Talent is distributed, privilege is not

Researchers Bell, Chetty, Jaravel, Petkova, and Van Reenen studied data from the lives of 1.2 million inventors/patent holders in America in an attempt to understand the impact of nature and nurture. The found that –

1. A child’s chances of becoming an inventor vary sharply with characteristics at birth – such as their race, gender, and parent’s socioeconomic class.

2. Children from high-income (top 1%) families are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. These gaps persist even with similar math test scores in early stages (highly predictive of innovation rates)

3. Children whose families move to a high-innovation area when they are young are more likely to become inventors.

4. Girls are more likely to invent in a particular class if they grow up in an area with more women (but not men) who invent in that class.

This study is a landmark study in its ability to explain the real drivers of of success. Talent and mindset play far less important roles than the stories we’re told would have us believe. Below is my hypothesis on how it actually works. (Based on the data from this study, it may well move from completely unscientific to being backed by some science. :))

Talent, it turns out, is well distributed, privilege is not.

Gully Boy

Gully Boy” is a Hindi movie we watched twice in the last couple of months. It is available on Amazon Prime Video (with subtitles) and is a coming-of-age movie of a rapper from the slums of Mumbai. Hindi rap/hip hop is still a nascent music genre in India and the story is based on the true story of two Indian street rappers – Divine and Naezy.

There are many things I love about the movie – interesting characters, good music, and a nice story among them. Most of all, though, it speaks of the challenges of making your way up the privilege ladder when you are born in the slums.

Murad, the protagonist, needs several strokes of luck to make the leap – narrowly escaping going to prison for example – and also relies on the support of some incredible friends along his journey.

One of the most fascinating things about writing about privilege over the years is that nearly every one of the posts on the topic results in a response from someone arguing that I greatly under weight the importance of hard work. My thought experiment in response tends to be – how hard do you think folks in the slums of Mumbai work? I grew up witnessing abundant hard work in poor communities around me. What was absent was the platform that made all the hard work count.

Kids growing up in the slums worked hard to earn a few rupees to support their families every day while kids like me had the privilege to go to school and make something of our lives.

That is not to say a kid in the slums has no chance of breaking out. The odds of that happening are just infinitesimal compared to a kid with supportive parents going to an elite school.

Privilege is powerful. “Gully Boy” is a great reminder of that.

The millionaire who wanted to get involved

The college admissions bribery scandal reminded me of a story I once heard from someone who had exposure to the inner workings at prestigious universities. They shared that top administrators were (re-)introduced from time-to-time to multi-millionaire alumni who wanted to get “involved.”

And, whenever this happened, the odds were high that this alumnus had a kid who was 16 years old – in perfect time to influence admissions a year later when it would be illegal to do so. Of course, at top universities, 2 million wouldn’t get you in. It would just mean you get the marginal decision in your favor.

And, as the New York Times lays out, you can guarantee you are in the playing field by shelling out another 1.5 million for a 5 year package from “Ivy Coach.”  The Ivy Coach program guides kids from the 8th grade on the best ways to stand out via extracurriculars while also coaching them intensively on SATs.

Of course, bribery takes all this to a new, amusing or dark (depending on your point of view), level. The SB Nation article I linked to had a few powerful quotes. My favorite was –

When talking about the case, Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said, “We’re not talking about donating a building … we’re talking about fraud,” a statement that validates one way that rich people openly game the admissions system. What makes the acts fraudulent, apparently, is that the defendants tried to buy admissions in a way that is not allowed, not that they tried to buy admissions in the first place.

Privilege is powerful.

Self made and some fascinating research on privilege

There’s been a fair bit of media outcry (in the United States) on all sides of the aisle around wealth of late. The issue at the heart of most of the outcry is that it seems wealthy folks, with few exceptions, want to be termed self made. And, no one (again – with few exceptions) wants to acknowledge the role privilege played in their success.

