This is a topic that I had addressed a couple times in earlier entries. It came up again the other night between me and someone else. She wasn’t attacking me or trying to make me feel guilty, but she was trying to communicate a perspective shared by some of her peers. It got rather frustrating at one point… so I spent some more time thinking about it over the last few days.
I was reading Napoleon Hill’s Outwitting the Devil last night. For anyone not familiar with the book, it’s an interview between Napoleon Hill and the Devil, in which the Devil must answer all questions honestly. They explore a great deal, including privilege. Here’s the passage which inspired me to write this today:
Napoleon: Aren’t people sometimes bound to others by a relationship of duty
which renders it impractical for them to take from life what they want most?
The Devil: “Duty” is one of the most abused and misunderstood words in
existence. The first duty of every human being is to himself. Every person
owes himself the duty of finding how to live a full and happy life. Beyond
this, if one has time and energy not needed in the fulfillment of his own
desires, one may assume responsibility for helping others.
Napoleon: Isn’t that a selfish attitude, and isn’t selfishness one of the causes of
failure to find happiness?
The Devil: I stand by my statement that there is no higher duty than that which
one owes himself.
Napoleon: Doesn’t a child owe something in the way of duty to its parents who
gave it life and sustenance during its periods of helplessness?
The Devil: Not at all. It is just the other way around. Parents owe their children
everything they can give them in the way of knowledge. Beyond that, parents
often spoil instead of helping their offspring by a false sense of duty which
prompts them to indulge their children instead of forcing them to seek and
gain knowledge at first hand.
Napoleon: I see what you mean. Your theory is that too much help thrust upon
the youth encourages him to drift and become indefinite in all things. You
believe that necessity is a teacher of great sagacity, that defeat carries with
it an equivalent virtue, that unearned gifts of every nature may become a
curse instead of a blessing. Is that correct?
The Devil: You have stated my philosophy perfectly. My belief is not theory. It is
I’ve found that people have a hard time understanding the nature of privilege or even defining it appropriately. Most commonly, it seems as though people discuss privilege as a symptom of a grand injustice. And if you are a recipient of these privileges, you are complicit in the injustice. And if you are complicit in the injustice, you are now the enemy.
I’ve strained my mind in the pursuit of answers to this topic. I had to start with a definition of privilege. My best understanding of privilege is that it represents an unearned advantage. But I also understood that advantages tend to be circumstantial. What may be an unearned advantage in one moment may be an unearned disadvantage in the next. For example, your skin color may earn you a pass in certain neighborhoods while making you a target in others. More than this though, there is an inherent duality to privilege.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Bruce Lee, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” He seemed to have a deep understanding of this duality as well. An easy life can be filled with unearned advantages while lacking adversity. A difficult life tends to be filled with adversity which can lead to the greatest of advantages; if you have the strength to overcome. Consider the simple difference between someone who receives high marks for studying and understanding the content versus someone who receives high marks for having cheated. One has earned the advantage of high marks while the other hasn’t. Yet both have high marks. While many will focus on the marks and say something to the effect of, ‘at the end of the day, it’s what’s on the scoreboard that counts’, they would be wrong. The scoreboard is superficial and it only matters as much as we choose to prioritize it. I would argue that what matters more is the knowledge and wisdom gained through the exercise of studying and understanding something; knowledge and wisdom which would be absent from the person who cheated.
In searching the real world for these dynamics, I realized they weren’t hard to find. It seems as though unearned advantages as especially effective at providing you with opportunities for which you are not prepared. Perhaps my favorite example is a study showing that people born into wealth tend to make poor leaders. I don’t think being born into wealth is the issue, but rather, being born into a lack of necessity. Parents have an instinctual drive to provide their children with everything they need, but lack the foresight to understand that they need adversity more than they need privilege. And this is when I reflect back on my life… a life which sometimes seems defined by adversity. It weighs on me at times, but with a clear mind, it leaves me feeling rather fortunate.
When I consider the nature of privilege, and people tell me to acknowledge and be grateful for my privileges, it gets a bit confusing.. So I thought I’d take a second to list some of my privileges here:
- I am not privileged to have been born in a first world country. I am privileged to have been born into one of the poorest neighborhoods in a first world country. I am privileged to have grown up around drugs, prostitution, gangs, and murder. I am privileged to have learned a more complete perspective of the world at a younger age.
- I am not privileged to have been born to a family with both parents. I am privileged to have been born to parents who split when I was a young teenager. I am privileged to have heard them yell at each other for years while they thought I was sleeping. I am privileged to understand just how much it takes to exist in a partnership and build a family.
