Really? Personally, I would leap at the chance to live a life on Easy Street, even if it meant owing a debt of gratitude to somebody else. Sure, it’s annoying when somebody trots out all the ways you should be grateful to them, but you know what’s even more annoying? Struggling to survive.
I’m going to paint you a metaphorical picture. Your life…is an airplane. An airplane’s purpose is to fly. Your life’s purpose is to be successful in some way. There are many ways to evaluate success, from the tangible (material wealth) to the abstract (self-actualization), but for now, let’s evaluate success strictly through a financial lens. For our purpose, a person is successful when he is capable of providing for his own needs, and for the needs of his family, if he has one. When a person can make himself and his family comfortable, without having to worry about the crucial details of survival, then that person is up and flying.
An airplane needs two things to fly: thrust and lift. Thrust is the force that pushes the airplane forward, and lift is the upward force of the onrushing wind against the airplane’s wings. If the airplane is incapable of producing thrust, it will not fly. If the air is not dense enough to provide sufficient lift, the airplane will not fly. That’s why a single-engine Cessna cannot fly into outer space; above a certain altitude, the air simply becomes too thin to provide the lift needed for the little airplane to go any higher.
In this metaphor, thrust is represented by determination and hard work. In order for one to take wing, one must be willing and able to apply a sleeves-up nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. But that’s not all one needs to be successful.
Lift is represented by the support of the society in which you live. Without social support, all your hard work and determination will be fruitless. A man can work his fingers to the bone in pursuit of the American dream, but if there’s no social support for his advancement, he cannot rise. A man’s success depends not only on his determination, but also on the willingness of the society in which he lives to allow it.
In the United States we tend to heroify the “self-made man” – that rugged individual who takes his fate into his own hands and claws his way up from humble beginnings to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But the self-made man is a myth. He is invented, like Uncle Sam, to represent what we want to be instead of what we are. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to the mythical icon of the self-made man, but we should be cautious not to start believing the myth. Believing in a self-made man is like believing in an airplane that can fly on the Moon.
The self-made man exists in a vacuum, independent from social forces, but we do not. We depend on the footholds, opportunities, and yes, handouts from our fellow humans to get where we want to be. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Part of being successful is learning to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided to you. And, if I may say so, it wouldn’t hurt for you to express your gratitude to the people who gave you those opportunities. It doesn’t make you weaker or less important; it shows that you are a social creature, like us, and therefore worthy of the trust that has been given to you.
I almost hate to change tones so abruptly, but this is a perfect opportunity to discuss another social aspect that helps or hinders somebody’s prospects for success: privilege. I know that word causes many peoples’ sphincters to tighten, and perhaps we’d like to pretend that privilege doesn’t exist. But privilege does exist, and it’s a key determining factor in what kind of air your airplane gets to soar in.
For those of you who don’t know what privilege is all about, John Scalzi constructed an excellent role-playing video game metaphor for privilege (specifically, white heterosexual male privilege). In Scalzi’s explanation, being a straight white male is like playing a video game on the lowest difficulty setting; it doesn’t mean you’ll win, but you will level up faster and have more opportunities opened to you with less work than somebody playing on a harder setting.
To port Scalzi’s analogy into my own, being a person of privilege (more on that in a moment) means that your airplane has nice, broad wings and that you’re flying in a dense, supportive atmosphere. You can still crash through incautious piloting or simple bad luck, but it’s altogether less likely. A person flying without privilege is trying to succeed in a rarefied atmosphere, like that of Mars. He’ll have to thrust much harder just to generate the same lift. In Scalzi’s metaphor and in mine, you don’t get to choose which airplane and in which atmosphere you fly; these variables are assigned to you at birth.
I’ve been working on a concept I call the American Star of Privilege; a tool for determining how much privilege you can expect to wield in American society. First: simply being American gives you a slight advantage, but there are five other attributes that will give you, the citizen, a leg up on your path to success. In no particular order, the five points of the American Star of Privilege are:
- Being white.
- Being a cis-gendered male.
- Being heterosexual.
- Being Christian.
- Being relatively wealthy.
If all of these points apply directly to you, then congratulations! You occupy the pinnacle of American privilege. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – especially not for you. It means you won’t have to work as hard to achieve the bare minimum standard for success, and that your efforts to surpass that baseline will find more traction.
Now let’s be clear: you can still be successful even if you start out as a poor trans-gendered homosexual person of color who doesn’t believe in God, but it won’t be easy for you. Society’s cards are already stacked against you. You’ll have a much steeper climb to reach a place of financial comfort. It will be harder to procure people’s trust – to get that all-important chance that is granted freely to others. Strangely enough, if you are one of the above-described under-privileged people, and you do make it to the top, you will have come much closer to achieving the mythical status of “self-made [insert preferred gender identifier]” than the person who made this meme could ever hope to.