The Winning Side
Tristan’s recent blog was thought-provoking, and has been one of my favorite blogs posts to discuss with others students. He talked frankly about the privilege that he comes from, and how there is an obvious path for him in the US towards further wealth to support him and his family. Of this path he said, “It leads me to the winning side of the financially splitting world, the world of the rich and the poor, the world of the haves and the have nots, the world of extreme wealth and extreme servitude.”
Another thing that I have been thinking about is Ross’s comment that day, when he said that Tristan may have been over-estimating the salary of a civil engineer. Admittedly, Tristan did describe his entry-level job as “extremely lucrative”. But actually I’d like to push back at Ross, and argue that he is actually under-estimating the salary of a civil engineer, or in fact the salary of any career path that GCIL students have available to us.
To be a bit reminiscent of a previous GCIL student’s blog post (sorry/ thanks Evan), I want to talk about what it means to be in the top financial 1%. I cannot speak for others, but I know that growing up I always considered my family middle-class, and my upbringing therefore financially unremarkable. But compare my family’s earnings worldwide, and you get a far different picture. I want everyone reading-- or listening-- to this to think of their family’s annual salary. Now, consider this: An income of $32,400 per year would allow someone to be among the top 1% of income earners in the world (1).
What does this tell me? I know unequivocally, that I have spent-- and will spend-- my entire life on the financially winning side of this world. I am reminded of one of the TedTalks that we watched back in fall quarter, called “The way we think about charity is dead wrong” by Dan Pallotta. The first time that I watched this TedTalk, I remember that I sent it to my mom, which is something you should take to mean that I highly recommend it. Really, go watch it. Dan talks about how many young, talented people in countries like America face a decision between making money and generously supporting their family, or working for a nonprofit. He says culturally “We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people,”so we keep their compensation and fundraising abilities small. This in turn limits their ideas, and their impact. He argues that this system is extremely backwards, and is severely affecting our ability to fight grand challenges.
But how can we change this system?
Can it be fundamentally altered, or will I truly face the binary decision offered in Tristan’s blog? I certainly know examples of people who are well off, and still manage to work directly with non-profit organizations fighting challenges like clean water, access to education, and gender equality. But I do not believe that this opportunity is available to many worldwide.
I think that Tristan’s ability to be honest is in many ways more admirable than my desire to hide behind maybes. Maybe I will come back to India and make a difference… Maybe I will sacrifice much of my own life to aid others… Or could I make a bigger impact on the world if I go home, get a well-paying job in the US, and simply donate a large percentage of my salary every year? Am I drawn to work in the nonprofit sector because I think I would live a more satisfying life, and not because I could actually make the most impact that way?
Ultimately, the guilt of the privileged alone has never helped a suffering person, and guilt is unlikely to start operating as a meaningful currency in this fight against grand challenges. Refusing to enjoy life and the aspects of it that you are lucky enough to have will never help somebody else, and it will likely hinder your ability to offer all that you can. Being on the winning side is not something to curse or deny. Nor is it something to accept easily or get comfortable with. It is a tool; use yours wisely.