Will You Be Successful If You ‘Work Hard Enough?’ 5 Problems With the Myth of Meritocracy

Businessperson is writing down potential earnings for 2016

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There are many reasons why Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric resonates with so many people, but I believe the main reason he has the power to speak so authoritatively is because his alleged business successes give him credibility.

Our society largely buys into the idea of a meritocracy, which is the theory that people become successful due to a combination of hard work and pure talent – and not due to privilege or wealth.

If we are to buy into this theory, Trump is a self-made man. It means that he became a multibillionaire and a media mogul without any help whatsoever. The problem with this theory is that Donald Trump received a huge head start when his father gave him a million dollar loan.

Herein lies the problem with the idea of meritocracy: When we believe that it’s one’s inherent value, talent, and hard work that leads to their successes, we are ignoring all of the outside help that contributed to their achievements.  

It isn’t that they don’t deserve their achievements and accolades – it’s that less fortunate people don’t receive the same opportunities to obtain these achievements and accolades.

While I would love to spend the remainder of this article criticizing Trump (and I mean I would really love to do this), what I’m trying to touch on is a larger problem. We, as a society, would rather believe in the myth of a meritocracy than to accept the reality that mediocrity can obtain tremendous success, because accepting this reality doesn’t seem fair.

There are many reasons why believing in a meritocracy is so appealing, but ultimately, the philosophy falls apart under closer examination.

Here are some reasons why it is harmful to believe in this myth.

1. It Makes People Believe That Equality Has Already Been Achieved

A meritocracy operates under the principle that it is completely up to the individual to control their own destiny.

For this principle to work, we must concede that society is a level-playing field because most individuals wouldn’t buy into the idea of a meritocracy if they knew that their lives are mostly determined by many unseen forces outside of their control. 

Every human being in the world has several things in common: We didn’t choose to be born, we didn’t choose where we were born, we didn’t necessarily choose our gender or sexual orientation, we didn’t choose what country we were born in, we didn’t choose our race, we didn’t choose our families, and we didn’t choose our economic statuses.

Since there are so many unseen factors that contribute to one’s life, we will never know for sure how and why some people strive for or achieve more success than others, and we’ll never fully grasp how much of one’s success is inherent talent or how much of it is due to the multitudes of factors that we can’t know or see.

These factors, such as race, class, and gender, put billions of people at an early disadvantage because society treats people differently based on circumstances they can’t control. This makes society inherently unfair.     

Since we can’t fully grasp the multitudes of these imperceptible factors, it is much simpler to accept the concept that some people are inherently better than others.

It certainly simplifies life and discourages people from asking further questions. In essence, meritocracies give people a false sense of control.  

Since it is implied that we are ultimately in control of our own destinies, then we can stipulate that society is “fair” and should be left alone as is. We don’t have to ask ourselves where our money came from, who taught us our morals, or why we have or don’t have privileges.

We only have to worry about our individual actions which means never thinking outside of ourselves. While this line of thinking gives us a comforting sense of control, it simply isn’t true.      

Asking people to accept that they are in charge of their own destinies is asking them to believe that we’ve fixed all society’s problems.

We are expected to ignore social, economic, and racial injustices, and we are encouraged to only look inward and never outward. And in thinking that we’ve already achieved equality, it gives society an excuse to never help those in need.    

2. It Makes People Excessively Prideful  

A meritocracy gives people a strong sense of individualism and power, and it makes people think that they can achieve anything they want on their own. The problem is, when evidence contradicts these ideas, many people tend to feel like it is a direct attack on their pride.

For instance, some people get very angry at the idea of “white privilege,” I believe, because accepting that white privilege exists is to accept that some people have had an unfair advantage.

For these people, admitting that they received undeserved help is a huge blow to their egos.

I have had similar feelings of pridefulness in the past when I was booked on comedy shows because I bring “diversity.” This used to insult me because I wanted to feel like I earned everything without “outside help.” I learned over time that it was mostly my pride that prevented me from accepting these gigs.

While I still dislike that they were using me as a token minority on their shows, I’ve learned to accept that this is their problem, but I personally have no problem with accepting a little bit of help if it means I can get my foot in the door.

I believe that it would’ve been completely acceptable for me to reject these gigs because I didn’t want to be a token. However, that’s not why I rejected these shows.

I declined due to my pride, which is much different. I wrongly placed my inherent value in how much I can achieve on my own

In doing so, I was ignoring many outside factors, namely that I am treated extremely unfairly in other instances of my life. I realized that accepting a little bit of help in no way diminishes my accomplishments. I can turn down the gig if I feel like it is directly condescending, but it shouldn’t be due to feeling too “proud” to accept any help whatsoever.

I learned to separate the concepts of “value” and “achievement.”   

A meritocracy puts an overemphasis on autonomy which makes people place so much of their inherent value in how much they achieve, and they will fight tooth and nail to preserve the idea that they achieved everything on their own.

I believe that if people can set aside their pride and accept that they – along with everybody else in the world – have received outside help, we can have an honest discussion about what contributed to people’s successes.  

We can be more honest and analyze instances in people’s lives where they received help.  

We can accept that giving help to and receiving help from others isn’t condescending or diminishing one’s value; it is an act of compassion with the acknowledgment that we all need help sometimes.  

3. It Gives People a Toxic Sense of Entitlement

Entitlement, in and of itself, is not a harmful concept. It can actually be very empowering.  

When we teach children that they are entitled to having opinions, we teach them that their voices matter. When we teach mistreated employees that they are entitled to better working conditions, we remind them that they are human beings that deserve to be treated like people, and they are more than cogs in the machine.

