Redefining Success by Reconciling Equity and Privilege
In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) introduced a novel scoring scheme for gymnastics. The new system allocated credit for a given routine's content, difficulty and execution, and scoring was no longer limited to a maximum of 10. This system encouraged athletes to innovate, train more, attempt, and perfect harder and harder athletic feats. It is known as degree of difficulty.
From Wikipedia: "Degree of difficulty is a concept used in several sports and other competitions to indicate the technical difficulty of a skill, performance, or course, often as a factor in scoring. Sports which incorporate a degree of difficulty in scoring include bouldering, cross-country skiing, diving, equestrianism, figure skating, freestyle skiing, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, surfing, synchronized swimming and trampoline. Degree of difficulty is typically intended to be an objective measure, in sports whose scoring may also rely on subjective judgments of performance."
This definition is relevant beyond the arena of sports, though isn't it? Think about our professional pursuits - much of what we call success cannot be objectively quantified. This is due to the elements of luck and privilege that force us to examine achievement through a different lens. In sports, landing a Yurchenko double pike, as Simone Biles did during warmups at the 2021 U.S. Classic in Indianapolis, has nothing to do with luck or privilege - it is pure talent, hard work, repetition, and courage.
No one would complain if the CEO of a company leveraged his privilege to solve bigger and bigger business and societal problems - the issue manifests because to become a CEO today without the significant boost of privilege and more than a little luck is a nearly impossible feat. So it is far more disappointing when we learn that these exceptionally privileged individuals choose to leverage it not in service of creating a better world, but as a platform to give those with more even more. If you didn't achieve your status purely based on your talent, hard work, perspective, and courage - you could at least pay your privilege forward to the less fortunate, goes the thinking of the 99%. But business success today is more a function of ruthlessness, ego, and self-orientation than altruism, cooperation, and reciprocity.
No wonder people are opting out of this system at alarming rates during the Great Resignation Trend of 2021. We live in a society where all the preparation you need to become a potential online influencer (and entrepreneur) is your own experience and creativity. Opportunities to participate and succeed have been greatly magnified by the Internet, wifi access, and perpetually connected devices and social networks. Why work for someone who cares nothing for your development when you can develop yourself and gain valuable experience and repetition that may one day result in the success you desire?
This is the question of our age. Reconciling privilege, equity, and success.
The philosopher Seneca once stated that success happens when opportunity meets preparation. But privilege creates better preparation and more opportunities and therefore greater success with less effort (hence why it is so desirable). Equity dismisses privilege and recognizes, values, and adjusts as necessary for degree of difficulty in making more out of better preparation and fewer organic opportunities.
It is impossible to compare the success of Mark Zuckerberg with that of Simon Biles. Zuckerberg had access to computing at an early age and was able to indulge his passion for programming throughout his adolescence. His parents indulged his interests and were able to afford to send him to an elite academy in New Hampshire that was one of ten such feeder schools in the US for Ivy League schools. Although Zuckerberg's talent and intellect are undeniable, so is it undeniable the advantages he enjoyed on his way to inventing Facebook, not the least of which was being a straight white male who had access to a Harvard education (the only school he applied for).
Simon Biles by contrast was abandoned as a child by her birth parents and raised by her grandparents. She found her passion on a field trip at the age of 6 and her grandparents were able to afford to keep her in the program under the tutelage of a single coach to transform her potential into a formidable athletic prowess. What set Biles apart was her consistency, her exuberant personality, and the high degree of difficulty she incorporated into her routines in all four events—vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. She had to do more to break through in a sport that was only beginning to value difference.
Degree of difficulty is a concept that we never consider when evaluating potential in our companies. We examine track record, consistency, and impact but never consider that for the single mother of two to achieve consistent results versus the wunderkind single woman from Yale is not nearly an equivalent feat. Managers want to see themselves as impartial and fair but fail to take into account the weight of identity and background on the weight of the boulders being asked to push up the hill. And this is why equity and the lack of it is such a crucial topic for us to tackle in modern society and business.
So how do we reconcile equity, privilege, and success? Here are 3 keys:
The first step is acknowledging both that privilege makes accessing opportunities easier for some and that given the same opportunity, someone lacking such privilege may require a boost of their own to get the chance to show what they are capable of achieving. This means making uncomfortable bets and eliminating biases. If you are perpetually blocked from accessing such opportunities you can never develop the necessary experience and demonstrate that you possess the capability that is assumed and taken for granted in those with privilege. Take the leap of faith and go beyond the comfort zone or the "type" you are seeking and see what other types can bring to the table.
The next step is to begin appreciating degree of difficulty in our calculations of execution and performance. We do this not by assuming that someone experiences disadvantages related to the tasks at hand but by engaging managers beyond the function of monitoring performance and reinforcing that their role is to serve and support all of their people to success. The burden of proof should rest on the manager's shoulders, not on the employees (unless anti-ethical behavior is involved). Employees should be judged by their development under a given manager, not on an arbitrary performance standard because personal development is a function of objective measures - proactivity, discipline, consistency, and detail orientation; performance is often a function of conditions beyond our direct control.
Lastly, we reconcile privilege by giving shortcuts to those who experience greater inequity due to their identity by pairing them with more successful internal mentors who can help them navigate their way to success just as they did. But the internal mentor's function must go beyond advice and veer into the territory of advocacy. So much of corporate success comes down to who is fighting for you in discussions you don't even realize are happening about you. Invite the mentors to the talent discussions as important voices to be considered beyond the metrics, qualitative anecdotes, and passionate defenses of more outspoken managers.
If we do these three things well, those with privilege and those without will find themselves on a more level playing field for the first time. And this is the point of talent identification and development - when we value work ethic, passion, solution-orientation, and emotional maturity more than we value numbers or pedigree or similarity or familiarity, more people can earn a seat at the table. And everyone has to do the same kind of work to achieve success under this approach.
Today, Zuckerberg is the billionaire and Biles is the American hero. Writers and readers of fiction understand this important difference. A heroes' journey without significant adversity does not make for a very interesting protagonist - it doesn't build the character necessary for them to understand that their power is only as good as how they leverage it in service of others. Zuckerberg and Biles do have one thing in common even though they arrived at it through completely different means - when asked why they possess such lofty visions of what they can achieve in their unique pursuits - both routinely reply - because I can.
It's time we make sure more people can too.