Whether the life is fair or not is a topic for long debate. I won’t confuse you more with presenting my arguments about it. Instead, in this post, we will see the key ideas from a book I recently finished reading: The Unfair Advantage by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba. They wrote this book to help the new entrepreneurs build new startups. The authors themselves are successful entrepreneurs. However, the tips are not just limited to launching a new company. I find that the ideas of the book are applicable to many areas in our lives.
The authors believe that the life is not fair. They talk about numerous startups and entrepreneurs that succeeded and their unfair advantages. See an example in the video below. Apart from that, we see those unfair advantages in politics and movie industries a lot. I liked the way they introduced the unfairness of life. The concept of “Meritocracy” says that those who have the right merit (deserve to get rich) will get rich. For example, the bright student in the class will most likely get the highest score. But, the life is more complex than a classroom exam. There are many factors at play. The hard work or intelligence is sometimes not enough to succeed. If that is what we call the true fairness, then the life is certainly not fair. Many of us are a step ahead in some of the areas that matter. Sometimes we have a competitive upper hand. Something that we haven’t worked hard for. They give an example of being tall as an advantage for getting selected in a basketball team. Although this doesn’t guarantee a selection in the team, it certainly is an advantage. Don’t get discouraged though. The hard work matters as well. This book is about finding the areas where we have such upper hand and using them to our advantages. Not only everyone has these so-called “unfair advantages”, but they are unique to everyone.
They categorized the unfair advantages in 5 categories: MILES. Money, Intelligence (and insight), Location (and luck), Education (and expertise), and Status. Let’s talk about them.
If you have more money, or if you have a relative or a friend who has a lot of money, you have an unfair advantage. For launching a startup, this advantage shows up. But even outside of the startup context, the money plays a big role. They enable us to buy better resources and services that others can’t. To some extent, I believe that I had this unfair advantage because my parents could afford many education related expenses for me. I could study in a decent school and a reputed university. Many talented kids can’t afford that. You would have heard the phrase “Rich gets richer”. In a lot of ways, this is true. But only if they know how to do it. Also, if you don’t have enough money, don’t give up. This could also be a good sign. According to the authors “every disadvantage can have a corresponding advantage, and vice versa”. The lack of money can also be an advantage. One of the author of this book Ash, didn’t have a lot of money. Because of that, he was all in while working on his startup. Rich people often don’t have the drive to do things that could lead them to be successful.
Intelligence and Insight
There are many types of intelligence. IQ is just one of them. This list includes IQ, emotional and social intelligence, and creative intelligence. All of these are big advantages. The authors argue for a while whether the IQ matters or not. They conclude by saying that they don’t know. But according to them (and some psychologists), believing that you can get smarter, actually makes you smarter. Similarly, social and emotional inteligence can also be improved. I find it hard though. The creativity is directly affected by our knowledge of multiple interdisciplinary streams. But anyway, the intelligence helps. So does the insight. That is the ability to make more accurate predictions either because of special skills in the domain or extra knowledge. The intelligence can also work as a disadvantage. An intelligent person would see many different paths of failures and hence might not even start.
Location and Luck
We hear a lot of people crediting their success to “being at the right place at the right time”. This is clearly an unfair advantage. Or is it? It turns out that most people are not significantly extra lucky. They just try a lot of things. And by the law of large numbers, they eventually hit something that works. Your current location can be an advantage for you. For example, it is easier to learn French if you are in France or Quebec (unless you are like me!). The people you are surrounded by are your unique advantage in terms of location. Ever wondered why a lot of startups start in silicon valley? Not just our current location, but the past location where we grew up also matters.
Education and Experties
Good education gives you a huge head start. It doesn’t guarantee you the success. But, educated people are far more likely to be successful. It doesn’t matter how you get the education or experties. Either at the university or by yourself. As long as you have the knowledge, it works for you. Going to university also helps us with other things like building network and status. This is liked to the Location and Status advantages.
This is the category where the authors included everything that they couldn’t in any of the previous category. To make a good acronym? Maybe. But anyway, status is how people see us and value us. There are many things that affect it. How wealthy we are?, which languages we speak?, our skin color, race, gender etc. While many people are trained to ignore some of those things, most people can’t. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it works against us but sometimes it works for us. But that is just one part of status. The outer status. There is more. There is something called inner status which is about how we see ourselves. I am not sure if that matters more than the outer status, but it certainly matters. One of the example for this is “Imposter syndrome”. Just like the other advantages, the status advantage is also different for different people. We need to identify parts of our status and highlight it when necessary.
The unfair advantages add up over the time and lead to more advantages. For me, access to good education lead me to admission at a reputed university. This lead to more advantages like better education and a big network of amazing students. A bit of hard work from there lead me to score high in GATE exam. Having that high score on my resume played a big part in impressing recruiters at Google. Working at Google lead to even more advantages when I applied for PhD positions. Of course, I have to work hard, but I was already a few steps ahead for all these.
In sort, we all have some unfair advantages. They are unique to each individual. But not everyone can identify them. The ones who can identify and use them, do enjoy the benefits. This also allows them to identify a good work or business partner who has the complementary advantages. So, as we learned from the movie The Incredibles, we are all special (and hence no one is). So, coming back to the original question, is life really unfair? Let me know your thoughts!
Video: The unfair advantages of Bill Gates (in Hindi with English captions)
Quote: “The world more often rewards outward signs of merit than merit itself.” — La Rochefoucauld from the book The Unfair Advantage.