The risk of meritocracy when it comes to human needs and happiness
“They played well, they deserve to win”. “You worked really hard, you deserve this promotion”. Nothing wrong with this, is there? Most of us live in a meritocratic society, we accept and appeal to meritocracy as a regulatory mechanism for our organizational lives, family lives and social lives. There are some risks in this way of thinking, though. Let me share some thoughts.
DESERVING VS. ENTITLED
Where do we draw the line? Strictly linking success and outcomes to the effort we put in creates the risk of slipping pretty fast into a sense of entitlement. “I deserved that promotion”. So what happens when we don’t get it? We tend to feel betrayed. We tend to judge those who did get the outcome we thought we deserved. We start to create separations.
In Buddhism there’s a beautiful concept, the concept of “Complete Action” (Karma). Karma is, very simply put, a rule of cause and consequences (apologies for the over simplification of this incredibly rich concept). The outcome, or feedback (the karmic consequence), is a function of Motivation, Intention, and Skillful Execution. Any outcome is however the product of a very complex equation whose variables we can never completely ascertain nor control. Yet, thats exactly what we try to do: I executed well, I expect the positive outcome.
One of the secrets of happiness, I believe, is exactly this: focusing on what is under our control in this 'equation' (Motivation, Intention, Skillful Execution) and accept the outcomes that return, trusting that they follow logics that we cannot completely control, nor predict. This is trust. We can only influence directionality through motivation and intention, and we can only create the best possible conditions for an outcome to emerge through skillful execution.
DESERVING VS. WORTHY
As much as we like to think that merit shall be the governing rule of our lives, there is another pitfall to it. It does not apply and it is actually dangerous to apply it, when it comes to human needs. Needs are the vulnerable essence we all share. All human beings need and are worthy of love, respect, connection, empathy, compassion, trust, acceptance. Whether they deserve or not. Confusing these two concepts - merit and worthiness - brings forward societal divides.
I get it, trust me, behaviors are often the only thing we can observe from the outside. And some are appalling! In this compassion is fierce: it grants the right to a basic human worthiness without condoning the behaviors. The risk we incur when we don’t take that additional step of sensing into the humanness behind the behaviors is that we become the judges of others, we start to look at the world though the lenses of our moral and ethical standards. And in this highly regulated world, we may leave out those who don’t share the same standards or simply don’t meet our standards, we create "us" and "them".
While it may be ok, actually advisable, not to hang out every day with those whose behavior is appalling to us, while it may be ok to deny them our friendship, is it really ok to deny them our compassion? Our love? Our trust in the human nature they share with us?
As we deny those basic needs, the “undeserving” becomes “unworthy”. And that’s when disconnection creeps in.
When a mother gives love and warmth to her child after she has hit her little brother. When a lover opens his arms after horrible angry words were shouted. When we stand up and look into the eyes of those who have failed, who have hurt us, who have made a mistake and we embrace their humanity. When as human beings we stand vulnerable and defeated in front of those whose suffering we cannot even imagine and we say “I am sorry, I’m incapable of giving you something better than this just now, but I see you and I feel your sufferings”. That’s when we are finally bridging those divides, those separations. In this simple, graceful act of giving with no strings attached, of giving just because it is the good thing to do, we are re-uniting not just with others, but with other true nature.