Philippine Daily Inquirer

Sense and suc­cess-abil­ity

- michael.bay­lo­ MICHAEL BAY­LO­SIS

We all love suc­cess sto­ries. There’s the self-made man who built a re­mark­able busi­ness from ground zero. There’s the in­dus­tri­ous scholar whose firm hope in ed­u­ca­tion made her the first pro­fes­sional in her fam­ily. There are the nu­mer­ous dream­ers who beat the odds in or­der to move to a place higher than where they used to be, and to be­come the kind of peo­ple bet­ter than who they were.

Yes, we all love suc­cess sto­ries. We love it even more when these sto­ries sing of pro­tag­o­nists who didn’t seem to have the odds work­ing in their fa­vor.

On the other hand, there are suc­cess sto­ries born out of an­other suc­cess story. The type where suc­cess is not as­pi­ra­tional, but sim­ply ex­pected—be­cause the life sit­u­a­tions of these peo­ple have paved the way. These are the kinds of suc­cess sto­ries that have re­cently ig­nited de­bate on­line. When so­ci­ety glossies fawn over these suc­cess sto­ries, we seem to draw a line.

Is a per­son’s suc­cess some­how in­val­i­dated be­cause it was lever­aged by his priv­i­lege? Is it fair to say that, de­spite one per­son’s hard work, the other per­son will still go far­ther be­cause of his or her priv­i­lege?

Aubrie Odell of Mil­len­nial Pol­i­tics writes that hav­ing priv­i­lege in­di­cates that there are more things work­ing in a per­son’s fa­vor rather than against it. In other words, priv­i­lege lessens one’s bar­ri­ers to cer­tain suc­cesses, but does not en­tirely elim­i­nate them.

To say that priv­i­lege alone grants a per­son a free pass for achieve­ment is look­ing only at one vari­able of the equa­tion. But so does the be­lief that hard work alone does the same thing.

In these com­par­a­tively more mer­i­to­ri­ous days, where we are able to move among classes where once upon a time this was im­pos­si­ble, it is in­deed more hon­or­able to at­tribute to hon­est ef­fort the rea­son for one’s per­sonal achieve­ments. This cul­ture of priv­i­lege-sham­ing has made plenty of us averse to the no­tion that we are in some ways ben­e­fi­cia­ries of it.

An on­line quiz de­vised by com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany Galewill and funded by the Ford Foun­da­tion quan­ti­fies the priv­i­leges you may have en­joyed and how­con­trib­u­tory these were to your suc­cesses. Ques­tions on this quiz in­cluded fac­tors such as your de­mo­graph­ics and your so­cial dy­nam­ics.

I looked strangely at my score, some­how sur­prised at the priv­i­leges I have ne­glected to take note of in light of the bar­ri­ers I thought I was fac­ing. These days, it seems as if our po­lit­i­cal and so­cial en­vi­ron­ments have built plen­ti­ful bar­ri­ers, and nav­i­gat­ing through them has not only be­come tricky, but al­most im­pos­si­ble.

It is easy to see why peo­ple are quick to dis­miss the suc­cess sto­ries of those born priv­i­leged. But it is wrong to au­to­mat­i­cally as­sume that their achieve­ments were sim­ply be­cause of their ad­van­tages. In fact, it is bet­ter to ex­am­ine how they did it in light of those ad­van­tages. Some peo­ple in their class, af­ter all, also end up on the op­po­site side—made com­pla­cent and a fail­ure by all that ma­te­rial pros­per­ity.

It is also easy to see why we adore the self-made per­son, when in the truest sense there’s re­ally no such thing. The en­tre­pre­neur, the scholar and all the dream­ers around us had help along the way, even if this did not come from deep pock­ets or well-con­nected friends.

The fact that our in­di­vid­ual suc­cess sto­ries are not purely mer­i­to­ri­ous, that they are sprin­kled with some priv­i­leges here and there, high­lights all the more the im­por­tance of those in the ex­press lane, if you will, fix­ing the queue so that it will in­clude ev­ery­body else.

No per­son is free of all bar­ri­ers in life. Sure, not ev­ery­body who’s smart can go to Ivy League. Not ev­ery­body who’s tal­ented can fi­nance an in­ter­na­tional grant. Not ev­ery­body’s who’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial can cap­i­tal­ize a startup. Not ev­ery­body can make it on their own.

But that we can en­vi­sion and work for a so­ci­ety where those with re­sources can help fill the gap for those with­out—that is not only a chal­lenge, but a priv­i­lege, too, re­gard­less of our back­grounds.


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