Roll the Dice: A Talk For OU LEAD Night

Earlier this semester I was asked by a former student of mine to give a talk at the annual LEAD Night, which is hosted by OU Leadership and Volunteerism. I was very honored to be asked to come back after giving a talk in 2021.

Speakers are are asked to write a talk in a TED Talk style that lasts 8 to 10 minutes related to the theme, which was Ascend for 2023. Below are my slides and transcript.

In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton thought he had struck gold. Milton was a lithographer and made colored prints of original images, a rarity for the period. He decided to start making prints of a relatively unknown Republican presidential candidate named, Abraham Lincoln, whose popularity was growing. Soon, Milton’s color print of Lincoln was a best seller and Milton’s business was leading him to significant wealth.

As you can see in the print, at the time this photo was taken, Lincoln didn’t have a beard. Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old, wrote out Lincoln a semi-objectionable letter in which she told him that she thought his face was too thin and that he would likely receive more votes if he grew a beard. Lincoln responded in October of 1860 and evidence shows us that by November, his beard was beginning to take shape.

Lincoln was elected the 16th president and Milton’s colored prints were deemed useless. No one would buy his clean-shaven version of the photo.

Dejected that his business was quickly going under, Milton met up with a friend at a pub, who showed Milton an old English checkered-style board game. Milton had the idea that he could replicate and reproduce the American version of the British game. That year he sold 45,000 copies of The Checkered Game of Life. Finally, the Milton Bradley company had found its niche.

100 years pass and the Milton Bradley company decides to release the board game retitling it The Game of Life, with which perhaps many of you are familiar. 

Now, I am a professor of advertising and I am obsessed with brands, products, and the stories they tell us about our history. And, while I have absolutely no authority on the subject, I consider this era, the 1940s through 1960s to be the golden age of Milton Bradley. You get games like:

  • Candy Land
  • Trouble
  • Battleship
  • Don’t Break the Ice
  • Mousetrap
  • Rock Em Sock Em Robots
  • Operation
  • Twister

An aside: Did you know that the guy who invented Operation later on in life couldn’t afford an operation and so he started a GoFundMe? The irony!

Grandpa and I playing with tinker toys on the floor of his living room.

Now I am admittedly biased. I find this era the golden age because these are the games on which I grew up. Often on weekends, I was sent to stay at my grandparent’s house and I can still picture pulling out a pillow so I could lay on the ground in the living room and pulling these vintage 60s-era games out from my Grandma’s cabinet. The thrill of pulling off the cover, the smell of cardboard.

One specific game I remember playing is Chutes and Ladders. Now, I don’t know the last time, if at all, that you’ve played, so I’ll quickly explain the rules:

  • The goal is to be the first to get to the end of the board
  • The board is exactly 100 spaces
  • On your turn, you roll a die to see how many spaces you can advance
  • If you land directly on a ladder, you must go up the ladder
  • If you land directly on a chute, you must go down the chute
  • To land on the last spot, you must get the exact correct number

And I would like to use tonight for us to examine what life lessons we can garner from Chutes and Ladders. For the next few minutes, I want to imagine this game board as your life where Square One is birth and Square 100 is death. I would like you for a few seconds to ponder if this game was indeed your life, where are you currently on the board?

Many of us are likely in different places. You may have felt that life has thrown you a chute once or twice. Additionally, as community scholars who were identified when they applied for college, perhaps you felt like who hit a ladder that’s positioned well beyond other peers you have met at OU. I want to leave you tonight with three lessons you could learn from applying this analogy to life:

What you got you here, won’t get you there.

Sometimes we don’t picture life like this game board but as one long ladder. Kindergarten leads to 1st grade, 2nd, 3rd, 11th, 12th, college, job, retirement, etc. But I like Chutes and Ladders as a better analogy. Sure, there are occasional ladders but there are occasional chutes too! And, as you can see, ladders vary in length. You mustn’t let your past successes define you any more than your past failures.

An example: Maybe you have found a path to success is saying “yes” to opportunity. That will work for a little bit! But if you say “yes” to everything, you are not saying “yes” to anything. You become overextended. You’re exhausted. And what was once your ladder is now your chute.

Chutes never take you back to Square One.

We can be hard on ourselves, can’t we? How many times have you heard somebody say, “Ugh, back to Square One.” That’s absolute rubbish. Sure, life has setbacks, but the game doesn’t start over. Nothing can take away the many life lessons you’ve already learned. Recognize that life’s chutes are small and temporary. Sometimes they are inevitable. We just happened to roll the number that landed us on the chute.

The next move is always the same: roll the dice.

Roll. The. Dice. Maybe you just hit a ladder and you have advanced pretty far. Don’t sit there and celebrate forever about your ladder. You still got to roll the dice. 

Students, I want you to really hear this: If you hit a chute, your next move is the same as the person who hit a ladder. Roll the dice.

This is perhaps one of the hardest but most freeing lessons. Occasionally, the best we can ask of ourselves is simply to keep going forward.

Now, if you were looking closely at the slide behind me, you may have noticed that the game board depicted looked a lot like Chutes and Ladders, but wasn’t. You see ladders, but you also see snakes. The Milton Bradley company took a bit of liberty when they adapted this game, but, as it were, the game is an ancient game called Snakes and Ladders that has been retrofitted and redesigned over hundreds of years to meet the traditions of various cultures.

One of the earliest versions was adapted in India to teach morality to it mostly Hindu population. Ladders addressed perceived positive qualities such as confidence whereas snakes addressed indecencies such as annoyance and greed. The ascension to Square 100 addressed either a god or paradise. The takeaway was that ladders lead you to paradise and snakes to a series of rebirths. As one source put it when I was researching the history:

The quantity of ladders was not exactly the quantity of snakes, an indication that the way of good is significantly harder to step, than a way of sins. Basically the game was intended to move players to introspect instead of competing with one another.

You are smart students so you probably realized very quickly that there is no strategy for Chutes and Ladders. It is a game quite literally won by chance. This connected quite well with Hindu belief that life is guided by destiny. For the less competitive of us in the room, this realization might come as a relief. That if life is a game, as I initially posed, we are not competing with each other at all. Rather, we are all in a real-time collectively shared experience hitting different squares at different times at the roll of the dice.

To me, this image of my grandfather and I is more than a picture of us playing games on the floor of his living room. It represents a budding friendship. When I was young, we would spend hours together playing games or, in his words, “piddlin’” and “tinkerin’” together.

Unfortunately, my grandfather hit Square 100 when I was fourteen years old. Being so young myself, my childhood best friend didn’t get to see me hit many ladders. He didn’t see me hit the ladder as a first-generation college graduate. He didn’t see me climb the ladder of meeting the woman of my dreams, my future wife, or having who would have been his first great-grandchild.

I promised only three lessons, but I’ll leave you with some bonus dessert. The winning is that we get to play the game at all. Perhaps, to ascend, we are to complete the circle. One of my favorite quotes is from a guru named Ram Dass who said, “We are all just walking each other home.”

Thank you.