February 20, 2008 — Lady Luck cast her gaze upon Darden first-year student Jong-Uck (Max) Park, who navigated a choppy sea of random chance and happenstance on Feb. 20.
Park is Darden’s Luckiest Student for 2008. He was chosen at random with four fellow students almost a week ago to participate in an experiment dubbed “a random act of kindness,” with prize money funded by an anonymous friend of the School. Professors Sam Bodily and Phil Pfeifer conceived and developed the event as a means of demonstrating the role that randomness plays in business life. Skill and determination are powerful allies in life, but luck, Kismet, fate – whatever it shall be called – can also get involved in wholly unexpected ways; some beneficial, some perhaps not. The “luckiest student” exercise is also part of a research experiment being conducted by Darden faculty.
It was standing room only in the School’s PepsiCo Forum, where hundreds of students and faculty gathered during Darden’s traditional First Coffee to watch Park make his selection. Two briefcases were brought before him. Only one of them contained a prize – a check for $18,750. The time had come to choose.
Throughout the week, Park had survived a series of elimination rounds that left him last man standing out of the original pool of five students participating in the random act of kindness. At the beginning of the week he had successfully chosen a box containing a Darden pen, which advanced him to the next round. The following day, Park correctly picked a sealed envelope containing a photo of Dean Bob Bruner – signed with good luck wishes. Then Park won a coin toss to be named Darden’s Luckiest Student.
At that point, he had fared no better or worse that the 2007 Luckiest Student, Hideki Inoue (Class of ’08). Like Park, Inoue cleared multiple hurdles last year and made it to the main event: a choice of two briefcases – one containing a substantial sum of money, the other filled only with air. Inoue made his selection, but his chosen briefcase was not the one worth owning.
The organizers rolled over the funds for another year. Bodily and Pfeifer resolved to continue their experiment with the random vagaries of luck in 2008.
At the appointed hour for his moment of luck – be it good luck or bad – Park arrived wearing a cobalt-blue Oriental robe and a Luckiest Student medallion around his neck. Students cheered as he smiled and waved. A potential cash windfall equal to a full semester’s tuition doesn’t come along every day.
Bodily, the emcee of the event, kicked off the show with a brief explanation of how it would all go down: Park could choose a briefcase to open and see if the big prize was within, or he could select a ball from a wire cage to receive a minimum guaranteed payout and walk away. It was a dilemma. The two cases offered 50-50 odds of success, while the guaranteed payout ranged between $1,000 and $18,000. The actual amount of that safety net would all depend on a collection of plastic balls rattling in a wire cage. Pfeifer spun the cage and out popped a single sphere – valued at $3,000. But the big prize, more than six times larger than the guaranteed payout, was still waiting in one of the briefcases.
Park polled his peers, asking what they wanted him to do.
“Briefcase!” they chanted. “Go for the briefcase!”
And so it was. Without a second’s hesitation, Park picked the black attaché closest to him. He turned toward the audience, cradling the case in his arms. Professor Bodily gave the countdown: “3…2…1….”
The clasps snapped open. Park grabbed the lid. He paused. His fellow students dialed down to a hush. In a room packed with more than 300 people, only the click of camera shutters could be heard.
Park shrugged and smiled and raised the lid, and yes, there it was inside the briefcase, a sign printed in big, black numerals for everyone to see: $18,750. Yes, luck be a lady at Darden today.
The crowd roared with delight. Park, still smiling, seemed a little dazed even as Darden Foundation executive director Ted Forbes presented the student with an outsized check for the full amount.
And what will Darden’s Luckiest Student do with the money? Park said whenever he has a conundrum, he talks it over with Marsh Pattie, Darden's director of student affairs, whose office was Park’s next destination. En route, he was asked about his thoughts on luck. “It requires no skill,” he said. “But I think if I am trying my best, luck comes to me.”
As students headed back to class, the public-address system pumped out the opening guitar chords and drum triplets of “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Group:
The mountain is high
The valley is low
and you're confused on which way to go
so I've come here to give you a hand
and lead you into the promised land
come on and take a free ride….
“If life is favorable to us, shall we not then offer random acts of kindness to others?” Bodily said, quoting E.B. White.
Founded in 1955, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is a professional school that works to improve society by developing leaders in the world of practical affairs.