It Sucks Being Average in a Meritocracy

It Sucks Being Average in a Meritocracy 1
Image from Kidkanevil

In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.

He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.

A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.

“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”

Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy

I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.

In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.

Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.

The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.

Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.

The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.

Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.

Stop mocking stupid people

1_ZlARZfqv1GrsBKLu5ZGZBwPhoto by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Humans are diverse, and it’s a magnificent thing. Our inconsequential blue and green planet, tiny against the backdrop of an unfathomable universe, is a marvel of spectacular variety; a multi-threaded stream of colour and light, bound up in a ball of swirling, bubbling energy. The divergent nature of the universe, and the creatures within it, is what makes it beautiful and endlessly surprising.

Human intelligence is also diverse. The mind of a genius appears to travel at light speed, effortlessly skipping from one creative galaxy to the next, while at the other end of the scale, a slower person might struggle to understand a simple everyday problem. One has been blessed, and the other cursed; their natural born abilities are not of their own making. So why do people living in the West treat a lack of intelligence with such appalling ridicule and disdain? Even the most morally-inclined among us don’t hesitate to declare somebody stupid, attacking something that the target has little control over. It’s tantamount to mocking somebody for the colour of their skin, or their sex.

We can, of course, make ourselves smarter. It’s wonderful that we’re able to work hard and improve our capabilities, but this is only possible for the privileged among us. Not everyone has access to good schools and education, or an upbringing that develops a passion to pursue them. The link between poverty and educational performance makes it almost impossible for a poor person lacking in natural intelligence to stand a chance in today’s world, while the fortunate stand on the sidelines and throw rotten vegetables at them, as punishment for something completely outside of their control.

In addition to being regularly mocked, less intelligent people have an increased chance of suffering from mental illness, obesity, and heart disease. They’re also more likely to end up in prison, being drawn towards violence as a likely consequence of being derided their entire lives. It’s said that you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its elderly. The same could be said for those lacking in intelligence.

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump are supporters of a meritocratic society, the notion that those with merit deserve to climb the economic hierarchy. The idea is similar in many ways to the American Dream – work hard, and you can succeed. Gone are the days of a stale and worn-out aristocracy; advancement is open to all, regardless of the family that you were born into. But this seemingly valuable system has a dark side – if those who succeed have done so by their own merit, then those who have failed only have themselves to blame. They are, in a meritocratic society, operating within the same system as the winners, and therefore owe their low position to their own stupidity. This kind of system just serves to place poorer and less intelligent people even lower on the economic scale, while instilling the mistaken idea that they have the exact same opportunities as wealthier, smarter people. Expectations are inflated, and inevitable heartbreak ensues. Egalitarianism, while undeniably good, must respect differing intelligences and the natural hierarchies that come out of that. Capitalism relies on less intelligent people to carry out lower paid jobs.

The concept of intelligence is also a lot murkier than one might think. American psychologist Howard Gardener believes that there’s nine different types of intelligence, including interpersonal, musical, spatial, and existential. The divide isn’t between numbers and language, as many people suppose. A mechanic might be terrible at reading Shakespeare (linguistic), but an absolute gun at putting an engine together (spatial and bodily-kinesthetic). That doesn’t make the mechanic more stupid than the scholar, they just have a different skill set, and have probably chosen the careers appropriate to them. Research shows that sophisticated reasoning depends on the situation – someone can be a dunce in the stock market, and a genius at the racetrack, even though they require similar types of thinking. Stupidity isn’t black and white.

Perhaps most importantly, intelligence doesn’t equate to worth. Someone with fewer brain cells than most could be brimming with kindness, honesty and loyalty, and deserves to be treated with just as much patience and respect as everyone else. We must curb our frustration and develop a more compassionate mindset, reminding ourselves that not everyone was fortunate to be blessed with dazzling brilliance. The misinformed aren’t necessarily stupid, they just haven’t learned yet. The next time a misguided soul irritates you, remember that you may once have been in their position.

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