“Five Lies Our Culture Tells,” an opinion piece published in The Times earlier this week, is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. In it, Times contributor David Brooks argues that our culture has perpetuated what he believes are myths around what make us feel happiest and most fulfilled, like having career success, remaining autonomous and independent, finding our own truths, becoming rich, and achieving things through self-sufficiency. It’s a provocative article, and one I hope you’ll take time to read. I was especially struck by the fallacy of meritocracy as an ideal we’ve come to fully embrace, especially as it relates to self-worth and how we perceive others valuing us:
The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.
I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately — what it means to be a “high achiever” and what it means to sort of throw your hands up and say, “Eh, I’m ok not making achievement a huge focus of my life.” In case it’s not obvious, I fall into the second camp. I have never been a high achiever. I was a solid B-student all through school, and I didn’t excel at any one particular thing. Even in graduate school, I wasn’t a solid A-student (and, come on, by grad school, everyone is at least a B student). There was a brief moment in time — around ten years ago — when my advice column was especially popular. It was the most-read column on a popular website and it was syndicated on an even bigger and more popular website, so that I thought maybe I could leverage that into… I don’t know, something? My own column in a print paper, maybe? (I grew up reading Dear Abby; how cool would it be to be a sort of modern-day version of her?) A book deal? A big-deal website of my very own? Well, it’s ten years later and obviously none of that transpired. There’s no column in a print paper, no book deal, and I’d say my audience is about half the size it was at its peak, and I’m… I’m ok with that.
I have not achieved very much in the traditional sense — in the sense of what our culture values most highly. Instead of investing most of my time into chasing career goals, I’ve stayed home, raising two kids. I’ve managed to foster a small community here on DW where I hope at least some people have felt supported at a time when they needed support, entertained when they needed entertainment, and useful when they needed to feel useful. I’ve helped to foster a community in my neighborhood, too, organizing parent groups, family events, and meet-ups of different varieties. I volunteer regularly at our local public school. I don’t have a Linked-In profile — there wouldn’t be much to include on it if I did, but I’m happy.
I’ve been thinking about achievement a lot though partly because I’m 42 and I’m at the age when so many of my peers are hitting their career peaks and achieving so much. Sometimes it’s hard to hear about someone’s promotion, someone’s book deal, or someone’s huge raise and not feel that I haven’t reached my own potential – that I haven’t achieved as much as I could have by now. But that thinking is a direct result of the culture in which I live that celebrates achievement above almost everything else. It’s not a reflection of my own values, and sometimes I need to remind myself of that.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about achievement because it’s such a big topic of conversation at Jackson’s school – and in education, in general, in our country — right now. We’re hearing so much about an “achievement gap” (i.e. when a group of kids who are similar in either race or gender or socioeconomic backgrounds score much higher or much lower on standardized tests than another group of kids) and how to “address the achievement gap” (i.e. raise the lower scores to better meet those of “higher achieving kids”). But what if we are measuring achievement all wrong? (I think we are!) What if achievement isn’t measured by how high your tests scores are (or how high your salary is or how many books you sell), but instead is measured by the quality of your relationships, the time and energy you invest in building a community, how you serve others, how easily you ask for help when you need it, and how much compassion you show others?
I keep coming back to the idea of “the emotion of the meritocracy [as] conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.” Is this not a driving force for so much of the achievement (in its traditionally-understood sense) that we seek and strive for? We just want to be loved. And we mistakenly think that achievement correlates with love – that the quality and quantity of our achievements is a reflection of the quality of the love and relationships in our lives, when actually it’s the love and relationships themselves that are the achievements.
In Brooks’ article he says:
“People looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.”
I want to use this space to address that more deeply. How do we live for relationships? How do we see people in all their complexities? How – and when! — do we communicate from our depths and not our shallows? How do we be more real – with ourselves and with others? I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but I have a few ideas, and I am committed to growing and sharing my understanding of them. More to come!
In the meantime, how do you define achievement? What are some of the achievements you’re most proud of? Do you ever feel that you haven’t achieved enough yet, or that there’s so much more you want to achieve? How are your relationships a reflection of your achievement (if they are at all)?