However, entitlement can also be very toxic.

In a meritocracy, we empower people in the wrong ways by perpetuating the myth that you can achieve anything you want as long as you work hard enough, and this gives people false expectations and repeated disappointments.  

When people feel entitled to something that constantly eludes them, negative consequences usually follow, and some of these consequences can even be violent.

For example, someone who failed to achieve what they were striving for can blame another person for receiving a job promotion over them because that person was “lucky.” They can also become incensed thinking about how other groups are receiving what they perceive as an unfair advantage. This can lead to bitterness which can grow over time.

I believe this anger comes from a denial that society has wronged them. Accepting society’s failings is a tough pill to swallow. To them, when they don’t achieve their goals, they perceive all of their hard work was for “nothing.” 

People, in general, need to feel like their pain was for something, and they may demonstrate destructive behavior either on themselves or on others to feel like their suffering wasn’t for nothing. 

For example, in 2013, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas claiming that she didn’t get accepted into the school due to non-white students getting in due to affirmative action. 

In reality, it is much likelier that she didn’t get in because her grades weren’t good enough, as she graduated in the top 12% instead of the top 10%. 

But for Fisher – and for her supporters – the crusade against affirmative action was more of a symbolic battle against what they feel has become an unfair society.  To them, they likely feel that society was a level-playing field until people of color came along with their affirmative action and made things unfair. 

This simply isn’t true. Fisher bought into the myth that if you try hard enough, you will get everything you want, and when she didn’t get what she wanted, she used people of color as a scapegoat.

It’s much healthier to accept that sometimes, even with all the hard work you put in, you won’t get what you want. To think otherwise – that you will get anything you want if you work hard enough – is to think that you can control outcomes, which is something that no human being can do.

4. It Makes Society Results-Oriented Rather Than Process-Oriented

When people fail to achieve what they strived for and feel like their hard work was for “nothing,” it’s because meritocracies make us focus on results and instead of processes.  

A meritocracy dangles a prize – namely fame and/or fortune (the result) – in front of people and implies that if you work hard enough, you can achieve this prize. It’s also heavily implies that this prize will make you happy and is the solution to all of your problems.

It’s a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking. If someone is only focused on is the prize at the end of the road, they will ignore the entire journey they took.

This begins a vicious cycle of continuously striving to “achieve” more and never reaching that level of internal fulfillment.  

Even if people reach the destination and achieve the “prize,” they will usually still feel like something is missing because they’ll realize that the “result” didn’t give them the prosperity they thought it would give them.

If, instead, we changed our mentality to a process-oriented society, we can let go of the idea that somebody else “achieved” the prize before we did. We’d be less competitive with one another because our very existences wouldn’t be so wrapped up in achievements.

We’d be more willing to help one another because we wouldn’t feel threatened that somebody else is achieving more than we are.  

More importantly, we would enjoy the process without the expectation that there will be a prize in the end and hopefully realize that the reward is in the process itself.  

For instance, as a comedian, if I just enjoy the entire process of standup comedy, which consists of writing, traveling, and performing, then I can receive much more enjoyment just because it’s something I enjoy doing.

However, if I’m only doing comedy in the hopes that I’ll get on a talk show one day, then I ignore the process and spend most of my time being miserable until I achieve that goal. This kind of mindset is a trap.

5. It Makes More Fortunate People Gloss Over the Help They’ve Received

Meritocracies give more affluent people an excuse to mistreat the less fortunate.  

Their hatred of the underprivileged can be rationalized by saying, “Well, you must’ve done this to yourself,” because if we are to ignore outside forces that gives some people advantages, we must also disregard the outside forces that put people at early disadvantages.

There is an impulse when one achieves a level of fame/success/wealth to feel like they earned everything on their own while those who are less fortunate deserve their poor living conditions. After all, to them, they put in their blood, sweat, and tears to build their empires.

However, people who achieve levels of success have always had outside help even if we can’t always pinpoint where that help came from. 

Perhaps their parents knew somebody important which helped them get their foot in the door. Or maybe they weren’t as discriminated against as somebody of a different skin color/sexual orientation/gender identity.

Meritocracies give an excuse for the more fortunate people to become sore winners.

Not only do they have more resources than most people, but they also feel the need to kick others while they’re down because they, on some level, have to feel like the less fortunate got what they deserved.  

In addition to being malicious, this is also extremely dishonest. Even though it’s more comforting and ego-boosting to believe that everything you’ve ever achieved was due to talent, the truth is, networking, in many instances, even more important.

Who you know is so important and is glossed over by many people because they don’t realize how helpful it actually is to know people who are on the inside.

Many people who are wealthy knew other wealthy people or other wealthy families at a very young age. If you are in the sphere of someone that has influence, or if someone you know knows somebody important, that means that somewhere along the line, there was nepotism involved.  

I think that we should be honest about where somebody achieved their successes, and we need to admit that many wealthy and successful people were extremely lucky to know the right people.

***

Even though it’s alluring to believe in a meritocracy, it’s beneficial for everyone to dismantle this myth. It would make society less angry, less fixated on achievement, and more compassionate.  

Wealthy people will realize that since they received help, they can “give back.”

We can depersonalize our successes and failures and begin working with one another. We could realize that we are all in this together.

Robin Tran is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a standup comedian and blogger, and she holds a BA in English from UC Irvine. In early 2015, Robin came out as transgender woman and has written about her firsthand experiences ever since. She has performed at the Improv, Mad House Comedy Club, and the Comedy Palace, and her articles have been published in xoJane and Time.com.