The Myth of Meritocracy?

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” – Anonymous

One subtle thread that was present in the last post, It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too, has begun to show up elsewhere. Perhaps it is the summer heat that causes blood and other thoughts to flow more freely. Or, a distorted economy.

That thread has more to do with failed (or failing) expectations, and this time it honed in on the concept of meritocracy. In The Perils of Meritocracy the idea is professed that it is all a myth, a conclusion circulating because there are some people who don’t succeed or even get on the “mobility escalator.”

This is a puzzle, as I have both experienced meritocracy in action, and also experienced it in action.

Let me clarify: I have experienced it both in action when I was selected from amongst a group of candidates because of demonstrated skills and experience, and also in action when I was not selected, was disappointedly passed over and knocked off the moving escalator. I would like to think I subsequently demonstrated another valuable attribute, having the wisdom not to fix the blame on a lousy or non-existent system or favoritism, but to pursue the unanticipated opportunity that presented itself.

Indeed, favoritism occurs, and it very likely contributes to the Peter Principle, but not every defeat is due to bias or favoritism.

But the evidence and experiences of others, now able to be widely propagated via new technological platforms and expressed in the article, did raise my curiosity. And I took this as another opportunity – to raise the question, Why? After all, I sensed there was a nugget of truth in the discussion, just most likely buried under a cacophony of complaints and finger pointing.

The first Why: Why is the conclusion reached that the sharing of negative experiences on these new platforms has introduced an alternate notion of meritocracy: that it is yet another myth about America, similar to the notion that it is the 20% who are oppressing everyone, not the 1%?

Perhaps one clue is an assumed premise in the article,

The myths live on, though, for the same reason myths often will: They ratify a deeply held value in American culture. They allow us denizens of the current moment to hold onto one of the most beloved ideas that has animated Americans’ conception of themselves – ourselves – as a culture over the decades and centuries: that we live in a meritocracy. That our widely imitated and yet idiosyncratic take on democracy has been built, and continues to rest, on a system that ensures that talent and hard work will be rewarded. That the American dream is real, and enduring.

What means, “rewarded”? Is it attaining what we seek, what we want? Having our expectations met? Or is it having the opportunity to pursue it, regardless of the outcome? The former seems to be based more on the assumption of “Equal Success” while the latter more on “Equal Opportunity.”

One should reconsider that “… talent and hard work will be rewarded” doesn’t always mean you will win, but that you get to stay on the playing field. Or perhaps change arenas.

While the article would use these widely shared experiences to expose the idea that theoretical meritocracy is a myth, that it doesn’t exist at all, these same experiences actually shed additional light on practical meritocracy – to bring its reality into sharper focus.

Yes, it exists. And yes, it doesn’t always work perfectly. If it did, we wouldn’t have the Peter Principle to talk about. We want to believe that opportunity is equally distributed. But it’s not.

So, there are a couple of nuggets.  Once again, Why?

Perhaps it is time for a sidebar, a little excursion into Life’s Journey that everyone experiences, whether we recognize it or not.

From my experience and observations, there’s a general pattern in life that can be reduced to the following:

Skills + Recognition + Challenge + Response + Development/Practice + Demonstration +

Opportunity + Adaptability Success

  1. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is born with some innate Skills, Talents, and Gifts
  2. Sometimes an individual recognizes their own skills, talents, and gifts, but
    more often someone else will Recognize these
  3. The individual Challenges him/herself to develop the skills, talents, and gifts, or
    also more often someone else Challenges the individual to develop them
  4. There is some form of individual Response to the Challenge
  5. Time is spent in Developing and Practicing the skills, talents, and gifts
  6. The developed/developing skills, talents, and gifts are Demonstrated, observed & evaluated in action
  7. An Opportunity arises to put the skills, talents, and gifts into practice
  8. With the opportunity also arises the need to show Adaptability to a changing environment

Every Success has followed this path, but not everyone following this path ultimately reaches success. (Side note: the same path is also used by people with negative skills to achieve what is success in their eyes – becoming Takers).

And here, another Why?

It turns out there are two additional factors that, typically, are rarely taught though they might be caught. You either pick them up on your own, or you miss them.

Let me provide a hint by recasting the above path as follows, with a subtle change:

Skills  Recognition  Challenge Response Development/Practice Demonstration

Opportunity Adaptability Success

The two additional factors are hidden, if not buried, at every step in each of the bigger “s” above and they are very important. They are:

  • Choice – whether self-motivated choice based on one’s internal values, or motivated by external values from family, subculture, or others,

followed by:

  • Effort – action, either self-motivated by desire, or imposed by others.

These two are coupled; they only work when they are practiced together – if you come to a fork in the road and choose “left” but don’t go left, you are going to be at the fork a long time.

Included in Choice is also the need for a developed skill of decision-making. Without it, one is just flipping a coin.

Back to the article,

We want to believe that talent will triumph, and that hard work will be the tool of success. Which is to say: We want to believe that opportunity is evenly distributed.

While we may want to believe this, I agree that, in reality, this is not the case. Unfortunately, opportunities do not always fall randomly and equally in our laps. They become truly available only if we Recognize them and Choose to Respond to them (steps 2, 3, and 4 above).

