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.

The Failure of the Pursuit of Happiness

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The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken—so near and yet so far—if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.

As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.

An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:

“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.”

Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism

Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy—a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it, making the pursuit of happiness a fool’s game.

“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap”

William Bennett

Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian—a social psychologist based in Melbourne—identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.

It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed—end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.”

Alain De Botton

In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that joy cannot be coveted through the pursuit of happiness, the happier we’ll be.

“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit”

Daniel Gilbert

We’re not the only one’s suffering—our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again— amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.

So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?

The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Viktor Frankl, on the pursuit of happiness

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

 Helen Keller

In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.

“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something”

Harold S. Kushner

“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

Martin E. P. Seligman

What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?

Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.

Personal Control Should Be Your Focus

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Stoic philsopher Seneca understood the importance of personal control

Philosophy has a tendency to be dry, complex, and abstract. For a heterosexual male who has little experience of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is tantamount to being faced with Helen of Troy sporting a penis. An unbounded amount of confusion ensues.

Thankfully, there’s an exception. When you consider the company that it keeps, Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. Its most famous proponents use straightforward language, and simple logic. Many of its core tenets seem desperately needed in today’s society, whose people appear riddled with anxiety and doubt.

One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if something that is outside of your control upsets you, then you’re suffering needlessly. It’s like wailing in self-pity every time the sun rises; howl all you want, it’s still going to rise. This knowledge is so common as to be a cliche, and it’s the very reason that we need to examine the idea more closely, in order to realise its power.

To be more precise, the idea can be broken into three distinct categories:

  1. What’s entirely in your control
  2. What’s partially in your control (the Stoics call these indifferents)
  3. What’s outside of your control.

The vast majority of your efforts should be based on what’s entirely in your personal control, some of your effort might be put into what’s partially in your control (i.e. what you can influence), and no thought at all should be given to what’s outside of your control.

What does this look like in the real world?

Entirely in your personal control

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. What he experienced is more horrific than anything we can imagine, and yet he was able to maintain a calm and heroic attitude. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.

In a more familiar world, if a colleague says something to intentionally piss you off, what could be worse than reacting negatively? They’ve got the result that they wanted, and you’ve become a little unhappier.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

Marcus Aurelius

You certainly can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be a calmer, happier person. Our habits are what make us.

The values that you choose to live by are just as important. This earth that we’re lucky enough to live on didn’t come with pre-written values. It’s up to each and every one of us to look into our souls and discover which values are important to us, and then to live them as best we can. Existing in this state is the most honest and fulfilling way to be.

Partially in your control

This category might be thought of as “nice to have.” If you can get whatever is in here, good for you. But if you don’t, it has slipped into the “outside of your personal control” category, and so should fail to perturb you. It’s packed with what most people strive for in their lives—being attractive, wealthy, successful, and smart; a person who people gravitate to during parties because they’re so funny and captivating. A person who other people want to be.

To the Stoics, these are welcome, but ultimately inconsequential. If you lose them, you can choose whether to bitch about it, or handle it with cool-headed equanimity. Gas leak blew your French chateau to smithereens? No big deal—it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Wife ran away with a Brad Pitt-looking motherfucker? Screw it, it’s her decision, and her loss. Happen to be a Jew living in Warsaw in the 1940’s? Your luck is awful, but you can still choose your attitude.

Outside of your control

Nothing in this category is worth getting emotional about. Instead of whinging, it’s best to just shut up and accept what’s happening. This includes any negative emotion—being sad, frustrated, or confused. Our first instinct is to escape, and by doing so we often intensify the feelings.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

We must train ourselves as masters of composure; unflappable black belts. Adversity? Hah! We laugh in its ludicrous face.

This training can only occur by encountering problems, and being mindful of yourself. Each problem that comes your way should be considered a blessing; an opportunity to fortify an iron will. Even sufferers of chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness. They’re mindful of the pain and experience it fully, but they realise that it’s wholly outside of their personal control, and that puffing themselves up about it only serves to make it more potent.

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“What did he trust in? Not in reputation, or riches, or office, but in his own strength, that is to say, in his judgments about what things are in our power and what are not. For these judgments alone are what make us free, make us immune from hindrance, raise the head of the humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich with unaverted eyes, and into the faces of tyrants. And this is what the philosopher could give; but you will not be departing with confidence, will you, but trembling about such trifles as clothes and silver plate? Wretch! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?”

Epictetus

During a time when surviving were unquestionably harder, the Stoics knew how to live a good life. We’re fortunate to have access to their wisdom. So the next time you’re bristling with rage due to some external event, act as a Stoic would, and let go of what you can’t control.