Part One: Circumstance
I was a screw-up for the vast majority of my life.
In adolescence, my academic performance was atrocious until the tail end of high school. Behaviorally, it took me even longer to get into line. My life today is a far cry from what anyone would have predicted for me a decade ago, as a fourteen-year-old juvenile delinquent. (Quarter-life projections by others I remember from that time period range from “dead”, “junkie”, “imprisoned”, to “average”.)
For the past year, I have attempted reconcile the dramatic about-face I made, which morphed me from a two-time college dropout and occasional blue-collar criminal suddenly into a tech entrepreneur and, now, venture capitalist. By no measure do I feel I have “made it” yet, but to a certain extent I feel like I have realized some dysmorphic version of the American Dream— which, in my mind, is the point where my ability to change the world in positive manner, really becomes tenable.
I could not be more excited to be where I am, but I am gripped by a need for reconciliation with my past, before I can become who I truly want to be.
Ihave spent the past several months giving consideration to the circumstances, events, individuals, and so forth, that have led me to where I am today. At some point in my life, whether it’s in the next few month, or next decade, I would like to chart all of these personal data points out, perhaps in a literary fashion. In the meantime, I’d like to break them down in the broadest manner (hence this being part 1 of a series.)
Above all else, in determining who I am, is circumstance.
It has been a long time since I have given much consideration to “luck”, “karma”, or “fate”. In fact, there’s a minor correlation between my improved state of being and my dismissal of such phenomena. More importantly, however, is my subsequent focus on consequence. I believe that every event, from the outcome of a sports game, to a meteor striking earth, is a matter of consequence— one that can be scientifically explained with enough information. This does not necessarily exclude the possibility of there being a god, or “true love” existing, but it definitely diminishes the probability.
To expand and, perhaps, contradict this point, I’d like to focus on circumstance. It is nearly impossible to argue that an individual born into poverty in rural West Africa has the same opportunity as an individual, even one born into poverty, in “the West”. Was I lucky to be born into a middle class family in the United States? Depending on your definition of luck, I’d argue “no”, for genomic reasons. Nevertheless, it was entirely a matter of circumstance (which is the point).
Circumstance is important because it is the primary driver of privilege, a factor many successful individuals I know, and see in the media, fail to recognize.
However, too often, we attribute the factors within our control as responsible for our success, while failing to appreciate the underlying circumstances that enabled us.
It’s impossible to say where I would be today if I didn’t have caring parents that placed such a high value on my education; if I wasn’t white, middle class, Jewish, tall, blonde, male, “heteronormative”, etc., it’s near impossible to imagine I would be as I am, for better or for worse. It’s easy to say I would have founded my nonprofit and startups when I did, that I would have received the support and money that I got; but the reality is that I probably wouldn’t have.
These factors outside of our control fascinate me. My studies in social psychology, both in college and after, and personal experiences, have engendered a belief that the impact of these “factors of circumstance” on our lives are exponentially greater than most of us, particularly those deemed “successful”, are willing to admit. To an extent, the notion that circumstance is more important to our achievements fundamentally threatens our sense of self, particularly when those achievements are part of what define us.
As Erving Goffman argued in his celebrated, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, social interaction is a performance, one in which a certain image is presented by individuals to the broader world. Particularly in the United States, where the mythos of the “self-made man” (or woman) runs so deeply, rejecting such a label in favor of acknowledging the realities of privilege is quite challenging.
“When the individual presents himself before others,” Goffman writes, “his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify the officially accredited values of the society.”
By saying: Much of my ability to overcome adversity in my life is a consequence of circumstances outside of my control— privilege, I will make some of my friends, family, and colleagues cringe.
I am, uncomfortably, going to admit that I have inherent advantages, granted not by virtue of talent, or hard work, but by being born to the right parents, at the right time, with the right people surrounding me. I will never know what it is truly like, or would have been like, to be a person of color, or female, or gay, perhaps, in the life that I have lived.
So let me say this: an important part of who I am is someone who, as a matter of both circumstance and hard work, was able to overcome odds that (primarily) I had created against myself.
Let me emphasize that I don’t want to wax philosophical about the nature of self-experience any more than I want to admit that I am privileged. But living in the heart of the San Francisco Bay, realizing the American Dream in the only way I know how, I feel obliged to leave a legacy of recognition of what brought me here; particularly the factors that I had no control over.
I’d like to end this note with a thought on what I will write on next. This is something we can control, and it makes an extraordinary difference: who we surround ourselves with. While the saying, “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with” may not be entirely true— it digs at a fundamental truth.
But I’ll save that for part two…
To be continued.