The Myth of Equal Opportunity

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In Australia and many other Western countries, the concept of equal opportunity is enshrined in law and embraced by employees as well as most employers. These laws cover protections that, while considered basic rights now, have generally been a result of hard-fought battles in past decades.

These rights include bans on discrimination on the basis of age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, race, religion, disability and probably a few others I’m forgetting. While they don’t guarantee that discrimination doesn’t happen (that’s an impossibility in a workforce populated by fallible humans – as we all are – and a world that seems to struggle more and more with intolerance), they provide assurance that victims have recourse and perpetrators must answer for their actions.

But sometimes equal opportunity is incorrectly equated with equal ability. Just because employees are equal doesn’t make them the same. So here’s a rather unfortunately lengthy list of things that can make the playing field of employment opportunities more uneven than we would like.

Talent
I am a firm believer in the fact that everyone has talent. The difficulty for most people seems to be in identifying their specific talent and embracing it. Why? There are a few reasons:

• Wanting to be good at something else – some people would give anything to be a terrific singer or a successful actor or a wonderful writer. The honest truth is that some people persist in pursuing dreams they don’t have a talent for. I don’t say this to be discouraging. But we’ve all seen people auditioning for TV shows who clearly don’t have the talent they believe they do. It’s just a waste of time. (Of course, for those who don’t care about being good – and consequently successful – then there’s no problem in going ahead and giving it your all.)

• Wanting it to be easy – just because you have talent doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard to achieve goals. I can cook but that doesn’t make me a chef. I can paint a wall but that doesn’t make me an interior designer. All talent requires nurturing, investment of time and effort, and an understanding that talent does not mean accomplishment; it’s just one component.

• Wanting to be unique – some people seem to think there’s no point embracing talent if they’re just going to be one of the crowd. If they can’t be the best, then what’s the point? Imagine if the world’s top one hundred metre runners felt that way. The Olympics would be a vastly different and much less interesting occasion. Talent doesn’t need to be greedy. It can be generous and so much more powerful for being shared.

The key to ensuring talent is on your side is knowing what yours is and how to use it to your advantage. And it’s just as important to be able to recognise when you don’t have a particular talent. Because stamping your feet and insisting you have talent when you don’t won’t get you anything, except maybe a reputation for being unable to recognise reality.

Common Sense
“Common” sense has never been more of a misnomer – it’s less common than ever these days – so even a modicum of it can really set you apart from the crowd. Things that get in the way of common sense include stubbornness, personality conflicts, perfectionism, emotions and taking on tasks for which you have no aptitude.

I actually think common sense is a combination of two things: patience – specifically, taking the time to think through options and likely outcomes before reacting to whatever situation has presented itself – and pragmatism – accepting that you can’t always be right, that sometimes someone else will have the answer, and that those two things combined don’t make you any less valuable.

Intelligence
There are all different kinds of intelligence – emotional, creative, technical, general, mechanical, musical, mathematical, linguistic, literal, lateral – okay, maybe some of those aren’t official kinds of intelligence but you get the idea. People can be smart in different ways.

And some people are simply less smart than others. Whether that’s because of the genetic hand they were dealt or because of early intervention strategies (or a lack thereof) or because of a variety of other reasons, it is what it is.

In my twenties, I often found myself saying things like, “If I can do it, then why can’t she?” or “If I can figure it out, then why can’t he?” Now that I’m in my mellow thirties and have had significant exposure to both white collar and blue collar industries, I recognise that my abilities really have nothing to do with anyone else’s. Just because I can do something does not mean I have the right to expect anyone else to be able to do it. I feel pretty confident that when I leave my mechanics in my freshly serviced car or my doctor’s office with my latest diagnosis, neither my mechanic nor my doctor utter the words, “Why can’t she figure it out for herself?”

The important thing to acknowledge when it comes to intelligence is there’s no point pretending to have it if you don’t because you will sooner or later (and it’s almost always sooner) be found out and shown the door. Just as important is the acknowledgement that you don’t need to be a genius to be successful. There are plenty of examples of people who were told that they would never amount to anything and yet ultimately turned out to be high achievers. There are just as many people who don’t have high IQs, who perhaps have even doubted themselves, and have still managed to establish perfectly acceptable careers and achievements. And there are even people with sky high IQs who have never achieved anything.

In and of itself, intelligence means little. It’s what you end up doing with it that’s significant.

Street Smarts
Paradoxically, or perhaps it’s karma, street smarts are more frequently seen in people from lower socio-economic backgrounds rather than those with the advantage of wealth and position. The reason being that street smarts often develop as a result of the types of challenges most in positions of advantage are shielded from (usually by their parents). The longer it takes for you to be exposed to the complexities and actualities of the real world, the more disadvantaged you will be when coming up against those who can recognise what it is as opposed to what we want it to be.

Street smarts sometimes seem to me like a progression from idealist to cynic, from optimist to pessimist, so it might not be a journey you really want to take. But it’s important to recognise it can be a useful and sometimes crucial skill in particular industries.

Confidence
I’m not sure that these times are any different to other previous times but we – the current inhabitants of the world – seem to be having a crisis of confidence. Which means those who have it, even when it isn’t justified, automatically have an advantage.

There’s nothing wrong with being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses – in fact, it’s a common job interview question – but if you can’t convince yourself that you’re the best person for the job, how on earth are you going to convince a panel of interviewers?

Confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy: there’s nothing more confidence building than getting the job you want. So here’s a mantra to practice for interviews: “I am the best candidate for this job.” Then supplement the mantra with a list of reasons why. And repeat until you’ve convinced if not yourself, then at least the interviewer.

Or take a leaf out of the book of many, many others – fake it.

Contacts and Networking
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” We’ve all heard it. A lot. And once we begin our employment journey, it’s something that becomes blatantly obvious. Not just that some people have more contacts and a better network but also that some people are better at making more contacts and maintaining their network. And taking it one step further, some people are prepared to use that network to their advantage.

I have to admit that this is not an area in which I excel. I’ve always had this naive idea that I can make it on my own through hard work without asking for help or favours. As an example of what I’m talking about, I know both a full-time author who has published more than twenty books and the Sales & Marketing Manager of a major publisher but I have never asked, and don’t ever intend to ask, what they might be able do for me. But if you asked why, I would struggle to come up with a good reason. Pride, maybe? Embarrassment that so far I haven’t be able to do it on my own? Regardless, any reason I come up with isn’t really a good enough one. Because asking for a favour might help put me in a position where I am able to return it one day.

The thing about a network, unlike talent and intelligence, is that it can be changed. It can be built. It can be improved upon. And once it is, it can be used to your advantage to close the unequal opportunity gap.

*First published on LinkedIn 29 June 2015

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