This post is about opportunities and about how they arise. Opinions I came across regarding why some people ‘make it’, views on why some people are successful and have better career opportunities while others do not. I will present these through three stories, encounters with different people.
Back in August, I traveled to the southern tip of our planet, to Argentina, in order to attend a conference on youth empowerment through business and entrepreneurship. I landed a couple of days earlier in Buenos Aires and stayed in a youth hostel before the event officially started. One morning I had to wake up very early as I had a scheduled call with a regional director of a big media company in Eastern Europe. I wanted to make this call for a very specific reason: I was looking for sponsorship to fund a Hungarian delegation to attend the One Young World Summit* in The Hague in October. A few minutes before this call was due, I was sitting in the hostel’s restaurant, drinking coffee, watching the sunny but cold Argentinian winter, ready with my pitch.
Then my phone rang and the call started. At the time, I had a rather limited experience with making a pitch for sponsorship and I had a similarly vague idea of what it is like to negotiate with corporate leaders. I wanted to argue that by funding talented youth from Hungary with entrepreneurial thinking to attend a global platform of leaders just like One Young World, one can make a considerable change in those young people’s life. They will then go on and create ideas, businesses for the greater good, whatever that means. I wanted to showcase my own example too: had I not had the funding to study in the UK years ago, it would have been impossible for me to engage in any of the projects I am currently working on. However, my argument failed miserably.
The regional director on the other side of the call interrupted me early on while making my case and posed the following question: ‘Who stops others to go down the same route? Who stops anyone else making it? Why can’t other Hungarians go, study abroad, look for opportunities for themselves?’
There I was, not knowing what to say. Of course, hypothetically everyone could. Of course, on the surface, nobody is intentionally stopping people of various backgrounds living up to their dreams or climbing the ladder of social mobility. But is it an option, really? Is it really about one’s inner motivation and hard work to ‘make it’?
The answer came through another encounter. I met Hashi Mohamed** on the Ditchley Festival of Ideas***. He is a barrister and a broadcaster at the BBC, somebody who inspired my thinking to a great extent. The Festival of Ideas was a conference for young professionals mostly from Oxbridge and London elite universities as well as for Global Shapers. The environment itself made me think: could students from any backgrounds, any universities reach out and attend such an event?
I went to listen to the panel on wealth inequality (funnily enough in an invite-only event) where Hashi Mohamed spoke beside three experts with a background in economics. Universal basic income, wealth redistribution and inequality of opportunities were discussed, but to me, it was Hashi’s ideas that stood out. He spoke about our European dream, the narrative that I also heard a billion times as a kid: if you work hard enough, you will get there, you will make it, you will succeed in life and get to top positions. He spoke about how this narrative can be false most of the times, how your default setting (your family, the political and economic situation of the neighborhood you grow up in) will predispose certain careers, certain pathways for you and how difficult it really is to make any change whatsoever in this. About his own career progress, he said he needed a considerable amount of luck, fortunate events following one another, irrespective of his intellectual abilities. I resonated with his views greatly and I was thinking about how this could be changed. How opportunities could be more open and easier to access to a wider range of communities. While thinking, a memory from Cambridge popped into my head.
This third story dates back to the beginning of my masters program in Cambridge and it is more of a short encounter I overheard rather than a personal experience. I was sitting on a bench near the city centre and two students passed by, one complaining to the other, let me try to quote: ‘…and this guy, not only was he begging for money, when I didn’t give him any, he started to follow me and kept shouting at me that I’m a rich bastard…okay, sure, we are wealthy, but come on man leave me alone…’
Cambridge has a history of fights between town and gown; it is also well-known to be one of the most unequal places in the United Kingdom. This short conversation I overheard made me question whether or not people reflect on their own social status, their own default setting and if they identify any responsibilities coming with their position. Being in Cambridge means one is privileged, in one way or another: because of intellect, because of financial status, because of opportunities. What does this mean for someone inside and outside this environment?
Let me reflect a bit on these three stories. Accessing opportunities in our world seems to be about playing the domino game: as for myself, opportunities have so far arisen in a way that one led directly to another: I went to Cambridge and therefore doors opened up: I got to intern with the World Health Organisation. Because I interned at WHO, my CV became strong enough to get scholarship to the One Young World Summit (from which I had previously been rejected). Because I attended the summit, I had a higher chance to being accepted in the Global Shapers Community. Because I became a Global Shaper, I was invited to the conference in Ditchley and I could attend the conference in Argentina. One leading to the other. A set of fortunate events coinciding with my personal background. Some people are defaulted into having such opportunities easier, or in a more difficult way, or not having them at all.
If I was to have that call with a corporate director again and if I was asked where ‘success’ stems from, I would now have a somewhat clearer answer. I’m not saying working hard is not important, but I find that there is a strong element of luck and that of one’s default environment having a heavy impact on one’s access to opportunities. Very importantly, the way in which our society, at least in the Western world, is organised means that social mobility and access to information is not easily available to the general public. Our European dream, that working hard leads to ultimate success, has to be thought through carefully, we seem to believe that we can go farther than what reality shows us. Do we reward hard work with more opportunities? Is it really only the individual’s personal choice to climb that social ladder or bring about change? I do wonder how we could make a world where access to education, to information and to opportunities is more equal and career pathways are more of a personal choice.
*One Young World is a registered charity headquartered in London. It is a global forum for young leaders, with an annual summit bringing together youth motivated to bring about social change. You can check the community out here. I attended the summit in Bogota, 2017 as an All Bar None scholar for Hungary and made great connections, as well as some long-term friendships. I was looking for sponsorship to send a Hungarian delegation because in 2018 Hungary was not part of this scholarship scheme anymore. As the registration fee to the summit is quite high, I saw it unlikely that my country would be well-represented on the summit.
** I warmly advise everyone to read Hashi Mohamed’s thoughts, for example here
*** Check out the Ditchley Foundation here