When The Voice In Your Head Whispers... Meritocracy
Meritocracy sounds great when you're on the side of opportunity. But personal setbacks and systemic oppression can easily turn meritocracy into the voice of failure.
Today’s essay is a sneak peek of Work In Practice, my new 12-week training program for guides of all kinds. This program offers a toolkit for identifying the beliefs and stories that make a more sustainable relationship with work possible. If you’re a coach, consultant, manager, or trainer who works with people rethinking how they work, this is for you.
Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that both Harvard and the University of North Carolina's race-conscious admissions programs violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
Even though race was just one factor taken into consideration with other factors toward the tail end of the admissions process, six of the nine justices declared the systems didn't pass muster. This was despite the fact that both Harvard and UNC had developed their admissions processes based on guidance from other Supreme Court precedents.
Many who argue for the end of affirmative action policies claim that admissions should be based on merit—that admitting students through race-conscious systems could mean that some meritorious students may be denied admission while less-than-meritorious students will be granted admission. Setting aside the overt racism of that argument for a moment, it just doesn't reflect the facts of the case.
Specifically, at hyper-competitive Harvard, race is not considered until a student has already been vetted on merit. Because so many qualified students apply for a limited number of spots in the incoming freshman class, Harvard goes through round after round of cuts. The final cut, the one that may use race as a factor in decision-making, comes only after every other qualification for acceptance has been met.
But the concept of "merit" runs deep in American culture and politics.
The founders envisioned a form of government that wasn't based on inheritance—but was instead based on merit. The president, Congress, and various state and local governing bodies were to be made up of people who deserved to govern rather than those who had simply been born to rule.
Merit, of course, had a gender and color then—as it largely still does. Owning property was part of merit.
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Merit, in other words, functioned to exclude the vast majority of American citizens.
Over the last 250 years, the American project has been one that ostensibly expanded the definition of merit. Many more people have the right to own property, pursue a career, get an education, and participate in government today than did in 1776 or 1788.
Many Americans believe that truly anyone can succeed with the right mix of talent and hard work. In essence, they believe the United States is a meritocracy.
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"We do not share much in the U.S. culture of individualism,
except our delusions about meritocracy."
— Tressie McMillan Cottom
Whether you've heard the term before or not, you're no doubt familiar with the concept. Anyone can succeed as long as they work hard and apply themselves—that’s meritocracy. For a chunk of human history, there was no presumption of meritocracy. Instead, we were ruled by the aristocracy.
Aristocrats were born into power—but they were also presumed to be more capable of guiding society than peasants or merchants. They were smarter, more courageous, more virtuous. They didn’t just have more money or own more land. They were better than everyone else.
The aristocracy didn’t represent simply a political or financial order. It was also a social and moral order.
Of course, the idea that there would be that kind of hardline class stratification based on the luck of birth feels foreign today. We’ve been told a different story for a very long time. That story is one of opportunity, class mobility, and earning your way to the top.
It's a story that depends on a key character trait: never, ever being satisfied with what you've achieved. In this story, there is no climax and no resolution. It's all conflict—competing against ourselves, each other, and societal expectations for a bigger piece of the pie. Even when we try to disengage, the story is there, lurking just over our shoulders.
Just like aristocracy was simultaneously a political, financial, social, and moral order—so too is meritocracy.
An Origin Story
The term “meritocracy” was actually conceived as a pejorative in 1956 by sociologist Alan Fox and popularized in 1958 by another sociologist, Michael Dunlop Young, in his cutting essay about the British education system, “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” Of course, the concept is much, much older than the term.
Ancient China, Greece, and Rome each had systems whereby citizens could earn different degrees of power and privilege. The British Empire instituted a civil service program in the 17th century based on China’s system. None of these were “perfect” meritocratic systems, though. Not everyone could sit for exams, for example. Most often, women and foreigners were excluded. And the systems naturally increased the station of people who came from financial and educational privilege.
Because meritocratic systems are so likely to maintain existing social stratification, the narrative of meritocracy isn’t just that anyone can succeed. It’s also that there’s a reason people fail. If we truly live in a world where anyone who has some brains and a good work ethic can live a middle-class life, then what does that tell us about the poor? What does it tell us about the women and minorities who are regularly overlooked for promotions? What does it tell us about who deserves government support and who doesn’t?
