FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A Quick Word On Privilege
I got myself into an awkward situation the other night, and it’s been irking me since.
I was caught in a discussion with an older guy who was explaining how he was a ‘self-made’ success. Much like the cartoon above, this guy was describing how he had never been given a ‘leg up’, and that it was his work ethic alone that made him what he was today. Just as he started to get into why this mattered, I promptly, and potentially rather rudely, cut him off.
To be clear, I didn’t lose my patience with this guy for his unsubtle self-promotion, or for his overt detailing of why he was an important person. I have no problem with people being proud of their successes, no matter how they express it. Far from it.
I lost my patience with this guy because the conversation had progressed to a point where he was explaining how others can be just as successful as he is, if only they work harder than they do. He was arguing that the youth, particularly those from certain ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, should take a leaf from his book if they ever want to succeed in life.
I cut him off because what he was saying was simply not true, and it annoyed me. It’s a complete fallacy that that hard work alone is the recipe for success, and I believe such attitudes are doing harm to our society. There is a great thought experiment I often use to explain this.
It starts with a teacher in her classroom. The teacher begins by numbering her desks, one to thirty, and arranging them into rows, one behind the next. Desks one to five are in the front of the class, and 25 to 30 are at the back. She then puts a piece of white A4 paper on each desk and places a waste bin at the front of the class.
As the students enter the class, they are asked to pick a number from a hat and to sit at the corresponding desk. Once everyone is seated, the teacher asks the students to write their name on the paper, scrunch it up, and throw it into the waste bin at the front. She then adds that any student who successfully gets their paper into the bin wins a prize.
Naturally, the students in the back-row cry out ‘that’s a bit unfair, isn’t it? We can’t even see the bin from back here. How can we be expected to hit it?’ and ‘it’s unfair that the people at the front get a clear shot, what gives?’. The teacher smiles and states that that’s the entire point.
The teacher then explains that the exercise is a demonstration of privilege in society. Life isn’t fair for everyone, and while it is technically possible for everyone to get their paper into the bin, and thus win a prize, it’s a lot easier for some than others. Simply because of where they are placed in society, they get a better shot at success.
I usually follow this up with a real world example of this phenomenon in action. Myself.
I was randomly born a white male, into a middle-class family, in a society where I was one of the majority. Growing up I wasn’t constantly sick because our house was warm and dry. I was well fed and encouraged to succeed. My parents were there at night to help with homework and run us around to after-school activities, which we could afford to do. As such, I didn’t miss school, I could focus when I was there, and I could leverage all the opportunities that the school was able to provide.
There was nothing in my world that limited my ability to develop into a functioning member of society. I didn’t have to worry about crime, drugs, racism, or any other societal dysfunction growing up and this all had a huge impact on how I developed.
It is for this reason that I have never, and will never, ever, dare to suggest my ‘success’ has anything to do with me or my skills alone. I’m a product of the combined fortunes of my upbringing and place in society and, because of this, my hard work has generated more than someone who wasn’t lucky enough to be so privileged. The mere fact I can choose where and how to leverage my hard work in the first place is more opportunity than most people get. The deck isn’t stacked evenly in everyone’s favour and it was very much weighted in mine from birth. I know this and I acknowledge it.
This is why I will always challenge the idea of ‘self-made’ success, and I will especially interrogate such an assertion when it comes from the mouth of an older white man. In the same way, casual racism causes pervasive, but often un-noticed harm in society, so too does the propagation of the idea of ‘self-made’ success. If we don’t challenge our thinking to first acknowledge that not everyone has a fair shot, then we won’t ever get to a point where we can start to re-arrange the desks into a fairer arrangement for all in our society.
About the author — Aidan Kenealy
My mission is to help those with high growth businesses realise their vision for success. I draw from the unique lessons learned growing EMGN to help founders and CEOs get the best out of what their businesses can be.
If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your business — please reach out via LinkedIn or email firstname.lastname@example.org