Born Lucky: Playing Warren Buffett’s Ovarian Lottery

Warren Buffett says he was born lucky. Being born in America, in the 1930s, without having to overcome barriers of race or gender, combined with the power of compound interest, allowed Buffett to amass one of the greatest personal fortunes in the history of mankind (which will be almost entirely given to philanthropy). As Buffett famously quips, he hit the ovarian lottery.

I’m pretty lucky too. Let’s imagine, as Buffett often encourages, that a magic genie takes me back in time to the moment before my birth. The genie points to a clear plexiglas box with billions of white plastic balls with black numbers stamped on them wildly churning about, and he proposes a deal in his reverberating baritone, “You may either take the life you currently have, or you may draw from life’s lottery box, and take a chance on a ball that leads to a different life.”

What a risk. In my new life, I would certainly want to be born into America, but there’s only about a 4% chance of drawing a red, white and blue ball. I’d want above average intelligence, and a family that supports my education, but only 8% of those lives will come with master’s degrees. And I certainly would rather not have to try to work my way out of poverty, but one out of eight balls would mean I would not have access to clean drinking water, and half the balls would mean living on less than $2.50 per day. These are not good odds.

“I’m going to keep the life I have, Genie, thanks anyway.”

“Hmmm. What if you I let you draw more than one ball? Will you now play the ovarian lottery?”

This would only be a worth-while proposition for me if the genie would let me draw about 5,000 balls from the lottery pool! Only then would I be likely improve my situation, or, in other words, only one in 5,000 people in this world are born with a better chance at life than I was born with.

I’ve had to remind myself of my good fortune lately. Like everyone else, I’m not immune from feeling sorry for myself from time to time, no matter how much or how little relative achievement fate has bestowed on me. It’s during my most pitiful moods I remind myself that there are about 4,999 other people out there who would have been luckier if they drew my ball from the ovarian lottery box. They would’ve killed to have the start that I had.

They surely wouldn’t sulk at dealing with the tiny troubles that come my way from time to time, and I bet they imagine they would never complain about the nonsense that gets me down. Just like I look at the ultra lucky, and think to myself – what do they have to complain about? They were born lucky. Well, they’re not the only lucky ones.

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...
Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students from the Kansas University School of Business (Photo credit: Wikipedia)