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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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

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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Education and its trappings are integral to helping us make good life choices and finding our paths. In Wordle, you build your knowledge from each previous try, so your advantages build on each other. Those with access to a strong education are more likely to find their careers through classes they take or professors and mentors who take an interest in them. Some find their way through family, friends, and acquaintances who offer them jobs and internships, sometimes based more on their relationships than on their merit.

I remember how, in the summer before my senior year of college, I had landed an internship in Philadelphia’s city government, but I wondered how I would cover rent and other expenses given that the internship paid only a small stipend. I happened to have a meeting with my college adviser who helped me apply on the spot for a scholarship (which happened to be due that very day) to cover those expenses. This internship led to my first job, which paved the way for my second job. Call it being at the right place at the right time—or more accurately, call it the luck offered by an elite education.

Conversely, when we stumble, which most of us do at some point, it is the strength of our networks that helps us get back up and keep trying until we reach our goal. But while education is often seen as key to upward mobility and success, the same Pew Research Center report shows that even education does not close the wealth and opportunity gap. The income of Black individuals is lower than their white counterparts at all educational levels.

My college classmate and friend Nicole Lucier happens to be a fellow Wordle enthusiast. Lucier was drawn to Wordle because it’s a “fairly binary logic puzzle,” she says. “I place no personal value on the number of tries it takes to solve the puzzle; I either use the allotted guesses to find the answer, or I don’t.”

Lucier also happens to share many of my concerns about issues of equity. She was born and raised in a white family by parents who came from working-class backgrounds but held aspirations for higher education. I asked her if she sees similar parallels in how circumstantial luck has affected her own life. “My social class now comes directly from my father’s ability to leap to the professional class via grad school,” Lucier says. “Through that leap, I grew up in a college town where my public high school was on par with many private prep schools. That education led me to be able to attend Bryn Mawr College, and our social position allowed us to qualify for loans without which attendance wouldn’t have been possible. From there, I had the benefit of elite graduate education, and whiteness and the perception of myself as nonthreatening as a young white woman led me to get a job teaching as an adjunct despite not having a PhD.”

She concludes, “I am confident I would not have been given a chance to hold that position, even with the personal reference of the person vacating it, were I not white.” Lucier pursued graduate studies, including law school, but due to a long undiagnosed disability hasn’t pursued a traditional career path. Even in that, she sees how she has been privileged. “I can only imagine how debilitating it is for people who do not have the financial or educational options to find work (or lack of work) that accommodates chronic illness.”

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When it comes to Wordle, Lucier observes, “in both life and Wordle, your starting point and family social capital determine so much of what you perceive as your options at each branch point.” She adds, “It also determines how quickly you get to the end.”

Although I play Wordle almost every day, I grew uncomfortable with the hypercompetitiveness of the social sharing aspect. Instead of sharing my score every day, I’ve come to regard Wordle as a space where I compete with myself (and perhaps my Wordle-enthusiast husband). Lucier notes that she too is reluctant to contribute to competitive sharing: “I know that I am a voracious reader, but I also know that I grew up in a household that was full of books, went to schools with robust libraries, and could choose to spend money on books then and now. I have no desire to make people I care about feel less than because of something that is a welcome worry-brain break for me, but not more than that.”

There are two ways to tell any story of success. In the first way, the one most favored in our country, where we worship rugged individualism and iconoclasts, we tell a story of a person’s triumph against obstacles, noting only the hero’s actions and not the circumstances or the actions of others that might have contributed to their success. In the second way, favored by more collective cultures, we tell a story in which a person’s circumstances are seen as part of them, and therefore part of their success or failure.

To better understand how and why issues of equity and privilege manifest in everyday life, you can read books by experts, including The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Andrew G. Greenwald, and How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Beyond this, you can take time to reflect on your own story of success, examining not just what you have been able to achieve but the choices available to you that contributed to your success. And, if possible, think about ways you might be able to extend some of those choices and opportunities to those who don’t have them.

I’m thankful for Wordle as a welcome diversion as we reckon with the challenges of the evolving pandemic, and I’m grateful that it’s free and therefore widely accessible. I believe we should celebrate our Wordle successes. But the next time you play, as you contemplate and type in the five letters of your first guess, perhaps you can reflect on not just the choices you make, but the choices available to you, as you strive toward success, one word at a time.


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