Hate your work? Not your fault, because no one ever told you that it is the ‘WHY’ that matters, not the ‘WHAT’.

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You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

~ Steve Jobs

In my last post I covered the dark side of a merit based selection and reward system. This post is a continuation from one of the points that came up. Namely, the fact that all high performers may not be performing at their very best, simply because their motivation is money and not the work they are doing. I believe that if people are motivated to work just for the sake of enjoyment of the work itself, i.e., it excites them and feels meaningful to them, the world would definitely be a much better place to live in. It is not as easy as it sounds though. Discovering what you are passionate about is in itself a tough task; casting aside your preconceived notions of the world and working towards an end that you can not measure or even explain comprehensively to most people, that’s even tougher. This is what I want to talk about today. Why people dismiss passion as a motivator as well as a reward for their work. And, why following your passion will rid you off the misery of your daily life.

Imagine you are a young student and are known to excel in academic subjects. You score well all the time and it doesn’t even feel very difficult. Your parents are proud of  you and love to show off your accomplishments to their friends; you are the darling of your teachers’ eyes; your classmates are very friendly towards you; basically, life is good. Unfortunately, when the term results are announced you find out, to your utter dismay, that you have scored quite less than your usual standards. Understandably, you are unhappy. Not only that, your teacher calls your parents and tells them about it. You go back home and your parents discuss the issue with you. But, none of it helps. In fact, it makes things even worse because you can’t work out what went wrong. After much introspection, you figure that you are the weakest link in the chain because you messed up somewhere and didn’t even realize it. You beat yourself up about the fact that you caused all this mess and dragged your parents, teachers, and friends into it. You resolve to work harder and make sure this never happens again.

This isn’t an uncommon thing that happens to kids. But, it isn’t a bad thing either, is it? It prompts you to work hard and put in extra effort to achieve better results. By itself the incident hasn’t done any harm. But that’s the thing, you might think this is a one off incident but it isn’t. It is all part of a conditioning cycle. I’ll explain in a little more detail. What happens when the results end up worse than expected? You are surprised and in all probability, confused. Then you notice your teachers looking at you oddly or asking you what went wrong. You realize that something is amiss. Then your parents get involved. They look crestfallen because of this incident, you can sense their disappointment. Now, you realize that something is very wrong. So you try to understand – maybe you didn’t prepare well enough, maybe you weren’t paying attention in class, maybe you didn’t read the questions carefully. Slowly, you realize that it is you who must have made a mistake because everything else seems to be normal. Your confidence drops a notch. But, you decide to work hard and make up for it.

See what happened? A drop in performance led to a drop in your confidence level, your self worth.  Like I said, by itself it doesn’t do much harm. However, if this happens to you a few more times, over the course of your school years, or you see your friends undergoing this cycle, or hear about it in school, see it happen to classmates, then the message gets imprinted – a subconscious association of self worth with high performance. I am not saying this always happens in school. This was just a hypothetical situation that occurs very frequently and at various times in our life. And, as the subconscious association gets engraved deeper with every repetition, it has a profound effect on our mindset.

Human beings have a tendency to make sense of everything, by observing patterns and drawing conclusions. Everybody does it because it is one of the basic needs of human psychology, a need for certainty – to be in control of our lives. In the situation above, the case of bad performance is a departure from regular life for the student. It is something new and foreign, and very uncomfortable and undesirable due to the atmosphere of doubt and judgment it creates. It is only natural for him/her to seek to return to familiarity by becoming a high performer again. If this happens again and again, or is observed to be happening to others it is normal for the student to wonder about the factor that causes the negative situations to come about. The only logical conclusion seems to be that low performance causes discrimination and doubt, and high performance leads to appreciation and respect. As life progresses high performance is associated with all the good things in life, and slowly performing well becomes part of the identity of the person. How could it be otherwise if he/she knows from experience that love, respect, and rewards are all a consequence of high performance. Not performing well would obviously lead to doubt, discrimination, and being labeled a failure. This belief becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you do not perform well – you doubt yourself, your worthiness to be loved and respected, take all criticism as discrimination, and tell yourself you have failed – you become what you set out to avoid because you set out to avoid it. You tied your self worth with the result of your efforts. You believe that the only factor that leads to failure or succeed is you. If you succeed you take all the credit and if you fail you take all the blame. You work hard and expect the results will favor you because you have done your best. If you fail then you think that maybe your best wasn’t good enough. If you believe that, if you work hard only for positive results that you expect, then you have already set yourself up to fail.

You can analyze the reasons for failure or success by doing hundreds of case studies. You can try to make sense of what worked in the past and what didn’t, to make sure that you don’t blunder. But, none of that changes the fact that life is entrenched in randomness. Sometimes success or failure happens by chance. Any pattern or cause that you observe only seems plausible in hindsight (see the quote at the top). It is because human beings can not wrap their head around the fact that the results of their efforts are not in their control. They have to make sense of the mistake and try to correct it. It is the way you have been brought up, it is the way you have seen life pan out. However, it is not your fault. This is the point I want to make – be humble in success and gracious in failure. It is not you all the way, all the time that caused a particular result. Put your effort into any task that you do for the sake of your love and passion for it, not for the expectation of a favorable outcome. If you do that, you will find a sense of peace and happiness in your life, that people who live and die by results are incapable of experiencing. By adopting this mentality, you ensure that you can not fail. You might not get a favorable result, but it is OK because your love and passion are fueling your efforts, not your desire for any particular result. And, contrary to what most people believe (and will tell you so), this does not mean that you are consciously settling for mediocrity. If you have passion for what you are doing, and enjoy the process of doing it, over time you will inevitably excel at it. This is what will separate you from the rest. The fact that you will keep on going, inspite of failure or success, because high performance is not the end goal, the enjoyment of your work is.

