Cumulative disadvantage theory

This is a story about how I began accumulating disadvantages from the day I was born and the random occurrence that took place when my life collided with the person responsible for transforming my life forever.

Cumulative disadvantage theory says that based on the social status we are born into we will either begin a lifelong accumulation of advantages or disadvantages. This accumulation will determine the economic trajectories of our lives.

One of the problems I had, was that I could see the game I was being forced to participate in, and it was already setup for me to lose.

From fourth grade all the way through senior year of high school I didn’t read one book, complete one homework assignment, or study for one test. With all my free time I managed to get into some trouble which is when more disadvantages began to pile up.

By the time I was getting ready to finish college I was definitely not in a good place. No hope, no dreams, and no prospects for my future. Standing at the edge of college I asked myself, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

Coincidentally, the very last course I enrolled in to finish my degree was with a world-renowned higher education reformist. The course I randomly registered for ended up being the pilot version of a new type of higher ed class that the professor designed from scratch. It is called Writing as a Naturalist: Teaching the Action Horizon.

A film crew documented the entire course. This video tells the story about what we did in that course. It is wild to see myself in the video – they included a few interview clips with me in my hippy tie-dye shirt.

You just watched the moment when I discovered my purpose in the world.

The professor created a safe space for us to binge on our curiosity and satisfy our knowledge cravings. He taught me to understand how to live in the grey area of life rather than seeing everything as black and white. Shit is messy out there. Once I stopped trying make everything look nice and neat in their appropriate boxes and bins I was able to indulge in the ambiguous nature of the complex world we live in. This ability to analyze complexity using new media gives me a competitive edge. The ability to find comfort in the unknown took a lot of practice, but now it too gives me an incredible competitive edge. I learned how to acquire skills at my own pace and on an as needed basis. The list goes on. It was truly the beginning of the rest of my life.

I will never forget the moment a few days into the course – I was holding this video camera and absorbing what was happening all around me – I knew right then and there that this was the thing I had been looking for my entire life. I felt it deep in my bones.

We started by dismantling the existing higher education system so all the pieces were on the ground for us to take inventory of them. This brought us all on the same page. We all know the existing model is an incumbent institution living out its final years so parents feel good about sending their kids somewhere (regardless of whether the school is the key to the economy) and until all those faculty members have other means of earning a living it would be detrimental to our economy and likely the global economy if that mammoth were to be disrupted – they call this paradox “too big to fail”.

Over the duration of the next few weeks we would unknowingly be redesigning the education system piece by piece and only including the most important pieces. How did we gauge importance? We were grouped into four teams for the majority of the course. We grew incredibly close with one another especially those within our team. We could all feel this magical sensation that was new and like electricity. Each team was assigned a social problem that existed within the local community right outside the walls of the university. They brought in an Emmy Award winning backpack video journalist to run a professional videography bootcamp with us so that we acquired the technology and tools we needed to complete the projects. Then they (there were always four professors in the classroom to make sure the ratio of student to teacher was low) set us free into the wild. We were told that we had the next week to work with our teams to produce a three minute engaging multimedia composition that would define the social issue we had been assigned.

I learned how to use new media and technology to immerse myself in the local community in order to analyze the complexity of local social problems.

This two-week immersive learning experience completely changed the course of my life and the economic trajectory I had previously been moving towards. This professor was the first person who inspired me to a point where I felt like I could do, create, and achieve anything I could possibly imagine.

Within 90 days of finishing the two-week course I was downtown at city hall filing the incorporation papers for my first social enterprise. The mission of the organization was to bridge the gap between the students of Rutgers and the residents of New Brunswick. I couldn’t understand why the two populations didn’t work together to help one another overcome similar challenges they were facing. After graduation, I immersed myself into the project and began filming, interviewing, and documenting everything I came in contact with. The university sponsored this project of mine and granted me a private multimedia studio with editing suites for eight people. Before I could ask myself who the other seven seats were for, my mentor suggested that I start teaching other students the stuff I was out in the world learning. In October of 2009 I designed my first undergraduate syllabus for a 16 week semester and filled up my seven editing suites within a few hours of the first day I advertised the opportunity.

Here is a 1-2 minute video of my students from this initial cohort along with a few words from me at the end. I had taken the skills and framework and technology from the professor’s teachings and I applied it to in a unique way so that I would impact the lives of my students (hopefully) as the professor did for me.

The professor mentored me for about two years following the course and my graduation. I went to his studio Monday-Friday every week so I could continue to refine these new media skills he taught me. I had a small business being built. The university began hiring me for a wide range of new media projects, curriculum design, strategic marketing, and various workshops. I worked inside about 8 or 9 different departments across the disciplines of the university. I always worked with either deans, VPs, executive directors, or department chairs.

Meanwhile, I was more active than ever in my local community. I began started by filming every city council meeting and then linking up with a local activist group who was organizing the city to change the form of government. This is a short trailer from the very first independent project I ever filmed, edited, and produced on my own. This video is 3-4 minutes. The full length video is about 10 minutes.

My career was being built right in front of me. I didn’t realize it was happening at the time because there was no roadmap for accomplishing something like this. I would be the first person to experience the unique flow of the people I worked with, students I taught, young founders I mentored, and before the end of one year I had built up a marketing agency generating about $175,000/year in recurring revenue. Rewind that back to the horrible mess I found myself to be when I was on the verge of graduating 10 months prior and filled with fear that I would never have anything or be anything to anyone.

I wrote another post about this learning experience many years ago. Some the content might be redundant, but thought I would include it for ya.

Cumulative disadvantage theory is definitely legit. If I didn’t go through what I went through I don’t even want to think about where I might be right now. The accumulation of disadvantages continue to pile up in my life, but I have gotten used to that by now. I don’t imagine it will go away. I just need to make sure I stay ahead of that innovation curve just like I do in the competitive labor market.

After about two and half years working in a similar fashion that I mention above, I could feel myself hitting a plateau. I wanted to do more. Everything that was hard was now easy. I needed to continue adding skills to my stack. I asked my mentor what he thought I should look into for next steps. He said, “Have you heard of social entrepreneurship?” I hadn’t at the time, but he told me I was a walking embodiment of what it means to be a social entrepreneur.

I am not driven by short-term financial goals and that makes me powerful and dangerous to others in my field. I am driven by the never-ending desire to make sure those around me don’t have to struggle as I did growing up. I will forever be in debt to the rising generations who are at-risk of disconnecting from the economy or the education system. If I hadn’t randomly selected that one course out of the hundreds that were available I would likely be flipping hamburgers right now.

Thank you, Richard.

I went home that night and Googled “Rutgers social entrepreneurship”. The first result I found was for the Dean of Honors at Rutgers. I clicked through to his university profile and found an email address to contact him. Can you guess what I did next?

Keep reading about mentors who can change your life.


by Daniel D'Alonzo

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