“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’m still not sure how Muhammad found me early that Saturday morning. Waiting in line to see the Taj Mahal, I darted my eyes away from the tour guides. I wanted to explore alone.

The young student walked up next to me and I was whisked away by his stories of the glittering ivory-white marble mausoleum. “Would you like a guide?” he eventually asked. Muhammad’s three-hour tour cost a paltry $6, an uncomfortable bargain for his hustle and magic.

In America, we are told that success comes from hard work. But is meritocracy real? The word only entered the English Language sixty years ago through a satirical essay by Michael Young. Even if Muhammad and I put in the same amount of hard work from birth, I can’t shake the discomfort of knowing that we won’t have an equal chance to live the lives we want. Perhaps instead of merit, I was dealt a lucky hand.

That day with Muhammad reminds me to look beyond the myth of meritocracy — to approach life with a less entitled, more generous spirit. To pay it forward.

“What do you want to do when you graduate?” I asked Muhammad as we walked toward the mausoleum. “I want to be a teacher,” he replied.

Later that afternoon, I realized he already was one.

— Andrea Coravos