Giving merit.

There is a pervasive myth that says we live in a meritocracy and that anyone who falls short of success is lazy, lacks ambition, and is full of excuses. What bothers me isn’t so much the 1% peddling the idea that they are the job creators (demand actually creates jobs- we know this) or the upper-middle class fragmenting school funding or crying about having renters in their well-deserved neighborhood. What actually bothers me most are the people that climbed out of poverty and bask in the sweet sunshine of the public’s praise of their merit. “I studied and worked hard to get where I am.” “One day, I just got tired of living like that and made a change.” “One day, I woke up and said ‘no more excuses’.” I get why people find these statements inspiring. They allow you to focus on what you can control: your effort. It galvanizes you to think big and stay positive. That with enough motivation, you can power through anything. “The only one stopping you is yourself.” On the surface, this is pretty positive.

Unfortunately for many, if not most at the bottom, a lack of innate drive is not the problem and these messages can be somewhat toxic. To the well-achieved it is to feel as if you have some level of moral superiority over someone who clearly seems to lack ambition. To live without ambition might very well be to live without grace or the will to contribute to society. At a glance, it might seem as though there is an epidemic of apathy and mediocrity. However, while there’s no doubt complacency with mediocrity exists among the population, I believe it’s not as widespread as the number of under-achievers suggests. Just as Tolstoy wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way,” every case of poverty and failure has its unique complexities. I hear successful people describe their life obstacles as if their situation equally matches another simply because they bear the same story title. “I lost a family member too, but it actually drove me to graduate with a 4.0 and help pay my mother’s bills,” one will say to another who has lost their sibling to a traumatic accident that caused them to suffer from severe PTSD and drop out of high school.

Similarly, there are cherry picked examples of people who did in fact survive strenuous circumstances and achieved success. Those examples are sometimes used to shame anyone who was not able to surpass their hardships or traumas. All I ask, is that when we share stories of the child who escaped war or abuse, we not forget the helpers. I ask of everyone who has achieved any level of success you feel you morally deserve to take some time and count every single factor of your life that has allowed you to arrive here. The level of attention your parent(s) could afford you, the level of funding your schools received, the academic culture of your peers, your geographic location, tutoring, the acceptance of your peers, other things that contributed to your sense of self-worth/confidence/secure attachment, your teachers, the uncle who bought you a computer when you were 7, the stability of your household and upbringing, the state of your nervous system and mental health, any psychological medicine that allows you to cope, the examples and mentors available to you that gave you the belief in possibility and the desire to grow any ambition at all, the neighbor that taught you how to code or cook or play an instrument, the financial assistance available to you, the level of debt you had or did not have, the network you were able to tap into for career advancement because of the school you went to or your family’s network or some event you were able to attend, your physical health and abilities, your daily emotional support network such as a loving significant other and close friends, the number and condition of your dependents, your learnt emotional regulation that makes you more or less prone to compartmentalize life issues, your native language or fluency in another…And on and on.

This isn’t an exercise in putting yourself down or minimizing how hard you’ve worked. Acknowledging your luck shouldn’t threaten your sense of self-worth, achievement, or strength. What it SHOULD do is make you want to give back and figure out how and where best to do so. It should help you recognize that no one makes it alone and it’s time to stop perpetuating that myth. It should discourage you from the judgement of others. To take note of the hubris in assuming everyone below “lacks ambition.”

It is to everyone’s benefit that we stop telling stories of the “lone genius” and instead focus our efforts on innovation that helps everyone reach their potential. I don’t believe ambition is as rare a virtue the majority of the well-achieved make it out to be. Stop making it a moral issue and start worrying about the gifts the world is missing out on when we make people believe they are lazy, weak, and contribute nothing to society. I often think of the symphonies we’ve never heard, the discoveries that were never made, and the innovations never created by the ones that not only had ambitions and curiosity beaten out of them, but then spit on and told they never had either to begin with.

If you have kids, teach them to acknowledge help early on, and that in no way does it threaten their achievements. This will encourage the desire to give back in the course of their lives. Merit must be seen as something you return and not something from which you receive.

One last note for those that haven’t made it but are working hard to get there: Now is the time to take heavy note of all the help. And Now is the time to start building a habit of giving. Giving a dollar here and there or donating time here or there builds a habit of giving back even when you don’t have a lot to give. It ensures you don’t lose humility should you achieve wealth or success. Programs providing youth that have experienced neglect, trauma, or loss, with a pillar of stable support in the form of long-term mentorship are a great place to start. Stability in the midst of chaos is so very vital. This is just one way to give back. A wonderful resource to start with is EffectiveAltruism.org, a research project that advocates for establishing the most effective means to benefit others through evidence and reasoning. If you have a corporation or lofty means, please consider partnering with someone like FSG, an agency that helps support leaders to create large-scale social impact. By acknowledging our luck, we can uncover innovative ways to give everyone the real chance to work hard, succeed, and give back.

Stay humble. ❤

~ by Keira Dazi on December 1, 2020.

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