Rethinking Notions of Success and Merit

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

If we thought the pandemic might transform American life by giving us a new appreciation for quiet evening strolls or less-booked schedules, our collective return to normal has perhaps put an end to such hopes.

In high schools across the United States, kids are back to packing their resumes, desperate to prove their worth to colleges. They’re loading up on AP courses to prove they can handle rigor. They’re training multiple times a week with club sports teams, sometimes when they should be getting ready to go to sleep. Music, dance, clubs, and every other extracurricular under the sun is treated not as an opportunity to try something new, to stretch one’s thinking, or to express oneself creatively, but as something to put in a college application….

When we look at the big picture, it seems that many millennials and members of Gen Z have been formed to pursue a narrow understanding of success: material well-being, prestige, power, and as many accomplishments as possible. While not everyone pursues this type of success, few escape the pull of meritocratic ideology that has come to dominate our culture.

While education and employment based on merit seem better than a system built on rigid social hierarchies, meritocratic ideology is also flawed. It teaches us that we must earn our sense of self-worth when our worth is actually innate and unchangeable — that our identity is what we buy or do or how others see us, rather than who we are as a person, our character and irreducible core.

Meanwhile, rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and substance abuse are rising. We are living in the most individualistic culture in human history. And it is literally killing us. As the middle class shrinks, prices rise, and a sense of precarity intensifies, we all have the temptation to double down on the pursuit of this narrow view of success. But we would be wise to remember a few things:

We don’t actually live in a meritocracy…

Disappointments are inevitable…

You are a person not a brand…

Autonomy is not freedom…

Balance is necessary. To fully flourish as a human being, we must aim to grow intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Material success can help, but it can just as easily send us sprinting in the wrong direction. We should not be pushing our bodies past their breaking points or ignoring vital relationships or making choices that leave us empty, anxious, and alone. Being attentive to our full flourishing and finding balance, as difficult as that may seem in today’s world, is critically important. This is not another goal to accomplish — it is simply a way to live.

You can read the full article here.

You can also watch Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s TED talk on the ‘tyranny of merit’ here: