The Meritocracy Myth

The Myth of Meritocracy

All cultures have their myths. We have ours. The dominant myth regarding work and career runs something like this:

We live in a meritocracy where rewards go to those deserving of them. So, go to school, get good grades, find a job, work hard, and collect the rewards.

But, like many myths, this one ignores a good deal of the real world. Consider these:

  • Two people attend the same college and get the same degree with similar grades. They then go to work at two different companies. One company does well; the other crashes and burns. (This nearly happened to me.)

  • Again, two people with similar backgrounds go work at the same company, both get assigned to up-and-coming projects. Again, one project gets canceled and the other soars.

  • Or try this, two people with similar degrees graduate just six months apart. In that six months, a recession starts forcing the second person to take work well-below their trained abilities.

I’m sure you can add your own stories of missed opportunities or unfair treatment.

The myth persists because its opposite is nearly always true: Skip school, don’t learn a thing, be lazy, and your life will slide downhill. The truth is that it’s easier to sabotage our future than it is to guarantee it.

So, what should we do?

Work Smart and Hard

Employers do not evaluate us using the same measures that led to success in school. Jill Katz, founder of Assemble HR Consulting, points out that the skills we develop in school do not translate well to the work world.

School rewards us individuals; work rewards us (usually) as contributors to the larger mission. Seldom are our work projects tasks we complete alone or that live isolated from what our co-workers are doing. The most successful people I’ve worked with were those that got their own work done and made those around them more productive.

Here are a few ideas you might try (all while getting your work done):

  • Find ways to make your team or group more efficient.
  • Lend a hand to those struggling. You’ll learn more than you think and you’ll be helping the group.
  • Be the peacemaker, not the troublemaker, of your group.
  • Stay on top of your field, then share what you learn. (Be careful to do so for the benefit of others, not to show your own brilliance.)

Play the Long Game

Our careers span decades. The average person holds twelve (or more) jobs in their lifetime. People launch entirely new careers in their 40s, 50s, and even in their 60s.

The job you have now is very likely not the job you’ll always have. So, if your college roommate is flying high while you’re struggling, it’s not the end. Paths and fortunes often change.

Remember that it is easier to sabotage your future than to guarantee it. Don’t let disappointment with your present position poison you. A bad attitude or poor work may cause you to miss just the opportunity you’ve been looking for.

This is what it means to play the long game: Show up. Do your best. And keep your eyes open for new opportunity.

Enjoy the Present, Ignore the Myth

The last thing to keep in mind is that things are not always what they seem. Behind many perfect Instagram® shots are less than perfect lives. That amazing job your ex-roommate has may not be all that it seems: Their stress may through the roof and they’re hanging on by a thread. Don’t let your envy blind you to the benefits of where you’re at.

If a better opportunity comes along, take it. But nearly every job has something good by which we can grow. That’s easy to forget when you compare yourself to others, so don’t.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t live in a true meritocracy. It’s also fortunate that we don’t live in a true meritocracy. We have our good days and our less than good days. If we’re honest, we want rewards for our good days and to avoid penalties for our less-than good days.

Focusing on the present, and ignoring the myth, will put you on a path that — in most cases, over time — leads to reasonable success. You may not end up a gazillionaire, but that’s Ok. Your Life Can Be Good™.