The Price of Privilege: Reflecting on Stanford’s $5 Challenge

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Tina Seelig Ph.D. asked her students to create a business given 5 dollars and 2 hours. One team was able to make $650 dollars-in doing so demonstrating how one’s own “privileges” can preclude them from seeing their best solution.

Privilege is a word that is used a lot nowadays. The word is often used as a pejorative, explaining how there is an intersectional advantage that some groups have over another. Be it racial, gender or financial privilege is often thought of as an advantage in the business world, and for the most part, this is often true.

However, what is rarely talked about is how privilege can hinder optimizing your own success. The $5 Challenge that Stanford’s Professor Tina Seelig conducted shows how one’s own assets/resources, in effect “privileges,” can be in the way of seeing what the best path forward.

For those who may not be familiar with her challenge to her MBA students, here’s an article where Seelig explains it herself. In short, The experiment was to split her class up into 14 teams and give them $5 and 2 hours to create as much ROI (return on investment) that they could given the five bucks and two hours.

While some of the 14 teams used the assets that were given to them, with varying results. Some teams used the 5 dollars and 2 hours in traditional ways, buying knick-knacks and flipping them. However, it is the ones that exerted some creativity had dramatically better results.

One team ignored the 5 dollars, and spent their time booking reservations at top restaurants and then sold them to their peers. Another also saw the 5 dollars as a distraction, and opted to check bike pressure and then charge a dollar to fill the air (if you’ve visited the Stanford campus’ you’d see the demand). Both of these non-traditional teams did much better than the traditional ones. The most successful team, however, thought totally out of the box, viewing both the $5 and the 2 hours are unnecessary privileges.

the team that generated the greatest profit looked at the resources at their disposal through completely different lenses, and made $650. These students determined that the most valuable asset they had was neither the five dollars nor the two hours. Instead, their insight was that their most precious resource was their three-minute presentation time on Monday. They decided to sell it to a company that wanted to recruit the students in the class. The team created a three-minute “commercial” for that company and showed it to the students during the time they would have presented what they had done the prior week. This was brilliant. They recognized that they had a fabulously valuable asset that others didn’t even notice just waiting to be mined.

Prof Seelig’s winning students at Stanford were able to see where their real value lay. The five dollars and the two hours were in effect “privileges” that served as distractions for the students from seeing their real underlying value, in this case, the presentation time.

So often we view our privileges as our greatest assets. We feel as though what is our obvious assets are our “gifts,” and if we fail to take advantage of them, we are wasting our talent. However, as Prof. Seelig’s class at Stanford showed, privilege, and our attachment to it, can cloud our judgment. Sometimes in order to see what our true real value adds are, we need to shed ourselves from our attachment to our overt privileges and instead focus on looking within to find the “3-minute startup pitch” that can lead to extraordinary results.

Think about this study in the context of your career. What are the $5 and 2 hours that prevent you from seeing how you can best optimize your goals?

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