- I am not privileged to have been born with white skin. I am privileged to have grown up as a minority and learned what it was like to experience racism at a young age. More than that, I am privileged to have grown up in a community that helped me understand what racism was and then how to rise above it.
- I am not privileged to have been born a man. I am privileged to have been born into a family with a mother and sister who fight fiercely for the empowerment of women, sometimes at the expense of men. I am privileged to be alive at a time where women are finally stepping into their own, as we all struggle to understand the nature of gender and equality.
- I am not privileged to be straight or cisgender. I am privileged to have gone through periods of my life where I questioned my sexuality. I’m privileged to have learned to keep my mind open to love of all shapes and sizes.
- I am not privileged to have received a university education. I am privileged to have had an opportunity to fight hard to earn my entrance to university. I am privileged that they tried to kick me out after my second year and that I was able to find the strength and focus to return 18 months later. I am privileged to have gone head to head with a tenured professor who wanted me removed from the school in my final year. And was most privileged to have pushed myself to my limit in what I could handle personally and academically, and still receive my degree.
- I was not privileged to have had an opportunity to finish my degree. I was privileged to have taken a break to get mixed in with the ‘wrong’ crowd. I was privileged to see the world through a lens I never would’ve have experienced. I was privileged to have my life threatened at gunpoint. I was privileged to be asked to choose between my life and the lives of my family. I was most privileged to have seen and experienced the temptations of that world, with the presence of mind to know that wasn’t my path.
- I was not privileged to have received top marks from a top university before entering the job force. I was privileged to graduate into one of the worst job markets since the great depression. I was privileged to have earned an entry level job, paying $13/hour in one of the world’s most expensive cities. I was privileged to learn that grades, degrees, and recommendations don’t entitle you to anything. I was privileged to be reminded that my work ethic will always be my greatest asset.
- I was not privileged to be someone hired with the expectation of being fast-tracked into management. I was privileged to butt heads with incompetent management. I was privileged to learn how to still perform under increased expectations and decreased support. I was privileged to learn about the nature of corporate politics and to have received the short-end of that stick. Above all, I am privileged to have had the opportunity to learn so much about the intricacies of big business.
- I was not privileged to have a dad at home. I was privileged to have lost him in my mid 20s, before I was ready. I was privileged to have learned the nature of life and death. I was privileged to have taken on his responsibilities to the family. I was privileged to have learned to let his memory inspire my accomplishments. Perhaps most, I am privileged to understand that of all the shoulders I stand on, his lifted me the highest.
- I was not privileged to have received an inheritance from my father. I am privileged that he left that money with me to look after our family and his legacy. I am privileged to carry such a responsibility that it’s reshaped my approach to life. I’m privileged to have taken this responsibility so seriously, that I’ve gone to great lengths to understand how it could be handle best. I’m privileged to have learned that it shouldn’t be spent on making our lives easier.
- I was not privileged to have turned that responsibility and mindset into an investment advisory role at the most prestigious wealth management firm in the country. Nor was I privileged to have earned a chance at a top 1% income in my mid-20s. I was privileged to have repeatedly been put in a position where I had to choose between my integrity and my career. I’m privileged to have lost my job over maintaining my integrity, and having taken a tremendous financial hit in the process. I wasn’t privileged to have a tremendous opportunity afforded to me, I was privileged to have invested my life into it and to have it taken away from me in the least enjoyable of ways. What I learned from that experience is something I would never be willing to give back.
I could go on… but I think the point has been made. What I’m most grateful for are the strengths I’ve developed through overcoming adversity. A person who is given a million dollars is a shadow of the person who has earned a million dollars. I have no interest in an easy life. I have every interest in becoming the best possible version of myself… and perhaps that’s how I’ve managed to manifest the life that I’ve lived. Perhaps to be my best self, I must live my most difficult life. There are times where it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.. and over the years, I’ve felt that weight increase. Yet it doesn’t feel any heavier. It’s in those moments, I appreciate how strong I’ve become.
As I continue to move through life, I’ve learned to embrace adversity and appreciate the suffering that comes with it. I’ve also learned to connect that discomfort with an expansion of the mind and personal growth. And I have a deep understanding of how this leads to me becoming a stronger, wiser, and more capable individual. If adversity will lead me to my best self while privilege will lead me away from it, why would I ever choose a privileged life? Why would anyone? And if I’m right, shouldn’t the presence of privilege promote feelings of compassion rather than a sense of injustice?