The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy

That’s the title of Seth Godin’s latest post, and he makes an excellent point:

Soccer and football exist in school not because there’s a trophy shortage, not because the school benefits from winning. They exist, I think, to create a learning experience. But when we bench people because they’re not naturally good, what’s the lesson?

If you get ahead for years and years because you got dealt good cards, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection and charisma and learning and the ability to not quit in precisely the right moments.

As we raised our kids, and continue to raise them, we kept competitive activities near zero. We also left their gifts mostly alone to flourish as they would, focusing instead on teaching them to compensate for their weaknesses and to be diligent in necessary things that were distasteful or didn’t come naturally.

What if we celebrated the students who regularly try the hardest, help each other the most and lead? We if we fast tracked those students, and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?

What if you got cast, tracked or made the cut because you were resilient, hard working and willing to set yourself up for a cycle of continuous improvement? Isn’t that more important than rewarding the kid who never passes but still scores a lot of goals?

Before you feature a trumpet prodigy at the jazz band concert, perhaps you could feature the kid who just won’t quit. No need to tell him he’s a great trumpet player–the fact is, none of these kids are Maynard Ferguson–just tell him the truth. Tell him that every single person who has made a career of playing the trumpet (every single one of them) did it with effort and passion, not with lips that naturally vibrate.

This is not anti-meritocratic. Society can still order itself according to the merits of its members. But what it avoids is the twisted mentality that comes from gaming the system, from confusing merit with the appearance of merit. William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep describes what is now needed to gain admittance to an Ivy League school:

Only five or six extracurricular activities? Those are slacker numbers. Does the applicant have “good rig” (academic rigor)? What about “top checks” (highest check marks in every conceivable category)? Is he or she “pointy” (insanely great at one thing)? How are his or her “PQs” (personal qualities)? Or is your child, as one committee member said of an applicant, “pretty much in the middle of the fairway”?

Amazing that they pay attention to the quantity at all, but what else can they do when faced with thousands upon thousands of applicants, year after year? And once applicants learn that the judges have been reduced to counting, what else can they be expected to do but multiply activities, top checks, PQs, no matter their value?

Long ago I gave up listening to “promising” young musical performers, because all I was hearing was pale, incompetent imitations of successful adults. Why would I want to hear the inferior imitation instead of the much better original? On the other hand, I love to hear a young one use their skills as they are to sing or play something heartfelt. Only a few months after starting to sing and play, a very young Chris made a tape on his own initiative of a few songs he had learned. I listen to it occasionally, and tear up–at his joy in making music, at his eagerness to use his skills to please his listeners.

We didn’t know then where his musical giftedness would take him. In fact, we had good reasons early on to discourage any interest in a musical career, knowing the kind of life most professional musicians are forced to live. But it ended up being a vehicle for important life lessons–do things well, show up on time, cultivate a clear-eyed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, understand that it’s not about you but the audience. Chris could have gone far further professionally if we had placed the emphasis where it usually ends up, on meritocratic success. Instead we taught him how to play the game with honor and integrity. And now he can play any game he chooses in the way it should be played.


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