But not every privilege comes from success.
For most of my life, the story I've told myself and others has been one of success against low odds. I was born in newly reborn Eastern European country that had just toppled its dictator, in a time of great hope and potential, but ripe for exploitation. State concerns were being privatized at fire sale prices, fortunes were made out of thin air, opportunity abounded for those who had just a little bit accumulated (or just one right connection).
My father, somewhat bitterly, often tells the story of those early days as a time of missed opportunity. He had the chance to acquire property at unbelievable prices, but legal and moral concerns nudged him to pass. He took the hard work road, becoming a mechanic and then bus driver and remaining a driver to this day. Having missed the chance to exploit, he became inescapably exploited.
I grew up with just enough to be okay - public school but not the best public school (you needed connections to get into that); a yearly school day trip outside the city, but not the weekslong summer camp. Somehow, things turned around in tenth grade, when I got a scholarship to finish high school abroad. That turned into a full ride to college in the US, which forked into opportunities to study abroad three times, travel, and have experiences I would have never dreamed of.
Success breeds success, and with a little bit of skill and more than a little bit of luck I parlayed those experiences into a paid internship which turned into a fairly prosperous freelance career in New York. In turn, that gave me and continues to give me the freedom to explore side projects, passion projects, a filmmaking career, hopefully a life not spent toiling in service for wages. A freedom no one in my family has had, and a freedom few people I know hold.
On the other hand, I'm not materially wealthy by any means, my proof of work is very thin, I've made no work I'm truly proud of, and I don't have any measurable industry success. But I'm keenly aware of what I do have and what I have accomplished, and against the history of my family, by any and all measures, I've made it.
When life is a snowball of accumulated achievements, it can be difficult to recognize the privileges that don't come from work, or can't be attributed to some wise decision or an inspired career choice. The story I've told myself and can easily continue to tell others can conveniently leave out factors that may have been outside my control, but certainly helped.
I'm a first-generation immigrant to the US. (And I'm white, speak great English, and most of the time am assumed to be "American".)
I'm a first-generation college alumnus of a top 10 US best college. (And I didn't have to pay a cent for it and have no debt.)
I've made choices that optimized for flexibility and career freedom. (And I was lucky to get well-paying jobs graduating in a good job market.)
This is all to say that, sure, our choices compound, and success can be seen as the accumulation of great choices. But we tend to take for granted the out of sight factors that compound on our success. And if ever we're confronted with the fact that we are in a much better place than someone else, it's easy to default to "I've earned it through hard work" when all we are aware of are the visible factors.
There are people working way harder than you are, only to earn the privilege to see another day.