If success is equally available to anyone, then anyone who doesn’t succeed must be inferior or defective.
While it’s certainly not the only system that impacts how we see ourselves and move through the world, it’s one that pops up in conversations about work all the time.
Meritocracy, as a narrative system, removes from possibility any other system that could impact whether or not someone succeeds.
It’s not the housing system that’s the problem; it’s the people who don’t work hard enough to afford rent. It’s not the education system that’s the problem; it’s the kids who would rather play video games than study. It’s not the healthcare system that’s the problem; it’s the people who insist on eating fast food and watching hours of TV. Meritocracy destabilizes our own lived experience by insisting that our identities don’t change the opportunities we have access to—despite every indication to the contrary.
And many of us know this. But these messages still eat away at our confidence and self-worth. These stories encourage us to work harder and harder to make up for systemic failures the system insists don’t exist. The vast majority of us—the systems thinkers, the justice-minded, the people who believe structural change is key to a better future—still hold a nugget of the meritocratic story in a small corner of our minds.
Freddie Deboer, writing for The New Inquiry, put it this way:
…we believe in meritocracy because we must. We have no vocabulary for what might possibly replace it. The normative eats the empirical: Faced with evidence that points to an unthinkable rejection of a cherished set of norms, the evidence is ignored, denigrated, or suppressed.
Just as it seems impossible to imagine a world that doesn't run on capitalism, it seems impossible to imagine an educational or corporate world that doesn't run on meritocracy—no matter how much evidence there is that our world is anything but meritocratic.
Meritocracy was the defining belief of my childhood, without a doubt.
I grew up working class. Both of my parents had taken a few college classes but never finished a degree. My mom was a seamstress. My dad was a cop.
Within that context, I was raised to believe that the key to moving up in life was to check off the right boxes. Get good grades. Ace the SAT. Go to college. Get a degree. Start a career. Boom—middle class. Writer Jill Filipovic calls this The Path. When I left college, I was astounded to learn that The Path guaranteed nothing. This was not actually how the world works. No one ever said to me, "We live in a meritocracy." But boy, did I drink that sweet, sweet turn-of-the-millennium Flavor Aid.
The assumption of meritocracy was embedded into every corner of my life.
And in many ways, it still is—even if I know better. I'm still trying to get an A in every class, a promotion after every project, an "attagirl" after every home run.
So how could we do things differently?
Typically, critiques of meritocracy aren't really about critiquing meritocracy at all.
These critiques assume that we need more meritocracy, a truer meritocracy than what we have right now. And it's these critiques that largely guide those who oppose college admissions processes, hiring practices, universal basic income, and other policies that seek to create a more equitable society. Things would be better if the smartest, hardest working, and most talented people really did rise to the top.
But I want to present an alternative analysis that I find quite compelling, that of Daniel Markovits. Markovits argues that meritocracy, even true meritocracy, breeds inequality that harms the elite, the languishing, and the disadvantaged.
Markovits argues that “snowball inequality” is the inevitable consequence of perfect meritocracy. In a perfect meritocratic system, the elite are self-reproducing. They train for super-skilled jobs, earn high incomes, put their kids into elite schools, where those kids train for super-skilled jobs, earn high incomes, and put their kids into elite schools. The cycle recurs every generation. In the process, the middle class is increasingly squeezed out of educational and employment opportunities. The languishing end up in a perpetual servant class.
Meritocracy helps to justify the plight of those who end up trampled by others’ success.
T.R. Malthus, an English economist working at the turn of the 18th century, theorized that society would always organize its growth in such a way that it produced a “surplus population.” That is, there will always be people in poverty because there will always be too many people. Marx later countered that surplus population was, instead, a tool of capitalist labor exploitation. Then, in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek, an architect of the ideology we now call neoliberalism, argued that free markets—total economic liberty—was the only way to treat people equally. The fact, then, that some rise to wealth while others fall into poverty is only proof of how unequal we are. Trying to make people equal would put us all on the ‘road to serfdom.’
