5 minute read

Money won’t open your textbooks or lift your weights.

I was scrolling through social media and found a post of Bill Gates’ daughter graduating med school. I thought this was a great accomplishment, since we need more doctors in the work and because even with all the wealth in the world, his daughter still pursued a field that takes hard work. I was surprised to see so many people downplaying her accomplishments because of her family’s wealth.

People, I think, unfairly downplay people’s accomplishments because of privilege. Of course, privilege makes life much easier and opens up opportunities. Having money, for example, affords a child a better education, more tutoring, and other resources to make the odds that they do well in school higher. But, they still have to open the books and take the exams. Absent of blatant bribing and cheating, no amount of money changes a person having to open their books.

I think there are valid instances to disqualify or downplay people’s claims when they have privilege. For example, I think that people with socioeconomic privilege (specifically, growing up “upper middle class” and above), are much more likely to attribute their success (or family’s success) to hard work alone and to buy into the “American dream”. I think this is a hyperspecific example of the psychological principle of people, broadly speaking, attributing positive outcomes to their own effort and negative outcomes to the environment. Yes, it is true that America, more than anywhere else, disproportionately rewards hard work and provides the possibility of financial freedom. It also is true that a lot has to go right in order to do so, generally speaking, whether that be having parents who provided a stable home, growing up food-secure, having good school systems nearby, or even just having the right chance encounter with the right person. There will always be exceptions, people who “beat the odds” in order to achieve the “American Dream”. But for every person who beat the odds, 100 more didn’t. For every person who rises from their circumstances to capture privilege and generational wealth for their descendants, 100 more failed.

I think the goal-posts also have moved as well. Almost 100% of all the scientific, literary, and artistic contributions in history, at least prior to, say, the 1900s, were done by people with great wealth and privilege. For example, some of the greatest nucleuses of cultural and artistic innovation, such as the Italian states during Renaissance Europe, Abbasid Baghdad in the Middle East, and Tang China, were sponsored by great amounts of patronage from the richest groups at the time. Education and the subsequent opportunity to contribute to historic innovations in the sciences, arts, and humanities was something reserved for the nobility and upper class. You can easily link the accomplishments of most notable figures in history to great wealth and privilege, whether their own or one degree removed. Yet we don’t disqualify their accomplishments; instead, we applaud them and study them. As unequal as opportunities seem right now and as correct as it is that there is plenty left to be done, it also is true that at no other time in human history has there been such easy access to education, opportunity, and upward mobility. Mansa Musa, the wealthiest king in history, could only dream to be as rich as the average American who, at the tap of a phone, can have immediate access to all the world’s information, contact someone thousands of miles away, or choose to eat from a wide and endless array of culinary cuisines.

The more privilege you have, the less you have to overcome. All else equal, the kid who grew up in the slums who becomes a doctor had to overcome more than the kid who grew up in a wealthy family and also became a doctor, and we should rightfully acclaim and reward that kid for having achieved such amazing things in spite of such setbacks. But we can do so without penalizing or downplaying the other one, who also did the same hard work to become a doctor but had a lot more going for them. Someone can’t choose the circumstances they grow up in, so why should we downplay their accomplishments for being born into privilege that they couldn’t choose. Should we punish the superstar professional athlete whose parents were Olympic athletes? Or the musician whose parents are trained composers? or the writer whose parents are authors? Greatness is greatness, full stop. The books won’t write themselves. The weights won’t lift themselves. The books won’t read themselves.

Privilege and wealth makes things easier, and many great accomplishments can only be done with the backdrop of great wealth and privilege. But, I think that the “oh they grew up rich, it doesn’t count” card is a cop-out, broadly speaking, based on how people use it. Yes, it is a cliche that people who grew up with financial privilege often attribute their achievements to pure grit and hard work and downplay the impact of privilege. But there are many cases where people downplay great achievements because a person had some sort of privilege (normally, “they were rich”, even though wealth isn’t the only form of privilege). We shouldn’t want to aspire to be victims of some great oppression nor should we only acknowledge effort only if we perceive the person having fulfilled some rags-to-riches story. People often, it seems, either hate wealth or they idolize it. Wealth, defined as the accumulation great sums of money (regardless of whether it was obtained through savings, inheritance, corruption, or the lottery), is neither good nor bad, in and of itself, in my opinion; it’s just a number on the bank statement. What having wealth actually does is make everything easier and allow you to live a life unhindered by a lack of money. It’s up to us, at that point, to make something out of it.

The books won’t open themselves. The weights won’t lift themselves. The books won’t write themselves. Your kids won’t raise themselves. No amount of money will ever change that, even if having money makes it easier to do these things.