This work ethic, the backbone of the American Dream, is what is known as meritocracy. In a meritocracy we get out of the system what we put into it. In other words, success and everything that comes with it is distributed to those most deserving. Getting ahead is based on individual merit rather than luck or privilege. Those who work hard are rewarded with good jobs, good salaries, and a good life.
I’ve always been a believer in meritocracy. After all, this ideology means that the job goes to the best candidate, that we are the masters of our fates, and that there is an inherent sense of justice in the world. The trouble is, the world doesn’t work this way. A quick glance at our government will only prove my point. Though there are exceptions, Goliath often bests David and the bad guys win more often than we would like. Bad things happen to good people and what we get isn’t always what we deserve.
Though I’m a believer in meritocracy, I’ve known for years that what we think of meritocracy is actually a myth. What troubles me about this myth is that once we see that meritocracy often fails us, we begin to wonder if there’s any point in participating in a rigged system. Think of the wage gap. It’s disheartening, even infuriating, to know that your work and contributions are worth less than a peer’s because of your race or gender. We’re left trying to make sense of the senseless, so we work harder to try to get what we’ve earned. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it feels like we’re racing on the hamster wheel of life, running as fast as we can but not getting anywhere.
The myth of meritocracy is difficult to let go because it’s so embroiled in our lives. When meritocracy fails us, we’re often told to embrace rather than abandon the ideology. We’re told to keep trying, to try harder, or that it’ll work out next time. There’s no guarantee that this will work, but it’s easier to focus on what we can do than what we can’t, which is to change a system that doesn’t have to be fair because it makes the rules. It’s sort of like going to a casino – you may have a few successes but ultimately the house always wins.
The reason I’m writing about meritocracy is that it’s been on my mind for several weeks. There’s a lot happening in our government and the world that seems unfair. People are promoted because of wealth, status, and connections rather than their qualifications and merit. It shows that meritocracy is indeed a myth, that the pathway to success is just an illusion, that it’s all meaningless.
That said, just because something is meaningless doesn’t mean that it can’t have meaning. As I think about all this, my conscience tells me that when life seems to have lost its meaning, it’s time to make meaning. Sure, the system may not be fair and not all of us will get to be astronauts or rock stars, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the things that make us happy. We can all find ways to make our mark on the world, to make it a better place, regardless of our position or what we get out of the system.
Just because a game isn’t fair doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing. Maybe the key is to change our thinking and enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the destination.