implications of the Lottery of Birth
The reality is that there’s nothing internal or external to you that is a blank slate when you arrive in the world. It’s easy to say that we are the sum total of our genes (nature) and environment (nurture). But, what does that really mean when you look at all the things included in that? It means you didn’t have any control over:
- Your existence in general
- Where you were born (geographic nation, first/third world, peaceful suburb/war zone)
- When you were born (generation, zeitgeist, economy, socioeconomic mobility)
- Who you were born to (parents, genetics, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, birth order, disability/chronic illness, gender, sexual orientation)
- Most (if not all) of your conditioning/programming growing up (language(s)/symbols you speak and think in, education, religion/ideologies, values)
- Your social sphere is often based on circumstance (who you grow up around, go to school with, play sports with, become friends with)
- Traumatic experiences (or miracles) that happened completely outside of your control
- And probably many more…
So, what does all this mean?
- “Here’s the thing: People from different generations, raised by different parents who earned different incomes and held different values, in different parts of the world, born into different economies, experiencing different job markets with different incentives and different degrees of luck, learn very different lessons.” — Morgan Housel, author of “The Psychology of Money”
We all feel like we are constantly making choices. But, what is making those choices?
- “Yes, we all make choices … but the choices that we make are made with a brain that we didn’t choose. A brain whose workings we don’t even understand. Just as a computer doesn’t program itself, we don’t wire our own brains. Our brains are wired by the interaction between our genes and our environment.” — Raoul Martinez
If we didn’t create or shape or own brains, what does that mean for responsibility?
- “So, at what point do we become responsible for who we are? The answer is that we don’t. By the time we’re old enough to contemplate our own identity, we already have one. And, by then, the way that we see the world is framed by our prior conditioning. And, that conditioning informs every choice that we make—even the choice to rebel against that conditioning. In short, long before we can shape the world, the world has firmly shaped us.” — Raoul Martinez
This obviously starts to get into the free will debate:
- “You didn’t choose your parents. You didn’t choose the society into which you were born. There is not a cell in your body or brain that you—the conscious subject—created. Nor is there a single influence coming from the outside world that you brought into being. And yet everything you think and do arises from this ocean of prior causes. So what you do with your luck, and the very tools with which you do it, including the level of effort and discipline you manage to summon in each moment, is more in the way of luck.” — Sam Harris
While the jury is still out on free will, what should we take away from all this?
5 Ways to Move Forward after the Realization of the Lottery of Birth
How are you feeling at this point? Relieved? Upset? Rejecting all of this as nonsense? Or, are you willing to admit:
- “No great credit to me. I just was lucky at birth … I shouldn’t delude myself into thinking I’m some superior individual because of that.” — Warren Buffett
If your ego is open to making the most of this newfound realization, here are some things to consider as you move forward in life.
1. Understand the incredible power of the human mind:
“Our minds are a battleground of competing forces, and the outcome of this battle determines who we become and the society that we create.” — Raoul Martinez
- “Human history would suggest that there’s neither a belief too bizarre nor an action too appalling for humans to embrace given the necessary cultural influences.” — Raoul Martinez
- “If we are to create an alternative future, we can’t reproduce the thinking that shaped our past.” — Raoul Martinez
2. Recognize your inherited identity and transcend your conditioning:
“To identify the limitations on our knowledge, freedom, and happiness, is to give ourselves the best chance of transcending them.” — Raoul Martinez
- “If we’re to get beyond our conditioning, we need to question the forces that have shaped us … When we question our identities, we need to question the information that we receive. But, we also need to ask, ‘What’s been left out?’ … Identities are often shaped to serve the interests of those with the power to do the shaping.” — Raoul Martinez
- “If we’re lucky, our culture will plant in us the seeds of reason and doubt, so that we can grow the tools necessary to question our inherited identity and the world that we’re confronted with.” — Raoul Martinez
3. Take the only responsibility that you can take:
“To acknowledge that we are not ultimately responsible is the closest we get to taking responsibility. The more we understand the affect the world has had on us, the more we can control the affect we have on the world.” — Raoul Martinez
- “The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have.” — Noam Chomsky
- “When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” — Ijeoma Oluo
4. Use yourself to build a more equitable society:
“Reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.” — Bill Gates
- “A just society is based on principles everyone would agree to if impartial and if starting from an original position behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ — not knowing who they would be or which side of an argument they would be on.” — Eric Rosenbaum paraphrasing John Rawls and Warren Buffett
- “The Ovarian Lottery had come to shape all of his opinions about politics and philanthropy; Buffett’s ideal was a world in which winners were free to strive, but narrowed the gap by helping the losers.” — The Snowball by Alice Schroeder
- “You would also want a system that treated the people that did not win the ovarian lottery in a way that you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Because a lot of people don’t win the lottery.” — Warren Buffett
- “You still want to have a system where the people that are born … get to turn their talents to work in a way that really maximizes those talents.” — Warren Buffett
- “A lot ought to go back to the people that got the short straws in life.” — Warren Buffett
5. Live from a place of compassion for all:
“Understanding that we are not ultimately responsible affirms the appropriateness of compassion as a response to all suffering.” — Raoul Martinez
- “Most people resist this idea, seemingly at any intellectual cost, and yet this single insight is the antidote to arrogance and hatred—and provides a profound basis for compassion, both for other people and for oneself. It’s the basis for real forgiveness, again for other people and for oneself. It is literally the path to redemption, and it’s the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution.” — Sam Harris
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