And why we should stop talking about it!
Something has been bothering me lately. I am hearing the word privilege being used more and more, and the use of the word opportunity used less and less when discussing the same context. While the difference in the words are slight, they both have very different connotations and consequently some very big implications on how we view the success of others as well as our own success. So, why is this alarming and what can we all do about it?
Why the Word Privilege is a Problem
Firstly, I want to explain that I have no intent in engaging any larger societal discussions as it pertains to this topic. Instead, I want to ONLY focus on the subtle, yet what I believe to be damaging, repercussions of how people perceive the world around them, which no doubt alters the way they interact with that environment. People can draw their own conclusions on what they believe to be the presence of the use of these words in society at large, and what that means to them. I have no interest in throwing gasoline on that fire in much the same way I have no interest in engaging in politics in general.
Let’s look at what the dictionary defines both privilege and opportunity as.
Privilege: “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”
“Something regarded as a rare opportunity and bringing particular pleasure.”
Opportunity: “A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”
The difference is slight, but privilege conveys that your environment imbues upon you special rights/advantages, or denies them, whether that is because of your neighborhood, socio-economic standing of your parents, government, sex, skin color, religion, governmental involvement, etc. This places the control of these things outside of you as a person (external locus of control). Emotionally, this effectively says that you are successful or not successful based on what the environment has decided for you. Opportunity on the other hand places control on the individual, and things they ultimately have control over.
Aren’t There Simply Three Types of “Opportunity”?
When one thinks in a framework of “opportunity” they can rationally break opportunity into three different kinds, opportunity afforded to you because of nothing you did (otherwise thought of as privilege), opportunity you stumbled upon (luck/privilege), and opportunity created as a result of an action you took (hard work, determination, internal locus of control).
Anyone can rationalize that there are certainly people who start out life with more opportunities, and there are certainly people who start out life with fewer opportunities, but when one thinks of opportunity instead of privilege they can also rationalize that there is not some invisible force beyond their control holding them back from seizing opportunities beyond those they thought of previously.
There is no positive connotation that can possibly had with the word privilege. You are either lucky or a victim of circumstance. Opportunity offers a positive CHOICE to create more of it on your own terms… Hope… Light at the end of the tunnel.
Lucky Successes, and Unlucky Victims
In my line of work, I have the fortune of talking to INCREDIBLY successful people in various fields every week. One thing I always ask them in one way or another is to tell me their “story” and to tell me what they thought made them successful. Time after time, I hear from people who lacked traditional “privilege” as our society deems it in today’s world (immigrants who had nothing and didn’t speak English, people from broken homes, legally deaf, legally blind, etc). Most of these people have effectively said the same thing, they worked REALLY hard to get to where they are today, and were always on the lookout for opportunity to advance their lives. They REFUSED to allow their starting position in life define where their future would be… Think about that for a minute. They decided they were in control of their destiny and they would create opportunity where none existed on its own.
Many highly successful people say that one thing that bothers them, and they feel the constant urge to correct in people is when people make the statement to them “Oh, you’re so lucky,” when analyzing portions of their life. As if to say, “you didn’t earn this.” When you think about it, when someone sees someone driving a nice car or boat, or living in a nice house, having a high paying, or otherwise really nice job, they tend to say, “they’re lucky,” they don’t say “Wow, what a hard worker.”
Ask yourself if you do this, and more importantly, do you think of “winners” as “lucky” and do you think of the “losers” in our society as “unfortunate”? It’s fine if you do, but if you do, I challenge you to critically analyze the things in your own life you are not particularly happy about and ask yourself if you accept them for what they are because of the list of barriers to improving it…. Go ahead, my crystal ball knows the answer already so you don’t have to report back to me… There is good news though, you can change your thought process on that, AND change the outcome if you can just start to believe you have more power than you may have been led to believe…. And it starts with replacing the word “privilege” with “opportunity.”
Create Your Own Opportunity
When I am speaking to individuals about missed opportunities and opportunities not afforded to them, regardless of reason, I acknowledge that they are in the current situation they are in, but then challenge them to rationalize how that affected their actions TODAY towards finding and seizing opportunities that others may not find. I challenge people to look for opportunities that DO exist, and more importantly the ones they CREATE as a direct reflection of their initiative and hard work… In short I choose to empower them with hope instead of cripple them with victimhood… I choose to use the word OPPORTUNITY, I challenge you to do the same.
I leave you with a quote we often use in Northwoods from an unknown author.
Why Do I Succeed?“
I succeed because I am willing to do the things you are not. I will fight against the odds. I will sacrifice. I am not shackled by fear, insecurity, or doubt. I feel those emotions drink them in and then swallow them away to the blackness of hell. I am motivated by accomplishment, not pride. Pride consumes the weak-kills their heart from within. If I fall, I will get up. If I am beaten, I will return. I will never stop getting better. I will never give up, ever. That is why I succeed.”
Rory K. McLaughlin, CEO