Privilege and perspective

Let me say this upfront. I am going to talk about privilege. I am not an expert on privilege. I am not a poly-sci major with dual minors in social justice and psychology. These are ideas that have been kicking around in my head for a couple weeks, and I thought they might resonate with others or spark conversation. If that’s not the sort of thing you’re interested in, probably best to skip to the next post, where you can read about HashiCorp Vault or Azure or something similar. Okay? Still here? Great. Let’s talk.

I am INCREDIBLY lucky. I was born at the right time, in the right place, to the right parents. I had access to a great education, solid role models, and a supportive network of people. That’s not something I worked hard to get. That’s something I had from day one, because I am incredibly lucky. As a teenager, I would classify myself as an obnoxious little shit who took all he had for granted, and still managed to complain about how the universe was unfair. I was self-centered and ego-centric in the way that only a teenage boy in the suburbs with no real problems can be. I intentionally hung with the wrong people and got in with the wrong crowd so I could have “real” problems. But that was always a facade, a vacation into some else’s crappy reality, because at the end of the day I knew that I could get my act together, ask my parents for help, and I would be fine. That’s privilege. The knowledge that no matter how bad you mess up – within limits, of course – you’re probably going to be okay.

The problem I had was one of perspective. I absolutely did not understand how other people struggle to scrape by. Didn’t they know how easy it was to get a good job and move up through the ladder? One of my jobs in high school was a stock boy at Wawa – it’s a convenience store. The day I turned 18 they made me a Shift Manager. I thought to myself, “This is so simple. Anybody can get what they want if they work hard.” What I didn’t appreciate at the time, was the fact that I was a well-educated, semi-responsible person, in large part due to my upbringing. I knew how to act appropriately at a job, and how to speak to my superiors. It’s not that I didn’t have to work hard, but I knew how to work in a way that would end up with a promotion. That was lucky. I was lucky. I might also mention that I had a family that could afford to lend me a car to drive to work. And a stable enough household that I could reliably show up for work. Not everyone has that. Again, very lucky.

When I decided to move into the world of IT, again my privilege helped tremendously. I had access to computers from a young age. We had a personal computer at home in the early 80s. My school had an enrichment program that included some basic programming on a PC. I grew up immersed in technology, from the constant upgrade cycle of our home computer to the introduction of game systems, and the presence of technology at school. When I went to college, I majored in Computer Engineering for a year and a half before I dropped out. All costs covered by my parents of course. And then finished a two-year degree in Computer Science, also covered by my parents. When I started interviewing for tech jobs a couple years later, I already had a solid grounding in technology. I got hired after my first interview. That’s ridiculous. I know lots of people that had to go through 10 or more interviews to break into tech. Me? I went on one. I’m sure I did well in the interview, but it didn’t hurt that I had years of privilege lending a helping hand.

It was not a glamorous position. It was level one helpdesk. My time in the service industry served me well here, since a lot of being good at helpdesk is being polite and providing good customer service. By the way, those are almost always good things to be. A year and a half later, I had moved up to third-level support, and then the company declared bankruptcy. During that time I had two amazing bosses that gave me the opportunity to learn and grow, and were super flexible about my schedule. I had gone back to school to get my bachelor’s degree. This time paying for it with my money.

That was sixteen years ago, and since that time my career has done pretty well. I’ve had to work hard, but I’ve also been lucky to have a string of really good bosses and coworkers. People who mentored me, and helped me develop both my technical and soft skills. I was given the tools to do well at an early age, and despite a few missteps, I’ve managed to use those tools to my advantage. But I can’t ignore the fact that I have been given tremendous privileges that many people do not get.

So what is the point? There’s got to be a point. The reason I started thinking about all this was a few posts I saw on LinkedIn and Twitter that really got my blood boiling. I’m not going to name names or anything, but the sentiment of it was something like this:

  • If a meeting doesn’t bring you joy, you should refuse to accept it.
  • Find a job that brings you happiness.
  • Time is the only finite resource, spend it wisely.

I know these are somewhat innocuous koans that people like to toss out from time to time. But they are also tremendously pretentious, privileged bullshit. You know what doesn’t bring me joy? A weekly sales meeting. You know what happens if I don’t attend my weekly sales meeting? I would probably get told that I have to, and eventually fired. If you’re the CEO of a company, then by all means turn down whatever meeting doesn’t bring you joy. For the rest of us? You should probably go to that mandatory meeting so you can keep your job. You know, so you can feed your children?

Find a job that brings you happiness? No. Find a job that pays you a living wage, hopefully. When you work in an industry that has near negative unemployment, it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world isn’t like that. The IT industry is incredibly privileged at the moment, even outside the bubble of Silicon Valley. Most people outside of tech don’t get to choose between six different, six-figure salary packages. A lot of people have a shitty job, and they work that shitty job because if they don’t, they will have no money and eventually be homeless. And by eventually, I mean very quickly. Not everyone has a nest egg or severance pay floating them to their next dream job. The conceit of this particular phrase is that you have the means and luxury of being discriminating when it comes to your next job. Trust me when I say that no one working in the mall picked that job because it would bring them happiness, they chose it because it pays money and they need money to live.

Time is a finite resource. That’s true. And spending it wisely, also true. Again, the conceit here is that you are in charge of the vast majority of your time. I guess technically you are. You can quit your shitty job, and go spend every day at the beach. Unless of course you want to, I don’t know, eat? Or have a place to sleep. And god forbid you have a family that you are responsible for. The excuse, “I’m abruptly leaving my shift to spend quality time with my child.” might work in a RomCom movie. In real life? You boss will tell you you’re fired, and you and your kids will be homeless on the street. Now you can spend all the quality time you want with them, until Child Protective Services takes them all away.

All of these vapid, pointless sayings assume a level of privilege that I did when I was 13. They lack any perspective that isn’t the single person, working in IT, with no responsibilities, forging the way to a grander tomorrow. Years of experience have shown me just how far up their own asses some people are in the tech industry. And none quite so far as self-help gurus. Do yourself a favor and take their self-centered, self-help with a massive grain of salt. Don’t share their crap with your friends. Maybe instead try these out:

  • If you’re lucky enough to be doing well, help someone who isn’t
  • If you hate your job, ask for help, but don’t quit on a lark
  • Enjoy the time you have in the way that makes you happy, but don’t get fired

Okay, rant over. Now I’m going to go do work on a weekend, not because I want to, but because I have to. You know, so I can eat.

2 thoughts on “Privilege and perspective

  1. Great perspective on your privilege. I think we’ve started taking the mental shortcut that privileged=entitled. There are some privileges we all work hard to obtain. The problems come when we don’t identify those privileges or when we feel entitled to them. I think you realized your error in both. One that you had privileged that others don’t have and two you felt entitled to those privileges.

    We all are privileged in some manner. The challenge is to acknowledge the privilege and to watch feeling entitled to the privilege.

    1. Thanks Keith. I appreciate your feedback. I didn’t make the direct connection in the post, but I think you’re right. When you accept the privileges you have and think that you are entitled to the benefits, that is where the true issues lie. Many of us start with privilege or find our way into it, but that alone is not enough for success. Privilege starts you off further down the path or equipped with special abilities. You still need to put in the hard work if you want to be successful in IT. Thinking that because you are a middle class, white guy in tech you deserve be successful is the road to entitlement, and ass-hattery. Work hard, acknowledge privilege, and help others less fortunate.

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