90%. Not much.

90% of who you are has nothing to do with you. It’s an accident of birth—the time in history you were born, the country in which you were born, the gender you were born, your color and ethnicity, your parentage, and key numbers like your zip code.  Based on these bits of information alone, one can describe you on a real level. With decent probability I can say you are or are not literate. You are or aren’t vaccinated. You are or aren’t of the ruling class. You are or aren’t hungry. You can or cannot vote or own property.  You live or don’t live in a house. That’s 90%.

The other 10% is you. It doesn’t sound like much—90% is hefty, and it’s a contract made by a constellation of formidable forces well preceding your arrival. But it can be broken, particularly in America where the latitude with which you can invent your 10% is, relatively speaking, considerable. 10% of a slice of bread isn’t dinner. But 10% of human potential is an enormity.

I find people far more compelling by virtue of their 10% than their 90%. The 90% tells me about their parents. But the 10% is derivative.

The main reason that it’s hard to die of starvation in America isn’t because each American is more talented than others at not starving, but because we live where the average trash bin has more food in it than the average home of many around the world. Rob a bank and when they arrest you they’ll feed you in jail.

Many people with societally  advantageous 90%s claim some causation about their general lot. They relate to their 90% as something thoughtful. A personal design. They relate to that of others as also their calculated good stations.  I think it’s an error.

The latitude at one’s disposal to shape and play with her 10% can vary a lot. Relatively speaking, it’s not too big if today you were born in Haiti or Guatemala or a female in South Africa, where per the World Health Organization you are more likely in your lifetime to be raped than to learn how to read.  As much seems acknowledged in management in the work of Richard Florida and his assertions about place and city. But key is that even in places with little latitude, what happens to you is not really who you are.  What happens to you is who the world is.  The other stuff is you. And they’re staggeringly different, I say.

So tonight when HBO airs the poignant documentary Which Way Home about child migrants hopping trains and perilously making their way toward the U.S. from Central America or Honduras to find a better life and help their families–i.e., to do the radical act of changing their zip code–it won’t be a documentary about child migrants perilously making their way into the U.S.  It will be a documentary about people–children consumed with their 10%. They have rejected 100% of their 90%. The contract is shredded. They know not exactly with what it will be replaced. But their rejection is an enormity. Not solely a chronicling of where they came from and how poor their family is, but a comment about collective unarrested potential. What they are reaching to feel and see in the abjectness of darkness and how they do it.

This isn’t romanticism either. Most don’t make it. It’s acknowledgement of the full option set for how a story can end. The “small” weighty inputs on which whole stories can turn–literacy; water; zip codes. Groups of stories.

The 10% people. And how 90% people—in service to their own 10%—help them; I think that’s the final story. 10% of human potential warrants insisting it is.

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2 comments
  1. Julia said:

    Teri,
    I really like this entry. It is so true and a great goal-to work on changing that 10 percent that we can shape and mold. I am in that very phase now and hoping I can really shape my 10 percent!
    -Julia

    • teriabel said:

      Julia,
      Thank you. My observation is that many strenuously committed to that 10% are often simultaneously quite understated about all that they come to do with it—as you may well be.

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