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.