If we thought the pandemic might transform American life by giving us a new appreciation for quiet evening strolls or less-booked schedules, our collective return to normal has perhaps put an end to such hopes.
In high schools across the United States, kids are back to packing their resumes, desperate to prove their worth to colleges. They’re loading up on AP courses to prove they can handle rigor. They’re training multiple times a week with club sports teams, sometimes when they should be getting ready to go to sleep. Music, dance, clubs, and every other extracurricular under the sun is treated not as an opportunity to try something new, to stretch one’s thinking, or to express oneself creatively, but as something to put in a college application.
Once they get to college, students still feel the need to stand out, make the right connections, get the perfect internship, and keep building those resumes. Classmates can be viewed as competitors rather than contributors to a common intellectual task. Romantic interest can seem like a distraction, better set aside for hookups, so that autonomy and focus remain paramount.
When we look at the big picture, it seems that many millennials and members of Gen Z have been formed to pursue a narrow understanding of success: material well-being, prestige, power, and as many accomplishments as possible. While not everyone pursues this type of success, few escape the pull of meritocratic ideology that has come to dominate our culture.
While education and employment based on merit seem better than a system built on rigid social hierarchies, meritocratic ideology is also flawed. It teaches us that we must earn our sense of self-worth when our worth is actually innate and unchangeable — that our identity is what we buy or do or how others see us, rather than who we are as a person, our character and irreducible core.
Meanwhile, rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and substance abuse are rising. We are living in the most individualistic culture in human history. And it is literally killing us. As the middle class shrinks, prices rise, and a sense of precarity intensifies, we all have the temptation to double down on the pursuit of this narrow view of success. But we would be wise to remember a few things:
We don’t actually live in a meritocracy.
If you’ve already hit the job market, this has likely become clear. You have seen the role of luck, arbitrariness, and privilege. You know brilliant people in underpaid, unfulfilling jobs and blowhards in positions of power, despite having no business being there. This does not mean that we should not strive for excellence or have any ambition. But it should put our aspirations in perspective. If we are riding high, we might feel invulnerable, but no one is. Seeing how flawed our supposed meritocracy is should invite humility, gratitude, and a sense of responsibility, particularly to the vulnerable.
Disappointments are inevitable.
Meritocracy often makes people afraid of making mistakes or losing face. This contributes to the general anxiety that is becoming pervasive in our society. It pushes people away from being creative and daring. But no one lives a perfect life. Covid demonstrated how precarious life is for everyone. Success in our careers may take more turns than expected or we might set aside some goals for higher aims — and that’s OK. Mistakes and disappointments don’t define a person. If we recognize our own worth as a person and value authenticity over image, they can sometimes offer opportunities for growth, rather than simply bringing shame and fear.
You are a person not a brand.
Be authentic. Be a person. As Tish Harrison Warren recently explained, “To reduce ourselves to brands…is to do violence to our personhood. We turn ourselves into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved.” If we feel alienated and lonely, unknown and unloved, something major is wrong. There is a void that cannot be filled with material goods, praise at work, or chemical happiness. Fixing it starts with being secure in who we are. That allows for the vulnerability and intimacy required in real relationships. We have been habituated to seek a life that looks good on paper or to have an army of adoring followers online, but real life is better. And we can only flourish in real life by keeping it real.
Autonomy is not freedom.
Kevin O'Leary of Shark Tank recently tweeted: “You may lose your wife, you may lose your dog, your mother may hate you. None of those things matter. What matters is that you achieve success and become free. Then you can do whatever you like.” This is so myopic, a part of me thinks (or hopes?) he must be kidding. It really demonstrates the dead end of relentlessly pursuing career success alone: you have the license to do whatever you feel like — but without relationships, meaning, and purpose, what good is that?
We depend on others to flourish, and they depend on us. Being dependent on others does not diminish our dignity or worth. It is not a sign of weakness, but of living an authentic human life. Living in freedom means embracing and fulfilling responsibilities — to ourselves, our loved ones, and broader communities.
Balance is necessary.
To fully flourish as a human being, we must aim to grow intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Material success can help, but it can just as easily send us sprinting in the wrong direction. We should not be pushing our bodies past their breaking points or ignoring vital relationships or making choices that leave us empty, anxious, and alone. Being attentive to our full flourishing and finding balance, as difficult as that may seem in today’s world, is critically important. This is not another goal to accomplish — it is simply a way to live.