When I arrived in my MBA program last October I had to spend a bit of time preparing my backstory. All my classmates are in their twenties and have yet to start their careers, whereas on some measures I’ve done quite well for myself already. I had to come up with a way to explain it without my coming across as a complete d-head. During a car trip to Bern with a fellow student, I emphasised the importance dumb luck played in me achieving a relatively comfortable standard of living, rather than my sheer brilliance.
First off, I chose my parents carefully and was born with above average intellect into a stable, middle class family. These two alone are the markers of probably around 80% of life outcomes, unless your parents smoke crack pipes in the living room (mine didn’t). I was fortunate enough that my dad earned enough money to send me to a school which, for all its faults, got me the grades to get into a decent university. Secondly, I happened to stumble into the oil industry during the biggest boom it had ever seen, complete with skyrocketing salaries which were sustained for more than a decade. Sure, I made stuff happen by making a few smart decisions, working (when absolutely necessary), and taking opportunities when they arose, but without those two things I’d be nothing.
Thanks to my being a well-educated, white collar professional who enjoyed a lucrative career, most of my social circle is the same. From those who rode the oil boom with me, particularly those who got in early, most are millionaires (asset-wise) with multiple properties, international marriages, children in expensive private schools, and who enjoy luxury foreign family holidays at least once per year. Turning up at my school, I found this describes many of my professors, too. Often when I’m introduced to people in my social circle, I find them to be very intelligent, successful, and staggeringly rich by the standards of even the last generation.
The trouble is, I’ve detected a severe lack of self-awareness among what I can accurately describe as my social peers. It takes the form of a sneering, dismissive attitude towards anyone they deem “uneducated”, which means they hold views they disagree with. It appears to be the policy in my business school that lecturers make a random, disparaging remark about Trump once per session, without stopping for a single second to put themselves in the shoes of those who voted for him. If challenged to do so, they’re dismissed as uneducated racists who were manipulated by his fearmongering lies. Similarly, those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union are routinely insulted by phenomenally wealthy people in my social group who’ve done extraordinarily well from the status quo, and blithely assume anyone who hasn’t is stupid or lazy. Unfortunately, thanks to my membership of Facebook, I have to see this every day from people who really ought to – what’s that term? – check their privilege.
There is nothing uglier in a person than a lack of self-awareness, particularly an inability to appreciate that there by the grace of God go I. Yes, we all worked to get where we are, some of us damned hard, but sheer luck played a large part as well. Too many of my social peers are trapped in a self-delusional bubble which is, quite frankly, turning otherwise decent people into a-holes. A lengthy career in an international oil major, where sneering down your nose at the lower ranks is actively encouraged, can scarcely help with that. When I moved to France I gradually started mixing with people who weren’t oil industry professionals or expatriates, and nowadays my social circles are made up of many such people. Some of them earn less in a year than my oil industry colleagues spend on the education of a single child in the same period. I’ve noticed you don’t hear them airily dismiss whole swathes of society as readily as those in my more natural social circle. Indeed, they tend not to mention politics at all. These days, voting is a middle class hobby; for those lower down, nothing changes no matter who gets in. I have friends who express opinions which would make my other friends choke on their organic veggie burgers. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but given who they are and where they come from, I can see why they think that way.
I’ll wrap this up by saying I have a good friend who has done very well for himself as an international banker, and is very well-educated and wealthy by any standards. But he remains extremely down to earth, and can rub along with anyone. Why? A child immigrant, he grew up in his parents’ restaurant in the (almost) Deep South. As he put it:
“If you’ve grown up scrubbing pots in a kitchen full of Mexicans, it’s hard to get too far ahead of yourself.”
Indeed. I didn’t have a hard life, and most difficulties were self-inflicted out of pure masochism. I got lucky. If I didn’t make the effort, I might not know how the other side live. I’m glad I did, and I do. I wish more of my peers did.