In 24 hours, you are going to be born into the world.
A genie comes to you and makes you a proposal: the genie will give you the next 24 hours to design the world into which you will be born (including all of the systems and rules that everyone will live by).
That sounds like a pretty good deal.
So you ask the genie, “What’s the catch?”
The genie looks at you and says, “In this bowl are 6.6 billion lottery balls. They represent all of the people in the world. You get to pick one of them, randomly, and that’s the person you will be.”
This is an illustration used frequently by Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest man. Buffett, a.k.a. the Oracle of Omaha, is perhaps the greatest investor of all time. He has a very unique set of skills that he utilizes, arguably, to perfection.
His company, Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most reputable in the history of business. So, when Buffett attributes his success almost entirely to having won the Ovarian Lottery (a concept represented by the aforementioned illustration), it’s something worth taking a look at.
If you have a few minutes, watch this video (go to 1:22:25) where Buffett describes the concept of the Ovarian Lottery- he obviously does a better job explaining it than I can here.
Essentially, Buffett is acknowledging the fact that when he was born in 1930, he had roughly a 1 in 50 chance of being born in a situation where his particular skills could be used properly.
Had he been born into a poor family, or been born with a disability, or been born in a country where there were no opportunities for investors… he would have never had the slightest opportunity to become the brilliant, famous, and incredibly rich person that he is today.
Furthermore, Buffett’s good friend (and world’s #1 richest man) Bill Gates notes that had he or Buffett been born in a cave or in the jungle (where physical skills were far more important than cognitive ones), neither of them would have survived a day.
Now, I think the natural and popular response to this is to simply be thankful for having “drawn the lucky hand” or “purchased a winning ticket“. And that’s true. We who were fortunate enough to have been born with the right set of abilities and in the right opportunity and at the right time do have much to be thankful for- and that cannot be emphasized enough. But, let’s take this a step further.
If the average American (or Brit, or German, or fill in the blank), with average skills and average abilities derived from their DNA, can become (by the standards of the other 5 billion or so on the planet) extraordinarily successful, merely by being placed in a highly opportune situation- what does that say about the rest of the world?
Among other things, it means this… there are, “out there” among the billions of less-than-fortunate people in the world, a huge number of individuals who actually have the rare innate abilities that so few people possess.
How many Warren Buffets are there in India and China and Pakistan, their potential unrealized given the circumstances into which they were born? How many Albert Einstein’s? How many Abraham Lincoln’s? How many Leonardo da Vinci’s?
If, as Buffett believes, he had a 1 in 50 chance of being born into a situation where his unique gifts and abilities could be utilized, then by extension we can also say that there were probably 49 others, much like him, who were never given that opportunity.
Think about the implications of that…
What would we know about the universe today if 50 Einstein’s were around in the 20th century?
What understanding of biology would we have today if there had been 50 Gregor Mendel’s or Charles Darwin’s?
What other great works of literature would we have today if there had been 50 Shakespeare’s?
I ask these questions because I believe they are integral to our understanding of and approach to global poverty. Many people view the eradication of poverty as a thorn in our side. It’s this nagging voice that won’t go away. It’s a phone call or a person on the side of the street asking you to donate to some organization.
That approach is beyond being just morally objectionable.
It’s also counterproductive and self-defeating.
If, among us, there are such a huge number (as, statistically, there must be) of incredibly gifted thinkers, writers, poets, scientists, leaders, and more… it is in our own best interest to provide them the opportunities to nurture their abilities and to contribute to society.
The fact that Warren Buffett was so incredibly fortunate (or that we are fortunate) to have won the Ovarian Lottery is not something to cheer about.
It’s something to be ashamed of.
For we now have the ability to change that system so that the odds are not stacked against us. We have the ability to help future generations of the unborn improve their odds and, thus, enable them to make the incredible contributions they are capable of.
And by helping them, we help ourselves.
*Photo Credit: Tom Magliery (Creative Commons)