While these ideas may seem distasteful to progressive ears, they are baked into media messages, textbooks, and popular culture in ways that ensure they’re burned in our brains. We’ve bought into them whole cloth. They’re part of the grand metanarrative of meritocracy. And they undoubtedly shape how we work, how we feel about ourselves, and the level of success we’ve attained.
Markovits also argues that while the elite becomes adept at deploying their time for work or work-like activities (i.e., fitness, meditation, even approach parenting as work), they have not learned how to deploy their time effectively for non-work activities. They simply don't have the skills to enjoy a lazy Sunday or pursue a hobby that isn't also a potential side hustle. Sound familiar?
Does Markovits have an alternative structure in mind for us? Sort of. And instead of being a cop-out—I think this "sort of" is highly instructional.
Markovits characterizes our current not-really-meritocratic structure as one that's highly polarized, with a mass of extreme winners on one end and a much larger mass of extreme losers on the other—and a very thin line of people in the middle. And the reason for this is that the rewards for the elite are so great, while the consequences for not being elite are so awful. Hence, why we strive.
Markovits asks to consider what it might be like to move through a world that doesn't have such a "massive skill-and-reward gap between elite workers and other workers." He explains that doesn’t mean that talented, hard-working people are denied recognition or reward. Just that there would be systems that put limits on excessive rewards, the variability in compensation or material success would be constrained. ‘Good enough’ really would be good enough to live comfortably.
...the best society is one where people get ahead by being good at things that are worth doing. And that sounds like a kind of meritocracy. On the other hand, one of the essential features of the sort of meritocracy we have today is intensive competition. … The kind of system that I want is one where social and economic life advantages are given to people who are ‘good enough’ at the thing that they’re doing to be socially useful.
We should favor ways of organizing our social and economic life so things that are socially productive are more nearly equally rewarded. And we should pick ways of making things, ways of delivering services, ways of running schooling that don’t skew achievement so far at the very top.
This sounds good, right?
Let’s have less inequality and more potential to live a good life without breaking yourself at work.
But there can be a loss aversion effect with the suggestion of this type of solution. Our meritocratic worldview often convinces us that we’re on the verge of making it big. We’re not merely ‘good enough.’ We’re the kind of elite that meritocracy was designed for. Redesigning the system to remove the more extreme rewards can feel like someone is taking something away from you—even if you never possessed it in the first place. That makes us reluctant to change—both personally and politically.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes the way we learn to think with the status quo as neoliberal psychopolitics. While an earlier version of capitalism exerted control over our bodies (biopolitics), today’s capitalism is internalized and psychologized. Neoliberal psychopolitics has naturalized values like productivity, efficiency, willpower, self-control, achievement, etc. To not align oneself with these values is almost unthinkable in the 21st century.
But the history of these values is short. Productivity and efficiency were only applied to human labor in the late-19th to early-20th centuries. Before that, they were terms that applied to land use and machines. Willpower and self-control have somewhat longer histories—becoming prized traits during the boom in ascetic Protestantism in the 17th century. Oddly enough, they were understood less as personal capabilities to be cultivated and more as gifts from God. Cultivating willpower and self-control didn't become popular until the mid-20th century.
Willpower, self-control, productivity—they don’t represent personal progress so much as the will of those who benefit from the status quo.
If traits like self-control and productivity are highly valued, then people who want to better themselves will learn how to become more productive and self-controlled. They won’t feel compelled to by an outside force. They’ll do it of their own volition.
The political power of the status quo is no longer external. Rather, it’s now the voice inside our heads. The notion of meritocracy lives on in the way we talk to ourselves.
It's not until we can replace the voice inside our heads with something gentler and kinder that we can fully disengage from this system that doesn't exist.
Changing how we work is hard work.
It’s not only about adopting new practices or adjusting your boundaries. Changing how we work requires examining the deeply held (often invisible) beliefs that make up the status quo. Without addressing those core beliefs, we end up backsliding—even when we’ve committed to change.
Starting September 20, I’m leading a small group of coaches, managers, and guides of all kinds through a 12-week exploration of our beliefs about work.
Not only will you gain a new way of looking at your own work, but you’ll also gain a unique toolkit for working with clients or team members as they shift their own relationships with work.