How to Reach Your Full Potential

Amia Srinivasan · The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

The Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have just announced the birth of their first child, a daughter named Max. Procreation has apparently turned Zuckerberg’s thoughts towards his legacy. In ‘A letter to our daughter’ posted (where else?) on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg explains that he and Chan want their daughter to ‘grow up in a better world than ours today’. The post was ‘liked’ by more than a million people, including Melinda Gates, Shakira and Martha Stewart. In response to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s congratulations, Zuckerberg wrote that Max ‘is clearly going to be a Lean In girl!’, referring to Sandberg’s 2013 handbook for women who aspire to be CEOs.

The good news, Zuckerberg explains to his newborn, is that the world is only getting better, thanks to (what else?) technology:

While headlines often focus on what’s wrong, in many ways the world is getting better. Health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. Knowledge is growing. People are connecting. Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today.

Just imagine! What would it be like to live a life ‘dramatically better’ than that of Zuckerberg and his wife, who last year spent $100 million on 750 acres of Hawaiian paradise? (His desire for a secluded bolt-hole was duly noted by the many people who have filed, and won, lawsuits against Facebook for privacy violations and data-mining.) Despite Zuckerberg’s prediction, it isn’t clear that his daughter will be seeing much of a generational life-upgrade; the letter goes on to say that the Zuckerbergs are pledging a large chunk of Max’s inheritance – 99 per cent of their Facebook shares, currently valued at $45 billion – towards hastening the techno-utopia. At least that inheritance has been shielded from the taxman. In 2012, Facebook paid no corporate income tax in the US, and last year in the UK it paid only £4327.

The new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – not actually a charity, as many have reported, but a limited liability corporation – is dedicated to the twin goals of ‘advancing human potential’ and ‘promoting equality’ for the next generation, and will be administered by Zuckerberg himself. (To retain his control of Facebook for the foreseeable future, Zuckerberg will be giving no more than a billion annually to the initiative, at least for the next three years.)

On the first goal, ‘advancing human potential’, Zuckerberg asks us to imagine a world in which people can ‘learn and experience 100 times more than we do today’ and ‘have access to every idea, person and opportunity’. It’s not clear whether this is a philanthropic mission or Facebook’s ten-year strategy. (‘Why not both?’ I suppose Zuckerberg would say.) On the second goal, of promoting equality, Zuckerberg explains that we shouldn’t do it only for the sake of ‘justice or charity, but for the greatness of human progress’. The problem with starving children isn’t so much that they’re starving, but what they might achieve if they weren’t. So too, it seems, with racism, xenophobia and homophobia:

If you fear you’ll go to prison rather than college because of the colour of your skin, or that your family will be deported because of your legal status, or that you may be a victim of violence because of your religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, then it’s difficult to reach your full potential.

What does all this mean in practice? As an LLC, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative isn’t confined to supporting charitable work, though it has already donated to some non-profit organisations, including $20 million last month to Education Super Highway, which promises to connect all US classrooms to the internet. A recent press release clarified that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will ‘pursue its mission by funding non-profit organisations, making private investments and participating in policy debates’, with any profits ‘used to fund additional work to advance the mission’. That means the initiative can save the world without betraying Silicon Valley’s conviction that self-interest and beneficence must always go hand-in-hand.

That conviction is presumably also why Zuckerberg’s letter didn’t say the obvious thing: that he’s taking money away from his daughter because other children need it more. One of the projects featured on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Facebook page is, which works in partnership with mobile network providers to deliver internet access to the world’s poor. It has came under fire for restricting its ‘free’ access to a handful of websites, Facebook included. Though that policy has loosened somewhat, still boasts to its potential partners that 50 per cent of its users start paying for internet within 30 days. It’s an old strategy that Facebook has perfected: an addict is a lifelong consumer.


  • 16 December 2015 at 9:01pm
    ed strong says:
    The Zuckerbergs' answer to global inequality. Saving the world as a tax dodge. How about paying FB users for providing content for advertisers? How about dropping all advertising and making FB non-profitable? Socialist media?

  • 17 December 2015 at 11:27am
    MichaelJBRichards says:
    Well, let's be fair. There's nothing like your first baby to make you feel that life is full of limitless possibilities and that everyone should be as happy as you; particularly if you're in the fortunate position of being able to buy sleep and time if you want to. I've also heard rumours that there never was such a miraculous baby as one's own. So we probably shouldn't be distracted or too irritated by the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg is in the fortunate position of actually being able to get the world to pay attention to his boundless, inarticulate joy.

    And yet, and yet... None of us can tell whether someone has actually reached their full potential or not.Even if that were univocal (which, of course, it's not,) there is neither measure nor knowledge that enables us to make such a judgment.If we feel that someone has reached their full potential, than that must be a retrospective sense rather than a prospective one. It's not hard to see how Mr. Zuckerberg might have arrived at such a conclusion about himself and his acquaintance; but for other people it appears that fulfilling one's potential can be achieved merely by providing certain restricted types of equality of opportunity, especially if those types happened to be ones which chime with his business interests

    Since, however, we know the ways in which the assertion that equality of opportunity has been provided rapidly converts itself into the feeling that, if people haven't achieved, it's because they either don't want to or aren't capable of it, in which case it's perfectly all right to punish them economically and socially, our optimism at Mr. Zuckerberg's promises should probably be tempered with scepticism, at least for now.