New York City, NY

Stop Lamenting Your Privilege

Sean Kernan


A Refinery29 article sparked outrage after detailing the life of a $25 per hour marketing intern in New York City. A journal went through her daily life and expenses, which included a $210 monthly gym membership, expensive coffees and easy pace of living.

Her internship was lackadaisical, with little to do, and her shopping online and chatting with friends. On her work from home day, she drove to the Hamptons for leisure time. She also mentioned her family pays her $2100 rent and gives her an $1100 allowance.

We learned that $25 per hour is great pay when your expenses are covered. The tone-deaf story invoked a dumpster fire on social media, with single mothers discussing their two jobs just to make ends meet, along with other stories of hardship. A similar uproar came after Forbes named Kylie Jenner on their list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. Many argued she was born into the perfect situation, and was far from self-made.

It is a great starting point in a discussion of luck and privilege, its moral calling, and what it means for us and living better.

The start begets the finish, sometimes

Your life begins in a critical phase of development. In your first months and years, neural pathways, basic dispositions, and other traits embed themselves within you. This is why loving maternal care and attention is so critical in early childhood, and why childhood neglect can disrupt development, learning, emotional stability, and your ability to relate to others.

Yet your parents and the environment you emerge in are far beyond your control. Just this morning, I watched a video of an 8–months pregnant woman who was pulled over by police and caught with a pipe and methamphetamine. She was a repeat offender and completely unapologetic for her situation, only concerned with avoiding jail. I grimaced and knew her child’s hope for a normal life weren’t great.

As that child grows up in this world, and potentially has learning disabilities and other behavioral issues that snowball, people won’t be as forgiving of him as courts were of his mother who has been arrested four times for the same charge. Sadly, many people will chalk that child off as another dreg of his own making.

I know well that it is easy to forget the many good things and blessings in life, and bury them into cognitive irrelevancy. It is only natural. Yet there is virtue and much to be gained by bypassing that instinct.

A study on inherited advantages

Social psychologist, Paul Piff, ran a famous social experiment using Monopoly. He, alongside researchers at UC Irvine hadtwo strangersplay a game against each other — but first, they flipped a coin. The “heads” player began with double starting money, double cash bonus when passing go, and an extra dice roll with each turn. The tails person played the game normally. Scientists watched video of the game unfolding and, by design, the heads player began winning.

And that’s when something peculiar happened: The heads player began talking louder. They raised their hands to celebrate and showed other dominant behaviors. One participant slammed pieces down louder on the board as he moved them. A few became outright rude and hostile to the tails player.The winning player also began eating from the bowl of pretzels more often.

The experiment created a fascinating microcosm of people’s perception of their privilege and, in this case, joining a system rigged in their favor. For example, when interviewed about winning, the heads players talked about their strategies and tactics. They rarely mentioned the double bonuses they began with. And, more importantly, they never mentioned they only had those advantages because of a coin flip.

The participants were a glaring example of people seeing past inherited advantages. They also demonstrated the common self-serving bias, where people seek out and over-weight information that’s favorable to them.

In sports and video games, it’s why teammates often point fingers at each other over a loss. I saw it happen first hand in business, when an unethical manager (who was later fired), blamed his direct reports for mistakes that were 100% his fault.

It isn’t that you should feel guilty for being successful, or having been born to stable and attentive parents.It’s that you should be cautious of your bias to ignore that advantage. It can skew your decision making and warp your self-awareness.

Studies show that as people rise up the social ladder, their compassion tends to go down. And this is despite them donating more money per capita. Poorer people tend to form closer social connections to help each other through tough times. They give each other rides when a car breaks down. They watch a kid when a friend and single mother needs to work. As you rise up the social ladder, you tend to cluster with people of similar backgrounds, and whose relationship to those hardships is more distant.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean all wealthy people are greedy or that all poor people are benevolent and kind. But it does illustrate a trend line that can tug at your disposition.

Exposure to hardship

I moved to the Philippines in the 1980s. I was only 6 years old and rode a bus to an American school each day. During our drive, I looked out the window, seeing shanty huts and workers toiling behind oxen. Even then, I realized they lived a very different life than the one I did. It was through sheer chance that I was born in America with good health, and to a loving and career driven family.

Given I’m writing on a paywalled platform, there’s a good chance many of you were born to, or now live with some form of privilege and advantage. In fact, I polled readers last year and learned many of you have advanced degrees and make great money. For those where this applies, I am happy for you. However, don’t lose touch with your humility, and that the universe has helped you on this journey too.

You’ll save yourself from becoming another out-of-touch person who laments the taste of their $11 cup of coffee, and who begrudges airport staff over a delay. You’ll avoid succumbing to the fundamental attribution error, where you tend to attribute someone’s failure to their own doing, and your own failure to circumstance.Tread carefully, or you risk becoming the overbearing and insufferable monopoly player.

When I reflect on the privilege in my life, it is never guilt that I feel. It is sympathy and a sense of calm that things are good and I should remember why, rather than assume it’s the default state for every player.

Self-determination and effort surely shape many outcomes in life. But I suspect there have been many coin flips in your favor along the way. Never forget that, had an important flip landed on tails, things could have been quite different.

Have writing questions? Post them to my Perch. I’ll answer.


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