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Have you sold your soul for money, lately?

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He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.
~ Benjamin Franklin

A word that strikes fear into the heart and turns us from functioning humans to blustering idiots or passive statues – failure. We should come up with a new term for it, like ‘that which shall not be tolerated’ or ‘the unspoken word’. A very common belief is that those who fail are good for nothing; those who do not measure up to a minimum standard are to be ostracized. It is part of  our society’s enculturation, so no one person can be blamed for it. It happens everywhere – teachers do not treat the misbehaving kids as well as the others, kids are encouraged by parents to mix and play with only ‘certain’ kind of children, students who fail tests (being in minority) are looked down upon by fellow students, the boss always favours the high performing employee, the high achiever becomes the family’s darling. Everywhere you look you will find an attitude of intolerance for failure, whether overt or covert, conscious or subconscious. Is it any surprise then that all of us are afraid of failing? Or that avoiding the pitfalls of failure take priority in whatever we do?

But, it is not failure that I want to talk about. It is the environment that this active avoidance and intolerance of fear thrives in – Meritocracy – the culture of rewarding the highest level of performance. While it may not be apparent on the surface, there is an ugly side to this culture. Most people aren’t aware of it, and even those who are may not want to talk about it. I certainly didn’t hear about it, not even from my parents, friends, or teachers; I found out about it on my own. If you are a strong believer in meritocracy you might want to stop reading now, unless you are broad minded enough to let your view of the world take a beating.

It all begins with the first failure. The moment you fail to live up to any of society’s millions of norms all eyes turn on you. Authority figures look upon you with doubt, your peers look with disdain, even your parents hold back their ‘unconditional’ love. It is as if you will only be acknowledged to be on equal standing with all others, deserving of their attention and respect only when you return from the forbidden forest of failure. If you have ever tasted the bitter fruits of failure, you know what I’m talking about. What everyone, including yourself, fails to realize is that everyone can not succeed at everything. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect one person to do it all. Yet, that is what we have been brought up to believe.

When you fail, the treatment you receive from those around you tells you only one thing – you have made a mistake, it is completely your fault, and you better make up for it. It changes from being a simple problem of not having the skill or knowledge to do a task, into a fight for survival of the person’s identity within the society. As damaging as it is to the person who fails, it doesn’t spare the high achievers either. In this sort of an atmosphere, the highest achiever walks away with the rewards, but there is a caveat. His or her achievement becomes the standard by which they will continue to be judged. On the surface it might seem like a good thing as it pushes them to higher achievements, but what if it the motivation for those achievements is the fear of losing the sense of identity that has been assigned to them – the high performer. Therein lies the problem with meritocracy. It seems like a fair system where people are rewarded for hard work and accomplishment, but what is the underlying reason they work hard or accomplish anything? Are they doing it because they love it, it excites and challenges them? Or are they only trying to reach the top of the pecking order in order to increase the gap between themselves and the fate of the bottom feeders – the so called failures? It is the age old debate of ‘do the ends justify the means’? The system of meritocracy answers it with a resounding YES. How could it not? After all, it is about the survival of individual identity and self worth in the society, which is the biggest threat to human beings in the absence of threats to physical existence. It is nature’s golden rule at play in the human social system – survival of the highest performer.

While you are in the education system, where failures are in the minority, you can get by without being at the very top. It is only when you enter the brutal world of corporate work culture that the situation starts to get really grim. A place that is associated with many telling phrases like ‘dog eat dog world’,  ‘the rat race’, and ‘cut throat competition’. A world which appears more glamorous than anything else because it holds the promise of anyone being able to rise to the top. A lifestyle that is more addictive than any drug as it offers the instant gratification of the payday and the weekend and makes you dependent on them by slowly crushing you into despair. The holy grail of financial stability and social status, that everyone seems to be running after. It is here that you come face to face with the hallowed appraisal / evaluation system for employees. A system that has been in place for ages and will probably outlive you. It is paraded out in all its glory as every financial year draws to a close and all the employees line up to play the game they can not win, as if lured by the pied piper of Hamelin. They say it is the fairest way to promote a culture of high performance – Bullshit! Throw down a pile of chump change and tell people that he who fights the hardest gets the largest share. Is that the definition of ‘high performance’? They aren’t actually finding what motivates the high performers, they are forcefully making money the motivation. If that is the only thing that corporations are going to hand out, what other option do you have? Do you see what they are doing? People work hard so they can earn more money. Repeat this cycle a few times and what have the consistent high performers got? Obviously, more money than rest of the people. Now, what happens when new people enter the cycle at this stage? How do they measure success? How do they tell who the best performers are? Obviously, money. What might have started out as a well intention-ed system to reward performance has morphed into the ugly status quo that the only measure of success and high performance is money. There might be high quality work being done by people, but if the intention is only the pursuit of money, I believe the system has failed the people.

If you like the work you do, or would like to get paid for doing what you like, you have got to change your view of the world and reevaluate your priorities. There are a few key things to keep in mind, if you want to escape this nightmare.

  • Never do it just for the money.
  • Do not let other people define your success.
  • Discover & pursue what truly makes you happy.
  • Focus on the process, not the results.
  • Passion comes from within; work fueled by passion needs no external motivation.
  • Work hard, and never give up.
  • Have patience and persevere; it take time.

I don’t know about you, but I reject the label of high performer that meritocracy has put on me and accept my fate as being labelled a failure for the rest of my life. I am not giving up on hard work and delivering value, but I refuse to work in a system that runs on money motivation. Let the world praise the virtues of meritocracy, I will keep my soul,thank you very much.