“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.” – Bertrand Russell
One of the worst developments of modern culture is the elevation of perceived equity or fairness at the cost of excellence. What gives value to something is rarity, and excellence is rare. Whether you’re in possession of some coveted material thing or you have a rare and unique skill set, the rarity of said thing is where it derives its value. In 2008 the world marveled when Michael Phelps won a record number of gold medals in Olympic swimming, but would it be such a marvelous feat if we all possessed the equivalent tools and skills required to accomplish that? Not likely. We are by nature a covetous species, and I would submit that people often want what they don’t possess, but once possessed move onto the next unattained thing.
In a recent press release, United Airlines announced that they were setting a goal that 50 percent of their pilots would be women or minorities. I don’t believe any airline passenger ever thought to themselves as their plane went down “at least my pilot is a woman?” In matters of life and death, everyone wants a meritocracy. That surgeon that is going to put you under the knife and cut open your chest cavity? Meritocracy! That engineer tasked with building the bridge you’re crossing? Meritocracy! The spotter to your sniper with the enemy at your door? Meritocracy! For a species that clings so dearly to this life, we have spent an inordinate amount of time as of late pursuing ideals antithetical to these ends. i.e. “Why aren’t you triple-masking, are you trying to kill us all?’ vs. “The important thing is that the bomb squad technician is given an opportunity; color-blindness is just adversity to overcome.”
A few years ago my household cut the cord on cable television. One of the reasons we did so is that the writing became overly politicized, unimaginative, and predictable. You may be familiar with what I am speaking of: a new-old reality television competition where every talentless participant must describe the adversity they overcame for a chance to fail on stage in front of millions of viewers. Unfortunately, it seems a byproduct of the victim culture that has overtaken this country. In every instance, actual talent takes a backseat to the subplot of overcoming adversity that in any normal era would be considered life. But hey, it’s relatable. “OMG, your boyfriend dumped you too?” This brings us back to the opening here; if every story is a feel-good story, then no story is a feel-good story. It’s the exceptional that inspires.
On a recent parent getaway, my wife and I visited a popular ski resort. As we stood in the lift line awaiting our turn to ascend the mountain we overheard the conversation the skiers behind us were holding. Two teenagers exchanged adversities and how their therapists permitted them to decline completion of their schoolwork if the alternative was committing suicide. My wife and I looked at each other and she mouthed the words “we’re doomed”. How did we as a society get to this point? In 2013, Anglea Lee Duckworth gave a TED Talk on grit and perseverance that may begin to explain how. Perhaps we didn’t impart grit?
You’ll often hear soundbites about a participation trophy society, and certainly, a part of this conversation is on disincentivizing excellence. I would argue that I never played sports as a child for a trophy at all, but rather because it was fun. The trophy as motivation is maybe missing the forest for the trees? I didn’t need a subplot of who gets a trophy, or who overcomes adversity to make the all-star team. Like a kid in the movie the Sandlot, I played youth sports for the love of the game. And when it was the bottom of the ninth with two outs, I didn’t want to be the one having to hit it out of the park to win the game. Give me a choice, and I’d put our best hitter at the plate every time. His skill set was hitting baseballs out of the park, and mine was knowing my limitations.
Life is a meritocracy. From the time you are born, you are beating back the forces of nature to stay alive. While there is always some fortune involved, you can increase your chances of success by best utilizing the skillset that you are handed. Some skills can be acquired or mastered with perseverance. Yet, delegating responsibilities to the right person is in itself a skill. Excellence is rare and it is desirable.
“Meritocracy is not a pass/fail system, but rather a system that allows each person to find their own highest attainment. There is no shame in being less than first in a particular field or endeavor – it is simply that the other person had more skills suited for that particular event. Meritocracy gives everyone the best possible chance.” – Adam Weishaupt