How are We Standing with the Poor?

“The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.

IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.

TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”. – Nassim Taleb

When I was with Acumen Fund, we would ask ourselves: How are we standing with the poor? And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I even really knew what that meant. For the longest time, I thought it meant putting myself into another person’s perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes and “speak up” for those who didn’t have a voice. And then I came across this posting by Nassim Taleb, who separates out identity and accomplishment and really got me reevaluating my definition. It also made me realize how hard it was, as the higher up the social ladder you are, the harder it is to distinguish between identity and accomplishment, the harder it is to relate.

Standing with the poor is about looking beyond profession. Beyond awards and accomplishments. Beyond first impressions. Standing with the poor is a reminder to oneself to separate the way you look at yourself and others around you; between their accomplishments and identity. Standing with the poor is about understanding self-worth, regardless of what situation/career/social status you are in.

And at the end of the day, it all comes back to valuing human dignity.

3 thoughts on “How are We Standing with the Poor?

  1. Lina Law says:

    Self- esteem in accepting yourself, without attachment to the world definition of success is rare. Most of us are driven to equate social status with prosperity. To survive the poor has to accept their positions or they go suicidal. It’s self preservation and self realisation that if I cannot change my circumstances I choose to be accept with who I am.
    To relate I must first build my relationship with the people I am associating … like what you are saying to identify with the poor, with those who grief etc…not comparing but accepting them as human being.

  2. Beautifully written.

    Fortuitous life collisions – having never heard of Taleb’s work before, I stumbled across his books (Fooled by Randomness & Black Swan) just yesterday for the first time! Time to pick them up for a read… :)

    Thanks for this post.

    ~ H

  3. @Lina: Yes – I think the separation between the two is key. I also think it is important to understand the motivations and beliefs behind the achievements, and recognize that those also contribute to an individual’s identity.

    @Humaira: Thanks! Taleb’s work is great and Black Swan is a classic read in the financial world. I would highly recommend to start there.

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