I brought up the concept of success with one of my friends the other day. Similar to many of the people in my immediate circle of friends, we both had internship offers for the upcoming summer at companies that would make both our parents proud, which is defined by the fact that our parents have, at least, heard of both of the companies that we have signed our offer letters for. The people in my life are incredibly lucky in this respect.
Regardless of how hard we have worked in our lives — because there exist countless individuals who work hard in various facets of society — my friends and I end up accomplishing many of the goals we set out for. While there exist numerous opportunities to work hard, there exists very few for income mobility and social elevation. Capitalism without social safety nets tends to work that way in American society. Unless, of course, our lives had been defined by the privilege to have the opportunity to pursue careers that allow us to enjoy the fruits of our hard work. Opportunities such as growing up in an upper-income suburban neighborhood with a school that had a few thousand dollars of superfluous funding.
And because of the resources that we have defined our lives, we tend to think of our success outside of the context of our opportunities; the idea that there could exist an absence of opportunity is not an idea that crosses my mind via intuition. We both got into a college we wanted to go to, and because we have never encountered individuals who had fewer resources than we do, we thought of our success as defined through our hard work. All of our peers have the same stable childhood that we had, so how could we define my success outside of hard work, one of the few variable conditions that defined my childhood? Without a reason to do so, why would I question my success?
And within the context of the resources provided to us throughout our adolescence, we had been lucky. And now, because of the countless additional resources that were provided to us once we arrived as undergraduates, we are, once again, lucky. I have recently developed an interest in French existentialism, and if I want to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in context with detailed analysis by scholars, I could check out ten books in Van Pelt Library from the two bookshelves specifically dedicated to Proust. I have. If I needed help finding an internship for the summer, I have access to countless information sessions and alumni databases that most schools do not have. Is is a surprise that my parents — not I — paid for any of these resources?
But, although many aspects of my life have been defined through the opportunities that I have been afforded, I have experienced, on a few occurrences, experiences that have left me with a slightly darker conception of the world. Although I have an experienced an otherwise wholesome life, there are a couple of defining rejections and moments of hopelessness that I have experienced that leave me with a what I believe to be a more real outlook on the world. Because I have experienced these experiences, I approach each of my professional and personal accomplishments with feelings of inquisition. I question the nature of my success because I understand the limitations of my own capabilities in determining my future.
Why did my application get picked up from the pile of other applications? Why did the recruiter feel as if I deserved a first-round interview? Why do I continue on with the recruitment process? The answer is often not due to my efforts. I go to a school with a long tradition of on-campus recruitment. I have leveraged many of the professional opportunities I have received as an undergraduate through my extracurricular activities to embellish my resume. And when I seriously committed to the recruitment process as a junior to find a career that could both sustain my lifestyle choices as well as my intellectual interests, I had already developed a keen understanding of the system from the exposure I have received through information diffusion.
Now that I have utilized the privileges I have been afforded to the fullest extent I could at the time, I reflect upon my professional successes with a profound sense of irony. By the standards set through my privilege, I am by no means successful. By the standards set through my school, I am definitely by no means successful. But now that I have achieved some degree of material comfort for the next couple years of my life, I continue to ask myself why I deserve opportunities that I have been afforded. Without the resources and opportunities that I have been afforded until now, I am nothing. Although I have not “fucked up” in the context of the resources and opportunities I have been afforded, I find the act of returning to a state of humbleness through self-criticism to feel real.
But, in terms of those around me, I wonder how often the same students around me ask themselves regarding the nature of their success. How often do the count the number of privileges that they have been afforded in their lives? How often do they realize the impossibility of counting all the privileges that they have been afforded that led up to the success that they have convinced themselves they deserved due to their hard work? It constantly feels within our nature to constantly want more regardless of the context of opportunity. It seems that no matter how far we leverage the opportunities that we did not create for ourselves, the satisfaction we seek will always be at arm’s length. I wonder if that had been the source of my unhappiness all of these years: wanting but not appreciating.
Some individuals experience little rejection in their lives. They have their eyes set on certain goals, and — regardless of how deserving they are of their accomplishments — they accomplish their goal and move on to their next goal, which they accomplish with just as much ease as they have their first goal. Defined through the accomplishment of one goal to the next goal, the question is always one goal to the next goal. To live for the next goal to be accomplished because there has been very little reason to reflect on the nature of their success. Without significant rejection in their lives to humble them and allow them to relate to the vast majority of individuals who have faced rejected in their lives, they live a quite a weightless existence. Because the nature of continual success implies the absence of the continual deficit of success.
