“Privilege” Is a Pretty Rotten Measure

I was just driving my rental back to the airport on my latest business trip. I’m flying by executive jet, thanks to my company. It’s a good, and might I say privileged? way to travel. By most measures, then, I’ll admit I’m quite privileged in my business life.

Personal life too. I don’t worry about money much, and I sure don’t worry about having enough to eat or a place to sleep or stuff to keep me warm and clothed. Privileged? Me? Oh, heck yes. Right now, anyway.

It wasn’t always that way for me, at least not entirely. Oh, I’ve never suffered abject poverty. I’ve been hungry but never starving. But we didn’t have a whole extra lot growing up, what with Dad working a government job and Mom staying home with the seven kids. (Dad had oodles of vacation, though, which in hindsight was a privilege beyond measure.) But it’s not like we had all the latest toys, or fancy clothes or vacations. We didn’t go to restaurants much. I didn’t even fly until I was 22, and that was for a job interview.

I got stitches in my chin at age three and didn’t visit a doctor’s office again until some acne medicine gave me a rash at age 16. (The doc came to school and gave us physicals for athletics there, right on site.) I didn’t really have any dental care until age 15, and that was one of the worst aspects of having been tight on money back then. (Some real wizards have given me marvelous dental health ever since, after my first real dentist worked wonders salvaging what I had to work with all those years ago.)

You probably wouldn’t know about any of those travails looking at me or my family or our lifestyle now.

But we make assumptions, don’t we?

I happened to catch my plane out this morning at the same time my company’s CEO was catching his. He was chatting with one of his traveling companions about having to replace his “boiler” (my house doesn’t even have a boiler; none I’ve ever lived in has, and I’m pretty sure houses that do are well beyond my means) for about $8,000. And he’s had to replace several of his house’s eight air conditioning units, too. Wow. Privileged for sure.

But what do I know of his background? Nothing. For all I know, he had less as a kid than I did.

But here’s the thing: today he’s obviously wealthy by most anyone’s standards. That is a privilege. Skin color can be a privilege. So can upbringing, early opportunities, who you know, how intelligent you are, even luck. But does any of that automatically guarantee a privileged life? A good life?

Obviously, he had demons most of the rest of us can’t fathom, demons that his money privilege couldn’t vanquish.

In my rental, it being “Two-for-Tuesday” on the local radio station, I caught a couple of marvelous songs by the 1990s hit band Soundgarden. Know anything about them? Their singer was a guy named Chris Cornell. Given the band’s smashing success, as well as that of Chris’s second band, Audioslave, Cornell was a very, very privileged guy, monetarily anyway. He was also an extremely good-looking guy and highly regarded as a musician. But not quite three years ago, he hanged himself. Obviously, he had demons most of the rest of us can’t fathom, demons that his money privilege couldn’t vanquish. By virtue of simple outcomes, it’s a fair bet that there are millions of dirt-poor people who in reality are more privileged than Chris Cornell was. Because they may not have much, but they’re happy with what they do have.

And how many more have there been, so much like Chris? Marilyn Monroe. Judy Garland. Elvis. Karen Carpenter. Jimi Hendrix. Janice Joplin. Phil Lynott. Michael Jackson. Lane Staley. Amy Winehouse. Scott Weiland. Robin Williams. Those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. All famous, all wealthy, all “privileged.” And all dead far too young because life wasn’t what they wanted it to be, wasn’t even livable, despite all the fame and money and other privileges.

I don’t know why this is so. Is privilege as we superficially think of it a possible curse?

Having enough is a blessing; perhaps having far too much of anything is a curse. Real privilege is peace, happiness, and goodwill toward others. Having enough, and I’m not just talking about money here, to help others. Enough money yes, enough to eat, enough to be reasonably comfortable. And enough to do with your time, enough to challenge yourself, enough to feel loved and worthwhile.

I’ve long loathed the expression, “check your privilege.” It’s just wrong, assuming as it does what life is like for someone else, and it seems to me it’s always delivered with such noxious self-regard and hatred. But thinking about it, maybe it has some value. Indeed, it’s something we should all do. But for ourselves, not as a vituperating challenge we hurl at someone else we know pretty much nothing about.

Let’s all do this: check our own privilege and do one of two things. If you have extra – of anything – figure out how we’re going to use it to help someone else, someone not as privileged as you. But if you don’t feel sufficient privilege, no matter how rich or popular or famous you are, and in fact, are having thoughts like the ones that laundry list of unfortunate superstars must have felt toward the end, then please figure out what help you really need. And go find it.

Life is oh-so-short anyway. Let’s not lose any more of our “privileged” brethren way too soon.


Jim Vinoski
Jim Vinoski
Jim Vinoski thinks he’s a pretty regular guy. Jim grew up in Michigan’s glorious Upper Peninsula. He’s married and has two sons, and now resides in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area. He’s an avid cyclist, runner, and reader. He and his two boys are heavily involved in Scouting, with Jim serving as their Troop’s Scoutmaster. He’s a big WWII history buff and has never gotten over his 1980s fascination with heavy metal music. He has over 30 years of experience in manufacturing, in products ranging from plastics and paints to food and bourbon. (That last one was a heck of a lot of fun.) His focus has been in engineering (he holds a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering), operations, and management. He’s a veteran of such companies as Ralston-Purina and General Mills, and he’s currently responsible for all store-brand manufacturing of dairy and beverage products for a major regional US grocery chain. As a Forbes Contributor, Jim covers all facets of manufacturing. He’s explored everything in his column there from the success stories of numerous American manufacturers to the amazing innovations in our advanced technologies, such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence. Jim also blogs about everything under the sun at The Interface.

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