Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the things that we present to the world when we are faking it.

 

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification. (On a side note, it is my understanding that the famous Marsh-mellow Test has had reproducibility problems within psychology research. Maybe be skeptical about the authenticity of the results of that original study but understand what it was trying to say about us.) 

 

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

 

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t  get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show people you don’t really like how successful you have become.

 

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and material goods will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.