“Is hard work and making the right decisions now considered a privilege?”

Yesterday, I said this:

“Working with a personal trainer for six months requires a whole lot of privilege: the spare cash to hire one. The surplus time to spend a couple of hours a week in the gym. Enough health to be able to get to the gym and work out effectively.”

And some dude responded with this:

“WTF does privilege have to do with it?

“The money to hire a trainer isn’t privilege. It’s the result of working hard(or smart) minding your budget, and earning it.

“The time to go work out isn’t privilege, it’s time management, and having the discipline to get off the couch and going out and doing it.

“Is society that far gone that hard work and making the right decisions is now considered a privilege?”

Well, let’s examine my career of hard work, shall we?

I’m a programmer.  Part of the reason I am a programmer – one of the few jobs that pays consistently well in this economy – is because my parents were rich enough to afford a PC for me back when a Vic-20 cost about $900 in adjusted numbers.  Growing up in a middle-class household wasn’t something I did – I was just born with.

Yet wait!  I didn’t start out as a programmer.  Honestly, I flunked out of college after six years of sporadic attendance because I was a slacker.  I actually was a dropout who worked in a bookstore, helping maintain their computer tech section.  And because I worked hard and smart there (because I’m much better at hands-on experience than I am sitting in a class), eventually I got hired into their Home Office as a software buyer, then moved laterally into my programming profession which helps pay for a personal trainer.

If I hadn’t had parents well-off enough to get me an Atari 400 (and its awful keyboard) for Christmas, I might have worked in the mystery section instead – and my opportunities in the home office would have been considerably different.  I wouldn’t have been promoted up the chain as quickly, and even if I had been promoted into the home office I wouldn’t have had a lateral move to programming.

In fact, without that foundation of luck at the bottom of some very hard work, I might still be working at Barnes and Noble as an experienced bookseller.

And as luck would have it, I would have been fired yesterday as part of B&N’s “fire all the experienced book clerks” layoffs.

As for my time management, well, I’ve lucked into a stable job that’s mostly day shift.  I could have drifted into game programming, where time crunches mean working 90-hour weeks for months at a time or you get fired.  Or, you know, I’ve got friends who earn less than I do in different fields who work two or three jobs to get by on top of kids, and their spare time is fragmented and incomplete.  My time management is fucking trivial – again, because I stumbled into the right career.

And none of that is accounting for the other privilege that I lucked out with my career.  Programming turned out to be the wave of the future.  Many smart and hard-working people chose careers that the best futurists thought would be stable – I was minoring in journalism in 1989, which seemed stable, but how was I to know that my chosen career of programming would help destroy the career of a reporter, which seemed like a stable choice way back when?

Truth is, there’s a lot of tiny privileges I did very little to get that make for me being able to be a personal trainer – and I haven’t even gotten into “health,” as I have at least two highly motivated friends who would love to work 70 hours a week on their career as I do, but have conditions where they pass out in the middle of the day.

So in light of that, let’s reexamine what you said here:

“The money to hire a trainer isn’t privilege. It’s the result of working hard(or smart) minding your budget, and earning it.”

When you say that, what I hear, my friend, is fear.  Because what you’re peddling is this fantasy where everyone who works hard and smart gets rewarded.

But truth: when I worked in retail, I knew a lot of people who were smarter than me, who worked harder than me.  When you say “The money… is the result of working hard (or smart),” what you’re actually saying – without knowing a damn thing about my history – is that the decent salary I have right now is the result of me being flat-out better than those earning less than I do.

Yet I didn’t choose a career so much as ping-pong around luckily until I found something I was suited for.  I didn’t wake up and say, “I SHALL BE A PROGRAMMER!”

I just, you know, had parents who could afford a computer for me to play SimCity, so when Waldenbooks asked, “Who wants to handle the DOS section?” I went, “Oh, I know how that works.”

A small decision.  Seemed trivial at the time.  But that tiny edge has snowballed over the years, combined with other edges, until here I am, the college dropout in a good job that can get me side benefits of personal training.

That’s privilege.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard.  I’ve worked my ass off at every job, got ahead because I’m bright.  My novels, as noted, are both the result of privilege and maniacally writing seven novels before finally cracking the door with my debut novel Flex.

But I also had luck bubbling beneath it.  And what I’m hearing in your befuddlement is this panicked denial that luck has anything to do with success – the myth of the self-made man where it’s all hard work and skill.

Full truth, my man: some people worked harder than you, and got shit for it.  Some people worked less than you did, and got rewarded in full.

Life isn’t fucking fair.

Which isn’t to say that effort doesn’t matter, because even though the game’s unfair, the best strategy is still hard work and cleverness.  Hard work is like knowing the odds at poker – it gives you a strict advantage over those who don’t do it, but sometimes the cards go against you and all your skills at bluffing and reading tells mean you get cleaned out.

As such, I’m smart enough to realize that without that game of SimCity, I might have given a different answer to that Waldenbooks question.  And I would have been just as smart, just as hard-working, and rewarded entirely differently.

So I think you can work hard without devising this sad fantasy where anyone who’s less successful than you brought their failure upon themselves.  Hard work and making the “right” decisions is not a privilege, but the payoff for that can often be the end result of privilege.

Maybe you call it luck.  I don’t really care.  What I do care about is that you knew nothing about my job and assumed that I earned the cash for a personal trainer from hard work and smart moves, leading to the unfortunate implication that anyone who can’t afford a trainer was either lazy or dumb or both.

I have too many smart friends on the lower tiers of the economic echelon to look them in the eye and say, “You deserve your poverty.”  I know too many trust fund babies from my childhood in Fairfield County, assholes who got $500,000 loans from their daddies to start disastrous businesses and were basically man-children until they were 35 and yet kept getting bailed out until they had some semblance of a stable career.

I can embrace the complexity of “I worked hard and I worked smart” and still realize that one unlucky break could have given me an entirely different outcome.  I can look at what other people don’t have, and work hard (and smart) to try to fix the flaws in society that shut out people who weren’t as lucky as I am in terms of family wealth, in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of health.

Like I said about my newfound physical fitness:

“There’s plenty of people who have the levels of financial and physical privilege that I do that didn’t put in the work. So I take a lot of pride in what my wife and I have accomplished in the last six months, even as acknowledging the privilege that lets it happen.

“One does not diminish the other.”

Still true, my friend.  Still true.

 

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Feb 15, 2018

    I sometimes think I understand what is meant when people are discussing “privilege,” but then often it seems to me that understanding can’t be right given how it’s used in context.

    I remember one time that Jon Stewart was interviewing Bill O’Reilly on the subject. Now, I don’t recall the exact wording, but what I took from it is that O’Reilly freely admitted that black people face certain additional hurdles in our society; that, on the whole, things are harder for them. Yet practically in the same breath, he refused to accept the idea that white people are privileged in that regard.

    To my understanding, those two statements are different descriptions of the same thing(1), so it should be impossible to simultaneously hold both positions. Unless, of course, I don’t properly understand what “privilege” means. Which is certainly possible, but then I’m completely perplexed.

    -Alex

    (1)(2) Now, of course, there are all sorts of interesting things that flow from this basic idea, such as the fact that people in the privileged position are prone to minimize, or even not acknowledge, the obstacles they didn’t face, but that’s my understanding of the starting point.

    (2) I guess there’s no HTML in comments here, so I can’t do proper footnotes.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *