Beware, young people of America — popular culture is not being honest with you:

Young people are told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. … You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers of housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.” — Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle. 

About meritocracy, I have a friend from some time back who has very strong views on the subject. David (not his real name) grew up under very difficult circumstances. His family was dirt poor. But he did pretty well in the genetic lottery, and was a very clever boy. Plus he was a tremendously hard worker. He got himself educated, made some investments at an early age, and built a solid middle-class life for himself and his family. David is an honest man, and I don’t know that I’ve ever known anyone with a stronger work ethic who wasn’t a workaholic. Anyway, it’s been a while since I talked with him about this stuff, but I notice from our past conversations that David has no tolerance for anyone who “makes excuses” (his word) for why they’re poor.

Before I go on, let me stress that David is not rich. He is relatively securely middle class, but seeing where he came from, he’s doing extremely well. He has a strong moral compass, and as far as I know, has lived a life of sobriety and carefulness. There’s nothing ostentatious about him. He’ll tell you that knowing what it was like to have nothing, he takes nothing for granted, and is disinclined to spend to excess. He hates debt. The important thing to remember about David is that he really did start out with nothing more than the intelligence in his head and the morals his churchgoing mother and father taught him. He is the quintessential self-made man.

And yet this is why he doesn’t have sympathy for failed strivers. He busted his ass and pulled himself out of poverty, so why can’t others? (is his thought). What David can’t see is how unusual is his intelligence and his work ethic. I wish I were as smart as he, and I really wish I were as focused on work and self-discipline as he is. David is a true outlier in these qualities. Though he is not wealthy by American standards, he completely believes that you can be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough. To be fair to him, it was that faith that he would be rewarded with financial security if he worked hard, got his education, saved his money and lived responsibly, that inspired him to do exactly that. And so far, it has worked out pretty much as he expected it to.

As much as I admire David for his achievements, I can’t get past the fact that he is so unusual, and doesn’t seem to know how unusual he is (this is in part because he is a fairly modest guy). I suspect that if David had been of average intelligence, he would have a very different story to tell today. Or if he had been raised by parents who didn’t teach him as well as he says his parents did, same deal. I say this not to belittle or to downplay David’s admirable accomplishments, but to say how they have created within him a faith in meritocracy that encourages him to blame others for their own failure to thrive. In all the years I’ve known David, I’ve never heard him blame others for his own struggles. That’s not in his character. Again, all very admirable. Please don’t misread any of this. The reason I respect David’s opinion so much is because he is not one of those people who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

I guess what frustrates me about his worldview is that it seems so unrealistic about human character, and the way that life unfolds for most people. On a much less profound level, I go round and round about this inside myself when it comes to dealing with my own weight. I am hard on myself when I’ve gained weight, because I know myself well enough to know that I’m the king of making excuses. When I’ve devoted myself to exercise and eating sensibly, I’ve lost weight; and when not, not. David would say to me, “You know that you’re capable of getting into shape, so don’t lie to yourself about all the things that won’t let you do what you know you’re able to do if you put your mind to it.” And he would be right. I’ve experienced that, so I know it’s true, and it’s why I have a lot of impatience myself with people who come up with a thousand reasons why they can’t lose the weight they want to lose.

But. But. But. I know it’s not that simple for a lot of people. I had an obese acquaintance once who overate compulsively as a neurotic reaction to fear of male attention; she had been molested as a young girl, and this was her involuntary way of protecting herself by making herself unattractive. Hers is an extreme example, obviously, but the point is you really never know what’s really going on with people that keep them from living up to an ideal. You never really know what invisible burdens they carry that they did not choose for themselves. This is why it’s so hard to know where the line is between laziness and self-indulgent excuse making, and a sense of mercy and realism on the other.

The ideology of meritocracy, though, depends on the fiction that there are no meaningful differences, in terms of nature or nurture, among us, and that we’re all starting from the same place, and have the capacities to excel equally, no matter what. It’s this ideology that can lead people to think that if you’ve failed, it must be your own fault. Sometimes it really is your own fault. It’s the must be that’s problematic.