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What are you worth?

Hien Luu | Sunday, November 13, 2011

What are you worth?

First and foremost, are you relatively symmetrical?

If you don’t have looks, then at least tell me you have wit.

What about an education from a reputable institution?

What about money?

If you couldn’t check anything off, I’m afraid you’re not worth much to society.

Congratulations, however, to those who are still on the radar. Having one or more of these qualities will certainly help you in your life-long quest for social mobility. Let us further assess your market price.

If you looked good today, you probably held your head high and walked with purpose. If you looked like you just rolled out of bed, then you might have looked down while you walked, or were less willing to put yourself in the spotlight. If you donned something expensive, you might have felt more self-confident.

Did you say something astute in class today that warranted an approving nod from several students or the professor? What about in passing conversation? Did you uphold your end on small talk and display your wit?

Hopefully you did, because otherwise you would appear stupid, uninteresting or, worst of all, awkward in public.

If you are experiencing inner turmoil because you are struggling to choose between what you really want to major in and what society will take seriously, then you are not alone. It’s only natural to want the rest of the world to take your degree seriously — especially high-paying employers. You will be poor and illegitimate if you do not meet these expectations.

Quite obviously, meeting the status quo of appearance, knowledge, profession and wealth is critical if you want to amount to anything in this world.

These are the factors that sum up our self-worth and make up our value system. Within a society that reveres the beautiful, the rich, the professional and the powerful, those who do not fit the protocol required for respect are stripped of not only credibility, but also dignity.

It is this value system that, in part, serves to explain why so many — including undergraduate students — don’t see the workers that complete all the tasks that they would never do. This is why these janitors feel less worthy than “professionals.” This is why certain groups experience explicit or subliminal discrimination. This is why those who cannot afford to dress expensively feel less confident than those who can, and why those who do not follow the same eroded path toward the standard definition of success are considered social failures.

Evidently, we don’t define how we perceive ourselves — everyone else does. It is the rest of the world’s perception of us that holds weight. Who we are in other people’s eyes determines our self-worth. We define our place, then, according to an external hierarchy or social ladder.

The higher up the hierarchy one is in terms of appearance, wealth, profession, or any other factor society uses as a tool for discrimination, the greater the amount of “dignity,” “honor” and “value” granted to the individual holding that position. The higher up one is, the more one can look down on the inferior below. Conversely, the lower down one is, the less one feels deserving of the dignity and respect accorded to those above. We jump through hoops built by others in a nonsensical frenzy to meet protocol, in hopes of earning respect from the rest of the world.

What can we take away from this? If we ever catch ourselves trying to prove that we are better than someone else, justifying why someone is better than us, or judging if someone is worth our attention, we need to take a step back and reassess.

By looking at ourselves through the eyes of others or judging others based on this value system, we undermine dignity, value and diversity. This complete ignores the inherent dignity in every person and his or her contribution to the world.

This devalues what is truly essential to being a good person and living a fulfilling life. This perpetuates a system in which “diversity” is only skin-deep and acts simply as a marketing tactic. Real diversity is individuality.

The phrase “you are your own worst critic” is not always true since everyone else is the worse critic whom we perpetually seek to please. In the end, personal attributes, dreams and hopes are worth more than fulfilling others’ expectations. By actively defining ourselves and our worth, we can begin to embrace differences both within ourselves and within others.

Hien Luu can be reached at


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.