Mark Sutcliffe: Do We Overstate Hard Work In The Narrative Of Success?

Mar 1, 2019

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Luck, Fortune, And Chance.

About Mark Sutcliffe's TED Talk

Mark Sutcliffe says our luck—or privilege—is determined before we are even born. He encourages people to acknowledge the role of privilege in their lives and work to lessen the opportunity gap.

About Mark Sutcliffe

Mark Sutcliffe is an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, and community activist.

He is the host of Ottawa Today, a daily four-hour talk show on 1310 NEWS and Rogers TV.

Additionally, Sutcliffe has founded several media properties, including the Ottawa Business Journal, the Kitchissippi Times community newspaper and iRun, Canada's leading media brand for runners.

Sutcliffe has completed more than 20 marathons and is the author of four books: Why I Run, Canada's Magnificent Marathon, Big Joe and the Return of Football, and Long Road to Boston.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about what it means to be lucky. If I just saw you on the street, what do you look like?

MARK SUTCLIFFE: You know, I've got a little bit of gray hair. And I'm kind of of slender build, probably a slightly above average height - an ordinary-looking middle-aged white guy in Canada.

RAZ: This is Mark Sutcliffe.

SUTCLIFFE: It's a very British name.

RAZ: And by all accounts, you could say Mark's had a very successful career.

SUTCLIFFE: I host a daily four-hour talk show here in Ottawa on everything that's going on in the world in local news, national, international news.

RAZ: But Mark's also launched several businesses...

SUTCLIFFE: A running magazine, a local business journal, a community newspaper in my neighborhood.

RAZ: ...Among a lot of other things.

SUTCLIFFE: I do some consulting work, and I volunteer - and a marathon runner, as well.

RAZ: So I mean, looking at this from the outside, I think most people would conclude that your, quote, unquote, "success" has a lot to do, if not all to do, with your hard work. Would you agree with that?

SUTCLIFFE: I think we can all look at the narrative of our lives and say, I worked really hard, and here I am. Therefore, I'm here because I worked really hard. And I think you can look around the world and see that there are lots of people who work hard who don't enjoy the success that I've enjoyed, who don't have the wealth that I have or the opportunities that I've had in my life. And so to me, while hard work is an element of success in life, it's not the essential element.

RAZ: So what is?

SUTCLIFFE: I think the secret sauce is luck.

RAZ: And Mark says that most of his good luck was given to him before he was even born.

SUTCLIFFE: My grandfather on my mother's side was born on the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, and he was ethnically Chinese. His parents were from China. And my grandfather ended up studying in French as he grew up in Mauritius. And because of that, he went to university in Paris. And that's where he met my grandmother, who was born and raised in Paris. And they eventually moved to China with my mom and her sisters. And they spent a long time in China - lived there for about 20 years before they finally moved to Canada. And eventually, my mom and dad ended up in the same workplace and got married and had a family.


SUTCLIFFE: Just the chances of being born in Canada, as I was, are about 1 in 400.

RAZ: Mark Sutcliffe picks up the story from the TED stage.


SUTCLIFFE: I won the lottery the day that I was born. I didn't get handed a check for a million dollars, but I was given an opportunity that was worth at least that much. Now, in a marathon, everybody starts at the same time. When the gun goes off, we all have an equal chance of running a good race and getting to the finish line. In fact, in big races like this one or the Boston Marathon, they give you a little chip that you can put on your shoe so that if you do start way back from the start line because there are so many people in front of you, they don't start counting your time until you actually cross the start line. That way, it's fair for everybody.

But life isn't like that. If you don't start at the front of the pack, you don't get a computer chip that levels the playing field. There are so many ways that luck creates advantages and disadvantages from the day we are born. If you aren't born in Canada or another Western country, then you start farther back. If you're a visible minority, you start farther back. If your parents are poor, you start farther back. If you have a physical disability or you develop a mental illness, then you start farther back. And in so many places in the world, if you're a girl, you start farther back. And again, there's no computer chip that evens everything out. You carry that disadvantage for your entire life.

RAZ: You know, Mark, we were just hearing from Amy Hunter. And it sounds like both of you are saying a similar version of the same thing, which is that luck is often the same thing as privilege, that, you know - in other words, luck seems to be something that people who have sort of, you know, inherent privileges - that they have more of it, or they get more of it.

SUTCLIFFE: Yeah. I think there definitely is an element of, the luckier you are, the more luck you get in life. So you can be in a position of good fortune, and that exposes you to more opportunities to experience good fortune. And sometimes we're misled by high-profile examples of people who are not born into privilege, but are successful anyway. And those are the exceptions, not the rule.


SUTCLIFFE: We love those stories. They inspire us. But in a way, they also mislead us into thinking that that means the race is fair when it's not. The fact is, thousands and thousands of people who start life at the back of the pack never even have a chance. We put way too much emphasis on hard work, and we fail to recognize the role of the ovarian lottery that puts so many people, including me, at the front of the pack. In life, in so many ways, you can't win unless you start with a lot of luck.

RAZ: So is the narrative that we tell ourselves, especially in the United States, that merit is what drives success - a narrative that most people believe - is that self-delusional?

SUTCLIFFE: I think it's a little bit delusional. But I don't want to take away from the people who work hard. And I don't want to take away the element of hard work. You can be handed a great opportunity and do nothing with it. And there's nothing wrong with feeling a sense of accomplishment if you do work hard and you achieve something. But we overstate that in life. And I think it's just - it's a compelling narrative that society, in general, has an interest in perpetuating. When you look at the obesity problem and you conclude that the only reason some people have trouble with their weight is because they've made bad decisions in life, then it's easy to say, we don't need to find a solution to that problem. We just need everybody to try harder and to eat less.

When you start to look at the more complex factors that contribute to obesity - the environment, how the food environment has changed in the last 50 years and some of the decisions we need to confront as a society - there's some hard work involved in that for all of us collectively. We've got to make changes. And it's easier sometimes to just say, well, no. We just need to educate people and let them make their own decisions. Leave it up to individuals. That's a more convenient storyline than one where we confront some difficult truths.


SUTCLIFFE: When you see the world through the lens of merit, it makes us possessive and protective. If I earned it, I should get to keep it. It makes us think in terms of scarcity rather than abundance. It makes us talk about building walls to keep other people out. When you see the world in terms of luck - through the lens of luck, it makes us humble, kind, generous. It makes us want to share our good fortune, to spread it around. It makes us think about opening doors to other people.

RAZ: All right. So let's accept that luck plays an enormous, if not the most important, role in outcomes. But could we also say that if we begin to understand that and acknowledge it, we could actually make it so effort could eventually determine outcomes?

SUTCLIFFE: I hope so. I think we've emerged from times in the past where the limits were much greater on people to move beyond their circumstances in childhood. But I think the progress is incremental and generational.

RAZ: Yeah.

SUTCLIFFE: I'm hopeful, though, that if we start to acknowledge that success is not purely a result of hard work, that we will find ways to level the playing field, that we will find ways to give more opportunity to the people who are not born with it because, you know, this is not a zero-sum game. I don't lose if more people have a chance at winning in life. And in fact, we're all better off because we're unlocking the potential of so many people who never even get to have their chance at the plate.


RAZ: That's Mark Sutcliffe. He's a journalist and entrepreneur. You can watch his full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.