A recent article, The Rewards of Being White, Male and a Rule Breaker, discusses a new study that found that entrepreneurs surveyed in comparison with other salaried workers took large risks regularly and seemed to be rewarded because of their substantially larger incomes. The article noted that nearly all of the entrepreneur subjects in the study were white men.
The article discussed how women who are aggressive risk-takers are seen as less feminine and thus penalized, and how people of color are often socialized to “fit in” and thus conditioned against risk-taking. The study quotes Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: “I think that misbehavior is very strongly correlated with and responsible for creative thought.”
One important point I think the article and the study underestimate, however, is the privilege of being able to fail and do dumb shit. One might think that all of the privileges of being male and white and the huge accompanying social and economic gains would keep us (white men) from even having to do dumb shit. It’s true, some people of immense privilege can sail through life without taking risks and enjoy a comfortable existence.
But I think some of the largest gains to be made from this privilege is the freedom to fail and do dumb shit, in other words, to take risks. Taking risks doesn’t mean being brilliant all of the time; it means making a ton of mistakes before one achieves a goal. Those who can fail over and over again with little chance of serious setback have an immense advantage over those who feel pressure to do everything right all of the time.
Those from less privileged backgrounds might be wary of taking risks for any number of reasons, including not only the ones identified above tied to race and gender, but class privilege allows one to take huge professional risks without jeopardizing one’s long-term financial stability. People of marginalized groups are often trapped between getting it right the first time or having their failure represent in the eyes of others who they are as a person or even who their group is as a group, which people might associate with widely held negative stereotypes. But of course, very few people look down on white men because of their identity when they screw up.
This privilege to fail and do dumb shit is one I’ve not used sparingly. Sometimes I feel I should get an award for being as dumb and failing as much as I have, all across the spectrum of human domains, including interpersonal, emotional, political, intellectual, financial, professional, and probably a dozen more categories I’m too dumb to remember. I’m really rather talented at it.
BUT, contrary to what you might think, I’m actually quite fortunate to have messed up so many times. Sure, some of my dumb failures have been purely a squander of time and energy. However, some of my episodes of failing dumbness have lead to discovery and opportunity in my life above and beyond what my “successes” have afforded me. The skill of learning from one’s failures is also crucial to capitalizing on the benefits of dumbness, but it often takes making a lot of mistakes before one realizes there are things to be learned from them, so in the end it still boils down to the privilege to fail.
My facetious tone might make this all seem far-fetched. But with acquaintances and close friends who are at periods of transition in their lives, I often urge them to explore new paths, especially ones that society deems as dumb and doomed to fail. I figure no one else will give them dumb advice, so I may as well. When what society expects of you is well-ironed clothes and fun on the weekends, I wish everyone had the privilege to forsake rationality and live in the castle of dumb. However, many of these friends who I’ve spoken to are not white males.
For me to urge people to be dumb like me without my being aware of my own personal privilege to be dumb is wrong. For anyone with less privilege than myself to take risks and be dumb is often to put oneself in the way of considerable danger financially, socially, professionally. If a person of color, woman, or working-class person takes a risk on something dumb and is punished severely for it, perhaps the risks were too great, and perhaps it is terribly insensitive of me to push people in this direction. Like any decent human relationship demands, one would do better to let people, privileged or not, find their own way.
To anyone with privilege, especially white males out there: like with all privilege, the solution is not to blindly abuse it or ashamedly efface it, but to mobilize it against the systems that produce privilege in the first place. There are concrete and effective steps people can make to alter the combination of all the kinds of oppression that limit people from flourishing.
Now, I’m not saying that only privileged people can be dumb and reap its benefits. Undoubtedly, billions of less privileged people are obviously failing and being as dumb as anyone else. I’m just noting that the deck is stacked and it usually takes more effort in our society to be dumb for someone less privileged and the consequences are usually graver. Such is the revolting state of things.
The mind is a terrible thing to use rationally, and its follies are surely our greatest treasures. Might we all fight for a world in which we can fail miserably together and call it freedom.