Amidst all this noise, The Atlantic shared an important interview with two British researchers who decided to immerse themselves in the cultures of workplaces in four settings – a TV-broadcasting company, a multinational accounting firm, an architecture firm, and the world of self-employed actors. Here are two ways in which they found privilege to show up.

First, financial cushion enabled actors to take low paying jobs to get their start while also enabling others to take important unpaid internships or to live in a city like London where there are more opportunities. Imagine attempting to do any of this with the pressure of having to support a family or pay back debt.

Second, at work, they found it easier to find sponsors who found themselves reminded of themselves while also finding it easier to understand the unwritten norms that folks who are relatively unexposed struggled with.

Of course, this won’t make for a popular media story. Forbes, for example, has a category in their billionaire lists called “Self made who got a head start from wealthy parents and moneyed background.”

But, this research is a start. In time, I’m hopeful we’ll begin to see a lot more data that points to the massive role privilege plays in success. We need to stop downplaying its role so as to build systems that result in broader equity and access.

It will take time. But, I’m optimistic we’ll get there.

PS: I haven’t read this yet – but the authors mentioned above have written a book called “The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged

PPS: A reminder on how I think about privilege and success.

Drivers of success – the gap between actual drivers and what we read about

It is always amusing to see the gap between actual drivers of extrinsic success / wealth and attributed drivers. We have a need to believe in romantic stories of hard work and heroic mindset and are painted these pictures in the stories we are told.

In reality, however, the biggest driver of extrinsic success / wealth is privilege by a long shot. Luck and mindset matter – but, privilege is the platform on which it is built.

Acknowledging the real drivers is the first step to building systems that provide better access to opportunity to those who don’t have it.

Source/Note: This image is a working hypothesis/theory after years of obsessing about this topic, studying success, and writing about it..

How Privilege Works

There are 3 things to know about privilege –

1. The definition of privilege is misleading. Privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people” We aren’t privileged based on this definition, are we? What about all those rich folk we know?

2. We are privileged when the next lucky break has a diminishing return in terms of our ability to solve for real needs. There comes a time when the next lucky break doesn’t matter as much as the previous one. For some of us, it is when we went to a college or graduate school that catapulted us in a league we couldn’t have imagined. For others, it is after we worked at a little known company that ended up doing wonderfully well. After this, sure, the next lucky break would make us more comfortable. But, it wouldn’t be life changing in the same way. That’s a sign of privilege.

3. Privilege accumulates over time. An obvious source of privilege is family wealth and power. We’ve all heard some variant of Jeb Bush or someone else we know to be privileged calling themselves “self made” and snickered.

But, I’d argue many of us are guilty of that hypocrisy. The reason it is so hard to pinpoint is because it accumulates over time. Once you get that lucky break – born to parents who have the means to educate you well or born in a country filled with opportunity  or got that internship that changed your life – privilege compounds. And, a few years in, it is nearly impossible to look back objectively.

I was talking to a friend about this and he pointed me to a comic that nailed describing this. Thanks “The Pencilsword” and Toby Morris for an awesome illustration.

 

Good weekends

I’ve asked myself what makes a good weekend for many years.

A few weeks back, I finally had an epiphany. I realized that my definition of a good weekend involves four actions in order or priority – rest, connect, learn something and building something.

Rest means getting to sleep in for one of the two days and watching a game of football/soccer whenever possible. Connect involves spending quality time with the framily – ideally with some time outdoors.  But, a good weekend doesn’t feel complete until I feel I’ve learnt something and attempted to build something.

The best part about these four priorities is that I recognize they are a luxury. There are many on the planet who don’t get to take the weekend off.

So, these two days are a wonderful weekly reminder of the enormous amount of privilege in my life and, as a result, of how much I owe.

Maybe acknowledging our privilege with gratitude is what weekends are all about. We get to define what “good” is. And, in the process of doing so, we are reminded that there is so much to be grateful for.