There are certain privileges that make it difficult to question the nature of success. Having high socioeconomic status. Having an attractive face. Having a naturally good personality. The more privileges that permeate our lives, the more disconnected we become from the nature of our success. Although we all desire opportunity, it seems, in the face of constantly wanting more achievement, we forget to filter through the different types of success we desire. After all, not all success was made equally. There is some success that is dependent on opportunities that were given to us, and there is some success, although still dependent, less so. But desperation leads us to believe that there does not exist a spectrum in the purity of success. Between success entirely dependent on opportunity and success partially dependent on opportunity, one rings with more reality than the other.
It is not a surprise that the fact that the majority of our success is determined by factors outside of our immediate control. Individuals who believe otherwise belong in the category of those who have not asked why. Even though some individuals do not believe that their success is dependent on factors outside of their immediate control, it does not negate the countless opportunities that have existed for them that have not existed for others. They speak from an absence of experience, particularly of rejection, that would humble their conception of success to realize that achievement is, for the most part, not dependent on working hard. They may believe that they work hard, but from my experience, any student attending college paid for by their parents have not observed the lives of individuals that truly defines hard work.
I do not work hard compared the countless individuals across the United States who do not have the luxury of having a job that fulfills their personal and intellectual interests. I have been given comparatively more resources and opportunities than 99 percent of other individuals in the world, most of whom have very similar objectives and ethics as I. I have taken many measures to attempt to live an existence that is more authentic by keeping my excessive desires in check, but despite all of my efforts in attempting to realize the opportunities that I have been afforded throughout my life, I can only conceptualize but never truly understand my privilege. Despite attempting to understand the nature of the question why, I can only come to understand myself as a member of the class that has a reason to ask.
I will never understand — how some individuals can feel so entitled to their own existences. I cannot understand the individuals who feel as if they have a contribution on subjects they know little to nothing about or the individuals who feel a need to share an opinion when given the opportunity to do so. While, given the concept of inalienable rights, we all have the right to an opinion, it does not mean we should have an opinion, especially on subjects where there exists a multitude of experts who have significantly weaker sentiments because they can understand both sides. Those are the individuals who have experienced enough rejection in their lives that would introduce even the mere thought that they could be wrong about a subject. Without a source of humbleness, they feel as if their existence matters when it does not.
Those individuals who go to music festivals, who are willing to spend over $300 on a three-day pass to go to a concert to miss the majority of the artists, only to show up for the headliner where they can sing a couple choruses without understanding the meaning behind the lyrics. This does not include all individuals who go to music festivals, of course, but saying that music festivals are locations of high socioeconomic or racial diversity would evoke within me an eruption of disgusted and manic laughter. And from my experiences of going to concerts for some time now, I cannot imagine a group of more entitled and privileged group of individuals than the ones I have encountered over the two music festivals I have participated in. Needless to say, I do not have a favorable opinion on individuals who go to music festivals.
Even the mere act of living. Why do some individuals feel as if they are justified to living at all? My mere existence takes away resources from countless other individuals who need those same resources more than I do. My mere existence damages the planet in countless more ways than I can even bring myself to conceptualize. Especially coming from a high-income country with relatively extravagant consumption habits, even the mere act of living does an injustice to the greater balance of the universe. The only energy sustaining my existence to act in such opposition to the natural entropy of the universe is my will to live. Throughout numerous times during the day, I question my will to live because I do not feel as if I deserve to live, and I can never understand those who do not.
Some individuals have no problem living a hedonistic lifestyle. Although I see nothing inherently wrong with living a life of material excess, it seems like a life created from the inability question the nature of their opportunities as opposed to a life created for the sake of truly pursuing happiness. Although I have only limited exposure to meeting individuals within my geographic vicinity, I have never met an individual who simultaneously lived a life of excess while truly understanding the limitations of their own contributions towards their own success. To me, the two exists on opposite ends of polarity, and one cannot exist within the same container as the other in the same spatial and temporal specification. Individuals cannot be both materialistic and humble.
Of course, it is merely a difference of values. Objectivism, or whatever be the contemporary reinvention of the term. While I wish to live a life where I tame my experiences to those capped at a level of comfort proportionate to a corresponding level of deservedness, some individuals seek to maximize the accumulation of material experiences to the fullest extent that their resources could afford. Those are the individuals who have not asked why they are entitled to such a life of luxury when there exist infinitely more individuals across the world who work significantly harder than them without the same levels of excess. I simply cannot enjoy material excess when I know that there does not exist anybody who deserves the excess they create through the contributions they have made.
I cannot imagine a greater privilege than those individuals who feel as if they are entitled to living life the way they want to live. While it is a right that we live a life that we want to live, it does not mean that it is a right not deserving of questioning. The ability to live a materialistic life only implies the absence of experience that would cause them to humble their accomplishments relative to their opportunities, primarily, experiences of profound suffering. To me, seeing the truth interlacing the universe can only come after experiencing suffering. It also implies that without suffering, there can be no possibility of seeing the truth. And without truth, all we can create are our imitations, which are often created through the false idols perpetuated by the culture industry.
I do not understand. I will never understand. I cannot understand.