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Fruitful Success

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It's OK to be good enough

Meritocracy, in principle, is a wonderful idea. Politicians throw it around all the time. People are grabbing hold of it, casting aside the old notions of a classist system for one where the hierarchies of power, money, and status should be organised not by those with connections or breeding, but by the best qualified. Regardless of their social standing or background.

People like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are the new meritocrats of the age. We see them applying drive and vision, of making all the seemingly right choices, to become the titans that they are now. We follow our celebrities on Instagram and Facebook, as they tell us that we too can be successful if we have the requisite will and ambition to do so.

These new meritocrats are the pantheon of heroes for the modern age. But where Hercules and Perseus inspired us with tales of heroism and bravery, of self sacrifice and overcoming the odds, our new heroes are invoking something else entirely.

They’re not motivating us to be better people. They’re filling us with envy and self-loathing. They stand up on their pedestals and tell us that anyone with a good idea and enough drive can achieve whatever they want.

You can be the next founder of Amazon, or Microsoft, or Apple. What are you waiting for? Get out there and achieve.

It creates in us an inner agony. Think about it for a moment. What are the chances of any of us, myself included, becoming as rich as Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates? I’ll tell you — it’s about the same as you becoming as influential and powerful as Julius Caesar.

The problem with our meritocratic society is that it doesn’t feel like you’re as unlikely to attain that sort of status as it should. When we expend all of our energies in this direction, and it doesn’t come into fruition as we expect, it leaves our sense of well being in tatters.

“I’ve put all of this effort in. I’ve struggled and striven and done all that I can, but I’ve failed. I must not be worthy of success.”

Does that sound familiar? This is part of the complexity of living in our modern society — that we are constantly told about how many opportunities there are for success, yet the reality just doesn’t match up to this.

We’re told that wherever we are, whoever we are, and whomever our parents were, we will get to where we deserve to be if we have the skill and the drive to do so.

The issue is, that if you really believe that people who are the top of their game are the ones that deserve to be there, then you must also believe that the people who are on the lowest rungs of society deserve to be down there too.

In a meritocratic system, failure and success become deserved and earned. This is a very new idea for most of human history. We used to believe that where people ended up was at least 50% down to divine intervention, the gods, luck, fate. Whatever you want to call it.

In ancient Rome, if things went well for you, the first thing that you’d do is sacrifice a chicken to the goddess Fortuna in thanks for directing your soul on a positive path.

In England in the Middle Ages, someone at the bottom rungs of society was called an Unfortunate. Fast forward to today. What would the same someone in the US be referred to now? A loser.

This is what happens when meritocracy dominates our sense of ideology. If life is a fair race and you’re at the back, you’re not unfortunate. You’re in last place. You’ve lost. And it has a huge impact on our sense of self worth.

The first person to properly study this was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century, when he looked at the differences between Traditional and Modern societies.

In Traditional societies, people believed in religion, were more focused on community than the individual, and worked normally in small groups, often family owned, with village life firmly rooted at the centre.

Modern societies are a very different dynamic. We work as individuals, living in huge cities, where romantic love has replaced village life as the central anchor of our being, and god is as good as dead.

Durkheim noted one striking, stark difference between Traditional and Modern societies. The suicide rate in Modern societies is 25% higher than in Traditional ones. Anywhere you care to look, people are opting out of existence at a far higher rate than they ever used to. This should come as no surprise, when you start to think about the dangers that a meritocratic ideology can bring.

If you completely discount fate, deciding instead that you are the sole author of your own destiny, and that everything that happens to you is you, then there becomes no difference between what happens to you, and who you are.

That is a psychologically punishing system. It’s ironic that we spend so much of our time and efforts on trying to win the approval and acceptance of others by pushing this façade of achievement and perfection. Because the path to true acceptance from others does not arise from a show of excellence, like a peacock displaying his feathers, but rather from an admission of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is not something that we like to talk about in a meritocratic system. How can we get to the top if we are vulnerable? How can we possibly deserve to win if we have weakness?

Acknowledging our vulnerability makes us authentic, and is somewhere that meritocracy deeply lets us down. It makes us so focused on perfection, and so enamoured with the idea that we are deserving of success, that when we fail, and fail we all shall at some point, it hits us hard.

Perhaps we should be focusing our energies more on being ourselves, rather than the avatar that modern society demands us to be so that we can “get on” and “do well”. Perhaps we should be accepting of our vulnerabilities and failings as part of who we are, and acknowledging them to both ourselves and others.

Perhaps it’s OK to just be good enough.

Wed, 19 May 21 : 12:05 : David Johnson

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