Keys in the Sand

In the previous essay, I discussed why I believe that opportunity and tenacity go hand-in-hand in a pendular relationship, even with the disproportionate balance of the discussion going more towards “hard work.” The struggle for opportunity is a battle many thinkers and advocates alike see as a critical component of finding equity in as many arenas as possible. In a country so proud of its opportunities for millions of citizens of many backgrounds to make “something” of themselves, there’s plenty of instances where the owners and bosses of the established order limit the opportunities to their liking, and often to the detriment of those we may consider hard-working.

With that said, when my students ask me, “Mr. Vilson, how do YOU think we’re going to make it up out of here?” Here, of course, meaning the metaphorical ghettos and impoverished neighborhoods they live in, and even subconsciously, the mentalities that persist in these neighborhoods, I’d say simply, “Work hard.”

That sounds rather hypocritical that I’d perpetuate that stance even after I just told hundreds of adults online that there should be a balance. However, if we look at the context of what I might say (and have said), it falls right in line with maintaining that balance.

For many of our youth, the idea of instant gratification has become more prevalent, a huge side effect of capitalism (the merits of which I won’t explicitly debate here). Everyday, my students are exposed to images that tell them that a) if you just do x-y-z, then you’ll get on this screen in front of millions of people, b) if you want something, it’s really easy to get it, and c) you don’t need to know much about what you see because things are really as simple as they’re displayed.

To expound upon the first point, I see many of my boys gravitate towards men such as Kobe Bryant, Jay-Z, and Jamie Foxx. These three gentlemen, among plenty of others, represent some of the hottest and successful in their respective fields. Yet, all my students see is that they’ve made it on the screen or the radio, and because they make their craft look so simple, my boys are deceived by these instant snapshots delivered at them rather than the more concrete evidence of their long, sleepless nights, tireless practice, and years of disappointment and failure to get to their positions. While it’s true that many of their opportunities were fairly lucky, and some were privileged enough to know the right people and have the proper upbringing, none of the success happens without a tub of elbow grease.


Basketball courts and tabletops certainly come in abundance in my boys’ neighborhoods, and likely so does a certain level of competition. For that matter, so do get-rich-quick opportunities, illegal or otherwise. These opportunities come in abundance, and the right conditions can multiply the allure of selling drugs or buying into pyramid schemes. In spaces where they’re told that their parents work hard through a blue-collar job but their society undervalues it by only giving those workers enough to have a shabby square of an apartment, it’s easy to see why one might choose these options. The code for these occupations, thusly, is “ hustle,” because the returns on the investment come much quicker than a 9-5, but the risks involved often lead those involved to having to “run.”

From what is often the variable.

Therefore, when I tell my students that hard work and dedication is the key, I’m more implying a few counterpoints:

We’re all working towards building bigger and better opportunities and equity across this space.
We have a long way to go before we get there, but I believe we can make it happen by believing in that balance, and having some discipline in what we do there.
Most occupations worth their weight in salt can exist without that balance of tenacity and opportunity, because when the balance gets out of order, the risk becomes a factor in that occupation.

As we teeter in our imbalances, I can only hope that we as thought leaders keep these things in mind as our culture obfuscates the ideas of opportunity with what we see on the screen. Particularly with the heightened rapidity of globalization and computer engineering’s huge influence on that speed, if we don’t seek to balance this, we’ll see a wider gap that many of our communities simply can’t withstand.

Let’s not miss another opportunity here.

Mr. Vilson, who really doesn’t like case studies too much …

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Scatter Plot with One Outlier

Scatter Plot with One Outlier

I hate being a case study for success in site of the odds.

OK, maybe I don’t hate it, but I do have a problem when people always mention how my success was determined because my parent instilled a sense of diligence in academics in me, and so there was no way I would fail. My persistent practice made it possible for me to succeed, according to most. While I agree to some extent, because perfect practice makes perfect, and hard work certainly has its benefits, I strongly believe that it’s a balance of hard work and opportunity. Here’s why.

Previously, I highlighted Malcolm Gladwell’s speech at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Salt Lake City, UT. In this speech, he discusses the idea of success over time, using the example of Pablo Picasso versus Paul Cezanne, the former a model of instant success (that didn’t translate to sustained success) and the latter a model for hard work over a longer period of time. Many of the stories he spoke about never actually made it into the book Outliers, but this set a wonderful premise for the book, and it’s also a source of incredulity for how we as a society view the fantasy of hard work and success.

Let me start outright by saying that Outliers definitely highlights instances where tenacity paid off. Those of us worth our weight in salt can see many instances of those who worked extremely hard to get where they are, and their tireless efforts didn’t go unrewarded. Those people we consider overnight successes had to work really hard perfecting their craft. If these people make it look too easy, then chances are, it isn’t. Much of this goes without saying.

What really struck me about Gladwell’s book was that he balances the tenacity argument with the idea of opportunity, an idea not often discussed in this society that prides itself on “working hard.” Opportunity, in Gladwell’s opinion and mine, has LOTS to do with whether someone makes it where they do in life. Because we look at ourselves as individuals and not as a part of a whole, a synecdoche if you will, we’re prone to forget the various opportunities thrown our way that others didn’t.

Much of my educational career was a balance of hard work and opportunity. Without going too into depth, while I was cranking out good grades and showing up to school prepared, my elementary school gave me plenty of awesome opportunities. I had the best teachers in the building in my opinion, with a mother who just happened to find out about a really good small parochial school for middle school. I also had the fortune of going to the local Boys Club, where I found a cool computer club that I attended avidly when others didn’t really see anything cool in that. When I went to that school, I got great grades there, too, but people who worked as hard in different schools didn’t get some of the trips and stories of inspiration I got, or didn’t get to meet the people I did.

Even getting into college, I lucked out because my resume was strong, but my interview sucked. I had the fortune of having an interviewer who wanted to see me do well because she loved what I represented. In college, I found myself around people who didn’t work that hard, but smooth-talked their way through great grades, even as those who worked really hard got less credit for their efforts. People got job interviews on the strength of their presentation and less on their abilities. Thus, the equity of tenacity is variable.

But is this what I’m telling my students? Hell no. I’ll explain why tomorrow.

Jose, who’s been giving though to this for a good decade …