In Life, as in Wordle, Success Often Depends on Where You Start

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As a writer, words are my tools, so I fell quickly for Wordle, a simple but challenging online game that lets me sharpen my tool kit. Just a mix of five letters and six tries, but it offers unswerving fun and wonder. I felt in good company when many of my friends fell for Wordle too, declaring their love and posting tallies of their successes on social media. Since the rise of the Wordle phenomenon, I noticed how some ascribe their Wordle successes to their own merit and strategy while others acknowledge the role of luck.

Perhaps because I came to writing and Wordle having worked in social change for close to 15 years, most recently in racial justice, I see metaphors for equity all over, even in the simple games we play to entertain ourselves during a pandemic. But let’s take a deeper look at how the luck of circumstances works in Wordle, and in life. Let’s say you start out your first try by guessing three letters correctly and in the right spot. This means that you are already more than halfway to success, and still have five more tries. Your likelihood of success, while not guaranteed, is highly likely unless you go out of your way to blow your opportunity by making uninformed guesses.

In life, the great luck of this advantageousness is being born into privilege. This might look like being born into a white, upper-middle-class family with socioeconomic stability. While being born into this demographic certainly doesn’t guarantee success, it gives you a good foundation to jump ahead with fewer obstacles.

In contrast, what if, on your first Wordle guess, you venture a word that has not a single correct letter. You now know which letters you don’t need, but you are barely further than where you started. You will have to use your precious remaining five guesses wisely or risk failure.

There are myriad life scenarios that can parallel this, whether it is being born into poverty or being born Black or brown. Perhaps you are born into a family whose parents are struggling in their careers because of their own inherited disadvantages.

According to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of white households makes them 13 times as wealthy as Black households. And conversely, Black individuals are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.

I was born to immigrant physician parents from India, and although they didn’t come from inherited wealth, they arrived in America having been trained in highly skilled professions that were in high demand. Thanks to my parents’ own success—due to a mix of hard work and luck—I left college with no college loan debt, enabling me to pursue, against their wishes, a career in the social change sector, where I hoped to make a difference. This afforded me the chance to take low-paying nonprofit and government jobs and internships, because I didn’t have to worry about paying off college loans alongside paying rent and living expenses.

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