Privilege Vs Hard Work

There is a constant debate about privilege. A lot of people seem to take offense at being told that they have privilege or "are privileged". What I think many people don't understand is that privilege and hard work are not mutually exclusive. In order to be successful, you need a combination of both. In the case of athletics for example, the privilege is being born with certain genes. There are many different biological aspects that give someone an advantage in a given sport. Nobody would ever say that an Olympic champion doesn't work hard, but they are also privileged.

I think that a lot of the time, people take their privilege for granted possibly because they don't fully realize the magnitude of how much it helped them or don't realize that other people don't have those same opportunities. I'll provide a few examples of my life highlighting the things that I would say are privilege and things that were hard work.

Pre-college education

I think one of the things that made the biggest impact on my life trajectory was getting in to Stanford. The admission rate is quite low (it was a bit higher when I went there, but still low), but somehow I managed to get a spot.

It started with my parents. I was fortunate to be born into a family that valued education. Going to college was pretty much an expectation for me ever since I can remember. My parents sacrificed so that my mom could home-school us during elementary school which I believe gave me a better foundation than some of my peers. I went to public school from 7th grade onwards, and my parents sacrificed to move us into a better school district. They researched the best schools within the district and went through the process to get us to attend those schools instead of the schools that we were zoned to. Many people probably think that having parents value education is normal, but unfortunately not everyone has that. Some people have parents who are just not really involved in their children's education or are discouraging their children altogether. There are many reasons why that might be, but that is a conversation for another day.

Being in the "good" schools allowed me to have teachers that knew what they were doing and actually cared about their students. My algebra 1 teacher was really good and set me up very well for higher level math classes. I know a lot of people who struggle with Calculus for example, but when you dig in, it's because they are lacking a good foundation in Algebra. My advisory teacher in high school was a Stanford alum which is what initially gave me exposure to the school. My school district also paid for all 10th graders to take the PSAT. I had a teacher who saw my PSAT scores and informed me that I could possibly qualify for a National Merit scholarship if I studied a bit more. Before this, I had no idea that the PSAT and SAT were something that you were supposed to study for. I ended up qualifying for a National Achievement scholarship (a sub-program of National Merit) and ended up scoring high enough on the SAT to get into Stanford later. I don't think I would have been able to do either of these if I had not studied. Taking the PSAT in 10th grade was critical in getting this feedback early enough to actually spend the summer studying. These are the benefits of being in a good school district.

Some people might read what I wrote and say something like "you're discounting all of the work you're putting in." I promise you that I am not. I have always been the "good kid". When I was home-schooled, I always did my work and finished it relatively quickly. I read a lot of books as a child which helped improve my reading speed and comprehension and was super useful later in life. Once I started attending school, I generally took the most advanced classes that were available to me, and I invested enough effort to do well in those classes. I came to school early to have additional sessions with my AP Econ and AP Calc teachers in preparation for the AP tests since we had missed two weeks of school due to Hurricane Ike. I started my college essays early and got them reviewed by multiple people before submitting my applications. All of this paid off in the form of a high GPA, passing scores on all of my AP tests and comments about my "good essays" from the admissions team at Stanford. Hard work is absolutely important, but it's not the full story.

Career Trajectory

Being at a school like Stanford makes a huge difference in terms of opportunity down the line. There are so many resources at the school including tutoring, generous financial aid, career support and more. I think the main thing to note here is that I got my first full-time job at Intel via the school career fair.

This time, we'll start with my hard work. I knew that the career fair was fairly early in the year, so while I was still at my summer internship, I spent time updating my resume, researching what companies would be at the career fair, and creating profiles on all of the sites for the companies I was interested in. I believe that this helped me stand out since I had already put in some effort vs just randomly stopping by the booths. 

The Intel rep that I spoke to was also a Stanford alum. This is a huge benefit since he had taken the same classes I had. There was no question about whether I had sufficient educational background to do the job, so getting the interview was easy. Many people don't have the benefit of top-tier companies recruiting at their schools. If they do, it's not as likely that the representatives are alums and have significant familiarity with the curriculum at the school. Of course, hard work still comes into play when preparing for and passing an interview, but it's a lot easier for some of us to secure interviews than others.

While at Intel, I decided that I wanted to make a career switch and went back to school. I was "privileged" to be at a company with a generous tuition reimbursement program. I "worked hard" to complete a Masters degree in two years on evenings and weekends while working full time. The combination of my work history and educational background was enough to draw the attention of recruiters at my current job. Again, I had to work hard to pass the interview, but getting the interview without even having to apply is absolutely a privilege.


This leads me to where I am today working as an engineer at a well-known company with good pay/benefits and a good work/life balance. There are many people in my position who like to go on social media calling others who haven't yet made it "lazy" and saying they should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps". I think that if those people really sit down and think, they could pinpoint various things outside of their control that helped them to get where they are today (aka privilege). I think this is a good exercise for everyone to do, and I think it goes a long way towards helping us to develop empathy for others.


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