I Have Accomplished Nothing: A White Male’s Perspective on Privilege and Success.
I got my first job when I was 15. I was a landscaper along with four Mexican immigrants. We mowed lawns, dug ditches, and installed sprinkler systems. It was great. I suppose it wasn’t strictly allowed for me to be employed at that age, but I loved to work. I’ve always loved to work. I’m relaxed when I’m productive.
As I made it through high school, undergrad, and law school, I usually had some sort of job or internship. I worked hard. I studied more. In law school, I would frequently go weeks at a time without going out so that I could be sure to get the A. I was obsessive. I ended up getting the grades, graduating, and starting at a law firm which pays more than anyone needs.
It was always easy to justify my apparent accomplishments. Maybe I had some natural ability. I was convinced that I worked harder than everyone else. Work ethic is usually trumpeted as the paramount factor leading to success. I’ve seen various pundits on television screens parading the fact that they had a paper route at 12 years old, worked their way through college (good luck doing that these days), and bootstrapped their way to the top. Usually, these anecdotes are used to contrast their virtue against the vices of the lazy at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. To these righteous individuals (and, to an extent, my former self), it is clear that if you work hard enough, you can make it to the top. America — the land of opportunity.
Except there’s an aspect to this line of thinking that is overlooked. I had a job at 15, but it’s because I wanted a job at 15. I started working over the summer. Later, when I was working during the school year as a barista, I only worked about ten hours per week. Work always took a back seat to education. I was working because I wanted more stuff, not because I had to help my parents (plural, and together) put food on the table. There was never a decision about what took precedence: school trumped work. So I had the best of both worlds — I reaped the benefits of being a full-time student as well as the discipline learned from being in the workforce. Plus, I can always use the fact that I started working at such a young age as ammunition if I ever want to justify my own success.
I am grateful that my parents didn’t give me everything. I learned the value of working hard. But the thing is, my parents did give me everything. My parents provided an environment in which I was told I could be whatever I wanted to be. A home in which I was free to study as much as I wanted. An upbringing where I could dedicate myself to academic and athletic pursuits without having to worry about helping with rent. When I got into Columbia Law School, they encouraged me to go to New York instead of UCLA, to which I had been offered a full-ride scholarship. They’d help me out. Did I do anything to deserve this? No. Did I work hard to receive supportive parents? No. Did my work ethic contribute to the school district into which I was born? No.
Even work ethic itself isn’t mine. My parents work hard. I got their genes. That was luck. Certainly they gave me some garbage genes as well (I have a degenerative disease which will eventually cause blindness), but I wouldn’t trade my position on the starting line for anything. It’s not all my parents either. It’s all four of my grandparents, who were born in three different countries and just so happened to cross paths in a way that allowed for the creation of my mom and dad.
The list of causal factors that contribute to a given result are incomprehensibly diverse and manifold. You didn’t get the promotion because you worked hard. You got the promotion because you were born, because someone grew food for you, someone taught you, and someone built you a shelter. You got the promotion because the bus driver took you to school. You got the promotion because someone was an entrepreneur and built the business in the first place. You got the promotion because your boss approves of you. Your boss likes you because of the multitude of experience he or she has had over his or her own life. You got the promotion because you didn’t get shot down when you were 19. You got the promotion because your country isn’t currently being torn apart by war. You got the promotion because someone else didn’t get the promotion.
“You didn’t get the promotion because you worked hard.”
The fallacy of just “working hard” is just that — a flaw in logic. Guess what? Everyone works hard. Fine, not everyone, but much more than the few who have made it to the “top.” I was recently speaking with my Spanish teacher in Colombia and she explained that, during the break period in school between semesters, she can only hope to make about $3 per hour if she were to independently tutor English. I recently completed my TEFL (English teacher) certification and can find work online starting around $12–15 per hour. But these rates are only available to native English speakers. My teacher has years of experience. I have none. She has worked hard to learn English and I passively acquired the language through osmosis. She worked harder for this skill but has 25% of the earning power. Had she been born in Seattle and I in Pereira, our lives would be drastically different. I would likely still work hard, but the returns on hours worked would be lower. There’s no question.
To think that we are individually responsible for our success is preposterous. Our lives are a result of everyone and everything that has come before us. We stand on the shoulders giants as well as the everyday man or woman. Our actions, skills, and motivations are the result of a complex web of cause and effect which we could never even begin to comprehend. If you are lucky — privileged — the least you can do is acknowledge your advantage. I doubt this problem will be eradicated in my lifetime (or even this millennium), but we can at least make an effort to keep from judging those whom we do not fully understand. We should strive to abstain from assuming that those who are “successful” worked hard and those who struggle to get by have not. We are part of a collective existence and are necessarily interdependent on one another. Working hard wouldn’t get you far if you were the only person left on Earth. Nothing would matter. Our success is derived from every human on the planet, so we must acknowledge their contributions and give thanks. I have accomplished nothing, but together we could accomplish everything.