When I was younger I had always dreamed of doing something absolutely extraordinary in my life. As I got older, the clocked ticked on and my aspirations seemed to expire.
I am now 19, and I am too old to be a child prodigy in classical piano, a promising young Olympian or a local teenager who gets featured on the news for starting a business or making my prom dress out of duct tape.
I found myself time and time again comparing myself to successful people who were around my age and asking myself: why not me?
It’s easy for me to compare myself to other people, whether they are public figures or fellow students at San Diego State, but the catch is that we all have different circumstances. Understanding the context of individual accomplishments is a huge obstacle that makes comparing your successes to another person’s extremely problematic.
There is an unreasonable amount of merchandise and inspirational quotes available online that say, “You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé.”
Although there are already several opinion pieces that have been published about how we are not at all comparable to Beyoncé, or any other famous figure, I think it’s important to acknowledge the lesser “Beyoncés” in our life and understand the dangers of comparing ourselves to them.
When is it okay to let comparisons motivate you to challenge yourself and set appropriate goals, and when is it okay to look at your life and own it for what it is?
LinkedIn is swarming with these lesser Beyoncés. College students in the tech sector have internships under their belt with a better hourly pay than most make after graduating. My former colleague just published clinical research in a medical journal. A young man went viral online for selling a company he started in his teens at the age of 23.
Many of these posts online have the same warm tokens of gratitude to mentors, instructors, companies and peers. But it’s unconventional — uncouth even — to express gratitude for all of the luck that often comes with great success.
“Thank you to my parents for paying for my education and housing, so I can take an unpaid internship!”
“Thank you to my uncle who referred me for my most recent position!”
“Thank you to fate — I guess — for putting me in a geographic location with plenty of professional opportunities for students.”
A lot of young people, myself included, benefit from a wider access to opportunity that is completely unrelated to the value of their own merits. Many students and young professionals had a jumping-off point that was much more advantageous than that of their peers, and it made all the difference in early career experiences.
There are many different factors that may increase a student’s propensity to succeed that have nothing to do with hard work: socioeconomic status, their parents’ level of education, immigration and citizenship status. Having money, a strong network of educational and professional support and the benefits of studying and working in the United States as an American citizen are advantages that are often taken for granted.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and the wealthiest man in the world today, couldn’t have founded his empire without receiving $245,573 from his parents. And although there aren’t very many Jeff Bezoses in the world, it is still easy to observe that people who were born into a favorable status automatically have more doors open to them than their peers do.
The legacy system in universities across the United States illustrates the impact of family background on access to opportunity in early adulthood. According to NPR, legacy students are six times more likely than non-legacy students to be admitted into Harvard.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the average median income is $61,937. This means the hundreds of billionaires in the U.S. make at least 16,145 times more than your average household.
With this massive level of inequality of wealth distribution in the United States, it is completely unreasonable to propose that there is a linear relationship between hard work and tangible gains in capital and power. No one — and no billionaire for that matter — can work hard enough to earn a billion dollars.
The same amount of hard work from different individuals could land them vastly different places depending on their situation.
It’s a privilege for students to not realize how deeply their circumstances impact their ability to succeed.
Although most of us love a good underdog story, it’s unrealistic to believe that all of the leaders and shakers in the world have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked hard to climb in their academic and professional lives.
And while it’s hard to unravel the centuries-old systems that perpetuate this inequality, the first step college students can take to shift the culture in universities and workplaces is by being transparent and owning your background, even if it’s one of privilege.
When all students begin to acknowledge how their status affects their ability to be a competitive student and working professional, we can work on becoming more encouraging and recognizing how seemingly modest goals are actually triumphs against extenuating circumstances.
Let’s celebrate the single parents going to university. And the first-generation college students with illiterate grandparents. And the veterans at SDSU on the GI Bill.
And while for every person, I hope and dream for an abundance of undeniable, unmistakable successes, I hope that more people begin to notice how remarkable it is to reach your goals when the cards were stacked against you.
I hope that people can appreciate how they were able to work with what they had and overcome the odds in order to achieve something remarkable to call their own.
Jessica Octavio is a sophomore studying microbiology.