What Does it Mean to Have Limited Opportunities?

I’ve been enjoying Seth Godin’s new book, What to do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn).

It’s a beautiful book. Fantastic images. Elegantly laid out. And it has one of those covers you just like to touch.

29 physicists  at the 1927 Solvay ConferenceOne image in the book jumped out at me. It shows a wonderful photo of 29 physicists who in 1927 gathered at the Solvay Conference in Brussels. The photo includes many of the most remarkable physicists of their time… in fact… of all time. People like Einstein, Curie (the only woman) and Nels Bohr.

Over time, Seth says, 17 of these twenty seven people won the Nobel Prize in Physics. But most of them won after they attended the conference, not before. To quote the book:

They didn’t get invited because they had won the Nobel Prize. They won the Nobel Prize because they got invited.

Little Miracle EdwardsThat made me take notice. Because I’ve been thinking about my little 9 year old friend, Miracle, in whose life I have become involved. I had taken her to the ballet and children’s theatre, and last week my husband, Tyko, even took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because she’s interested in Greek Mythology.

We’ve had lovely times together. She’s a smart, curious, clear-minded little girl who asks pertinent questions and knows what she wants.

She also lives in a very poor community where most everybody has extraordinary challenges. She moved in with her father in “the projects” last spring because her mother died of lung cancer.

A World Away from Big Opportunities

Now here’s the issue.

No matter how smart or talented or hard working Miracle is, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever be invited to a gathering of world class people like those who came together at Solvay.

This may seem like a far-fetched idea, but consider this…

Unless someone puts Miracle (or any other talented child) in the circumstance that would introduce her to world-class opportunities when she is young, she is unlikely ever to have them. She’s not likely even to imagine that such opportunities exist.

People excel in part because they have the talent and will and courage to reach beyond their surroundings.

But in at least as big a measure, they excel because other people take them by the hand and lead them into a world of bigger opportunities they could never have imagined, let alone gain access to, on their own.

That group of physicists at the Solvay Conference weren’t invited randomly. They had talent and worked hard and stood out, but they also knew people who knew people who understood what it was to function at a world class level.

They had parents who encouraged them and teachers and tutors and mentors who guided them. And they had these, I believe, within a cultural context they understood and felt comfortable in.

How Often Do People Pass on Big Opportunities?

I’m struggling with three questions …

  • Would a child like Miracle have to pay too high a price for having someone give her opportunities of a very different level than she has access to now?
  • Would the cultural disruption — the sense of not belonging — be more damaging than it would be helpful?
  • And the answer to the first two questions is yes, what does that say about our ability to provide real opportunities for people from every walk of life?
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Consider this Scenario

Imagine yourself being invited to join a high-level program in which you didn’t feel like you belonged. Imagine that even though you were super-smart, your parents hadn’t encouraged your intellectual growth from the time you were little. Would you accept such an opportunity knowing that you’d feel (and be) completely out of place? Or might you shy away from it?

Lastly, think about how many extraordinary people pass up big opportunities simply because of those opportunities are worlds apart from what they know.

Have you ever felt that you didn’t belong? Did you shy away from certain opportunities as a result? Please add your comment below.

  • You ask a beautiful question, Andrea. And how wise to realize that Miracle does not, in fact, have the same opportunities as your own children. Far from it. FDR said “The real safeguard of democracy is education.”
    And I believe that we have been quite systematically tearing down the safeguards of democracy for years, beginning with our public education system.

  • Deirdre

    This is something I’ve long pondered esp when it comes to higher education because my own college education (and that of my siblings) felt like an enormous jump/shift/departure in terms of my family’s working class economic strata, society, and culture. Read your post and this article back to back, thought you might appreciate it (and the readers who have commented on it and shared their personal experiences). http://www.npr.org/2015/03/16/393339590/why-many-smart-low-income-students-dont-apply-to-elite-schools%EF%BB%BF

  • Simma Gershenson

    This American Life recently did a podcast called “Three Miles” which beautifully illustrates these issues. I think they are incredibly important, and those of us who choose to “raise aspirations” have to consider them very, very, carefully.