Unfortunately, the article falls into the Either/Or trap and intentionally wanders off course adding a bit of unnecessary blame fixing, albeit second-hand,

But of course, that great escalator is far faster for some than it is for others. It is harder for some to get to in the first place than it is for others. And it’s been that way from the beginning: This country, as Walker put it, “was constructed on a racialized hierarchy.” It’s a hierarchy that remains today – one that is evident, in ways both obvious and insidious, across American culture, across the American education system, across the American housing system, across the American economy.

It is true, unfortunately, that one still encounters bias across America. This is another nugget.  But that does not mean that all or even most instances of failure to move up a ladder are due to oppression from above (be they the 20% or the 1%) or bias outside one’s control.

Not every defeat is due to bias and not every offense is due to racism. To take unfortunate examples and reframe them as the rule is the unintended consequence of fallacious Either/Or thinking.

Hollywood makes a lot of movies. Why are there no movies that follow the plot line: boy discovers skill; boy develops skill; boy pursues dream; boy gets shot down or beat up; boy goes home in defeat and dies; The End? No: boy learns; boy recovers with renewed intent; boy overcomes. (Rocky I, II, III, IV, V; Finding Forester; The Pursuit of Happyness, etc.). If meritocracy was a myth and only perseverance was needed, Hollywood has been making the wrong movies.  (To be fair, movies are now being made with female heroines going through the similar plot lines. However, it is still culturally unacceptable to shoot, beat up, bloody, blow up, or kill female roles. As said, opportunity is not equally distributed.)

Society does have the responsibility to create additional Opportunity in the first 4 steps in the path above, which is a program that Jamie Dimon describes on LinkedIn. But real impact will be achieved when Recognition and Response are instilled well before students come out of college. It must also begin much earlier, with families, clans, and tribes (subcultures) instilling appropriate values, expectations, motivation, and tenacity to pursue this path, rather than choosing to focus the blame elsewhere.

The honest truth is that within every demographic group or population, there are four distinct behavior groups:

  • The Unable – those who don’t have sufficient skills (they drew up DNA “short” somewhere; they didn’t choose this, but they are “poor” in some arena)
  • The Unwilling – those who have skills but lack motivation to develop them (the result of choice, either inherent or imposed)
  • The Unaffirmed – those who have skills, motivation, and put in the effort but came up short somewhere or sometime (maybe the wrong skills; maybe the wrong application; maybe the 2nd best candidate; maybe the victim of a “hierarchy” or favoritism. The latter should not be occurring, but it is not the only reason people fall into this group)
  • The Underappreciated – those who have skills, motivation, accomplishments, and achieve some measure of success (often with an insufficient amount of gratitude and recognition; even these must learn to recognize there will always be resistance and jealousy and develop a thicker skin and press on)

Realistically speaking, most of us probably fall into the last category (after all, why do 70% of employees dislike or hate their jobs), and, if we would admit it, we can identify different areas or skills where we would actually fall in each of the four categories at one time or another.

One Last Thing

So, Why is meritocracy accused of “not working”? One fact commonly ignored is that,

Meritocracy is applied by imperfect humans to imperfect humans in an imperfect world.

One of those imperfections is the inability, or unwillingness, to accept our share of responsibility for our contribution, no matter how small, to a resulting stressful state of events. These are the situations where we invariably have a Response – we pose one of The Two Questions,

  1. Who Did This To Me? (which leads to a poverty or victim mentality that tries to Fix the Blame), or
  2. What Can I Make of This Opportunity? (which is a forward-facing, success oriented response),

and then we apply the Big “”: once we Choose one question, we then Act on it.

But responding with one of The Two Questions is not new; it’s an age-old phenomenon that derives from the Behavior Curve, our survival instincts, and a little cultural incentive. It’s contributed to cultural upheavals since man could document them.

What to Do

Education and training might help all this, but the foundation starts even earlier. Talking to your kids about values, hard work, expectations, and race appropriately and early.

Lila MacLellan spoke to an educator about the best way to start the conversation about race with kids. For example, many well-meaning parents (most likely white parents) assume that by avoiding the topic of race, their children will grow up not “seeing” it. But psychological studies have shown that’s not true: Even small children form ideas about race (vicarious learning), often by absorbing all the wrong messages from their environment (Regression, or even Coercion, to the Cultural Mean).   All too often Cultural Means are distorted, incomplete, self-serving and self-perpetuating.

It starts internally with the values and expectations established at a young age, before school, in the home. And it is molded by the “Village” one grows up in. External programs might help, but only if they are applied on a firm foundation.

Without the intentional setting of firm foundation that looks intentionally, healthily, and realistically to opportunity, our behaviors will continue following the established pattern. The Behavior Curve shows that in a stressful situation or crisis, ~80% of people respond with the first question, “Who did This To Me?” with a not surprising outcome.   Perhaps the last nugget of truth is that the lead-in quote should more correctly be,

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep not getting what you’ve always not gotten, but always wanted.”


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Myth of Meritocracy?

  1. Carol Spradley says:

    This is a much needed discussion among, especially, younger people who often have little or no ability to do this. Employers applaud your incite!


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