In the United States we like to pride ourselves on the idea of equality of opportunity. Anyone in our country could become president, just look at historical examples of Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama to see how outsiders from poverty can rise to be president. Our political and economic systems are based on the idea that anyone hard working can exercise their talents and abilities to become the best at what they put their mind to. Unlike communist ideas, we don’t believe in equality of outcome, but rather of equality of opportunity.
But the reality is that the United States, and truly every society across time, has been limited by inequality of opportunity. A little while back I heard someone explain that LeBron James, an incredibly successful basketball star, could not have possibly used his physical skills and hard work to become as successful, rich, and famous as he is if professional sports were not rewarded as highly as they are. If we lived in a society that didn’t have any type of professional sports league, LeBron James would not have become the LeBron James that we know and love (or hate) today. He may have still become successful, but the advantages that he has from his incredibly athletic body and skills (advantages that I clearly lack as a 5’9″ 150 pound guy) would not have translated into the same kind of success he has experienced. This idea came to mind for me when reading Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing. In the book, a physically strong and impressive black man named H becomes trapped in a system of near slavery in an Alabama coal mine. In my mind, H has the body and strength of a LeBron James level athlete. But as a coal miner (effectively a slave) his opportunities for accumulating wealth or any form of luxury was essentially nonexistent. This example is meant to demonstrate how even something as random as the timing of our birth can influence the opportunities available to us.
In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, he writes, “most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed, and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities.” Simply being born to be naturally good at something doesn’t mean that you will rise to the top. We almost always need encouragement, mentoring, and someone else to help spot our talent. Without the support of others, few of us can actually reach our full potential, even if our full potential is President of the United States or an incredible sports star. Quite often, social and economic status can play a role in whether we meet the right people to help us nurture our talents and abilities.
Harari continues, “even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules.” Perhaps a child had the perfect natural abilities to become a dentist – they were particularly interested in oral hygiene from a young age, had dexterous fingers, and excelled with mental abilities to visualize and rotate shapes in their mind (important for building crowns and placing them on teeth). If that child’s parents died at a young age and that child ended up in an unsupportive foster environment, they may end up failing classes early on and being shut out from becoming a dentist at a more stable point in their life later. Contrast this child with another who was never particularly hard working or well suited for being a dentist, but who had numerous dentists in the family. The second child’s family may be able to offer a buffer, and when their grades don’t go well, instead of having doors shut, their family may be able to help open new doors at the schools they attended. For both fictional children, different rules exist for whether their natural talent matters in their ultimate outcome. Equality of opportunity sounds great, but is hardly ever realized. Simple factors like the timing of our births, the support and coaching around us, and whether we can get a second chance all matter in whether we have real equality of opportunity.