The 3 Cultural Lies & 5 Fallacies of Meritocracy

I recently saw David Brooks, a famous New York Times columnist and one of my favourite writers, in a Ted Talk he gave earlier this year. Was surprised that he had such strong feelings about the ‘demerits’ of meritocracy. In watching, I found the words that capture the conundrum I’m currently experiencing.

In it he mentioned three cultural lies in society today, fed to probably every living person on earth:

Lie #1 – career success is fulfilling. For someone as accomplished as Brooks, I’m taken aback that he actually deems no positive good out of his own illustrious career. What hope then for many others, including me?!

Lie #2 – our goal in life is to make ourselves happy and self-sufficient. Brooks contend that in reality, it’s those who invest in deep relationships with others that are truly happy, for they understand the hollowness of self-sufficiency and the deep-abiding value of developing meaningful relationships. Certainly, Brooks asserts, many on their deathbeds would attest to this greater value of deep relationships over self-sufficiency.

Lie #3 – meritocracy is the way to go. According to Brooks,
1. the message of meritocracy is that we are what we accomplish;
2. the myth of meritocracy is that we can earn dignity by attaching ourselves to prestigious brands;
3. the emotion of meritocracy is conditional love (ie we can earn our way to love);
4. the anthropology of meritocracy is that we’re not individuals with a soul to be purified, but merely a ‘set of skills’ to be maximised; and
5. the evil of meritocracy says that people who have achieved a little more than others, ARE actually worth a little more than others!

Those last two meritocracy fallacies in particular really hit home for me as I look at myself and Singapore’s constant narrative to ‘upskill’ and achieve greater heights. And it just can’t be that I (or anyone for that matter) was just naturally born to embrace these lies right? Nurture, and the very society we grew up in have conditioned us to these wicked traits of meritocracy, subliminally causing so many like me to place value in the wrong things and to strive towards achievements that ultimately never truly satisfy.

So hey world, listen up:

I’m not just a machine with a set of skills. I’m a human with a soul.

And just because I ‘achieve’ less by your standards, doesn’t mean I’m less worthy.

Sighhh…and yet these two fallacies (soul-less set of skills & under-achiever) have been so entrenched in me by this broader society I live in that, if I’m truly honest with myself, they explain so well why I’m in the emotional roller-coaster I’m now in! Living up to the great expectations of a secular society, a materialistic world and a “higher, further, faster baby” (thanks Captain Marvel) paradigm, which insists that my SAHD narrative is counter-culture and of a lower status and value, just smacks of bigotry and snobbishness now the more I think about it, and thanks in no small way to Brooks and what he said.

And yet I buy into these fallacies everyday! So how’s that for enlightenment eh?

Well, here’s to working these out of my system soon, before it robs me of true joy, deep relationships and abiding contentment. If not for my sake and sanity, then certainly for my family’s.

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