Meritocracy is a philosophy that states power should be allocated based on skill and talent. In other words, in a meritocratic society there are winners and losers. Members of society are essentially graded on talent and skill. This principle is attractive at the surface, easy to sell, and can be a great guiding principle to developing work ethic, but there are holes in its execution at the societal level.
In his TedTalk, Alain de Button discusses challenges with meritocracy, stating:
“The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there.”
de Button goes on to argue factors like accidents, illnesses, and other random events can have a drastic impact on the grade we receive. He concludes this lack of control can be devastating, and the feeling that failure is somehow deserved culminates in anxiety, when he says:
“In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.”
In de Button’s eyes meritocracy is attractive, but he concludes that not only are there negative impacts, but implementation of the philosophy can be incredibly difficult, stating:
“The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible.”
At the societal level, I agree, grading people on skills and talents seems like an overly simplified methodology for defining success and allocating power. The difficulty of widespread implementation and associated adverse effects make it difficult to support. With this being said, the principles of meritocracy in self-reflection can be a valuable tool for reaching success.
Using this philosophy at the individual level is simple. When defining goals, strengths and skills should be emphasized, and weakness should be deemphasized. LinkedIn founder and famed investor Reid Hoffman believes every strength has an inverse weakness. In other words, very few people have strengths across the board. For example, many creative thinkers tend to be less strong operationally or many people are great in a public setting, but less so with details.This is an important idea that most fail to realize. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it is key to be aware of what they are. Understanding personal strengths and weaknesses allows for proper prioritization of focus.
Many successful entrepreneurs, investors, coaches, and leaders, believe self awareness is vital to success. Serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk is famous for “doubling down” on his strengths, and giving little focus to his weaknesses. Investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger operate Berkshire Hathaway under a principle called Circle of Competence. This principle states: Invest in what you understand, or invest in your strengths. Despite recent trends, Buffett and Munger are famous for avoiding investments in technology because it falls outside of the circle. Coaches at all levels build game plans around a team’s strengths, and do their best to mitigate weakness. Legendary investor Ray Dalio is a also a big believer in outsourcing weakness and building on your strengths. In his book “Principles,” Dalio writes “ask yourself what is your biggest weakness that stands in the way of what you want.” He goes on to recommend a strategy called “stress-testing”, where he constantly seeks out feedback on his ideas and opinions to root out the weak ones. The idea of mitigating weaknesses and focusing on strength is at the core of his belief system.
This is why the zero sum nature of meritocracy is a good tool for self-reflection. Grading ourselves allows skills to emerge and weakness to fall. Understanding and focusing on personal strengths will increase likelihood of success in all endeavors. When we understand our strengths, allow them to emerge above our weaknesses, and align them to our goals, success as it is targeted is inevitable.