Monday, March 23, 2015

Rising above merit

Meritocracy is a great idea to build a society around. It upholds the ideal of equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of social background; ethnicity; creed; or any other impediment that might hold an individual back from doing better in life. Our country is built on the idea of Meritocracy. Those who prove they can, deserve the biggest rewards is what we believe. Unfortunately for us, that's not how Meritocracy works. I'm not saying that our version of Meritocracy doesn't work, I'm saying that the mechanic of a meritocracy in general does not work the way we think (or wish) it would work.

The central tenet behind Meritocracy is "the best man (or woman) for the job". True. Whomever has the ability will also have a job. But no one said the job had to pay well. Meritocracy works fine in determining an individual's starting point. The transition between schooling and getting employed is certainly determined by the merit of one's academic qualifications, no question there. Entry-level requirements and starting pay can be said to follow along a merit-based scale. So it's no lie to tell the kids to study hard to get a good [entry-level] job.

But once in a job, merit is acquired by meeting job requirements, and sometimes taking up higher education is part and parcel of those job requirements at higher levels. So far, that's what we do understand of how Meritocracy works. What we haven't quite grasped yet is that being competent in one's job is not commensurate with the expected rewards that go with it. So when we berate our overwhelmingly well-paid top policy-makers for not being competent at solving the problems they are being paid to solve, what we fail to comprehend is that they are not actually being paid to solve those problems.

Let's talk about 'competence' first. Being competent means to do one's job well. It's a matter of training, a little aptitude, and a whole lot of experience in order to be competent at one's job. The longer one stays in a job, therefore, the more likely one will become increasingly competent in it. This is especially true if the job is a safe, normal job that many other people are doing and thus it is easy to benchmark one's 'competence' against an industry average. If the job we are competent in is a job many other people are also doing, that's a job that isn't likely to be well-paid because everybody's doing the same thing.

So how do some "lucky" people wind up with the jobs we know are better paying? The better paying jobs are the ones that have few common equivalents. These are the jobs that shoulder huge risks, or are so incredibly difficult that no one knows how to do them properly -- or what 'properly' even means in this context. At these levels, people are rewarded, not because they are competent but because they are willing to take on those risks. We're talking about the risk of epic failure; of losing big and committing career suicide; of facing daily public ridicule and disparagement; of losing fortunes, family reputations and possibly their personal freedom if their failure is somehow interpreted as a criminal act; of letting down lots of people who depend on their continued success (which no one has guaranteed). In short, these people are not being paid for being competent, but for their gumption and audacity to take on these risks which we ordinary folk would never dare to even consider.

Ironically, while the top paying jobs are the jobs we prefer not to do, the least paying jobs are also jobs we would rather not do. The "sandwich class" is stuck being competent in our little fish-bowl world.

It's easy to be competent swimming in a little fish bowl, not so if we choose to swim in the ocean. There is potential for much reward out there in the ocean, but it's safer in our fish bowl where we get three square meals a day -- that's it. Maybe we are so competent we can actually solve those big problems we complain about every day, but unless we are willing to take that plunge from frying-pan into fire, don't count on those well-paid people to solve them for us. It really isn't their job to do so.

In short, the way to the best rewards in a Meritocracy is to say "yes, I'll do it!" and take responsibility in situations we have absolutely no experience in; to tackle problems no one (not even ourselves) knows how to solve; and to basically make people believe the impossible can happen. If we don't get it right, or if we screw up, say we are learning from our mistakes and we'll do better next time. It's either that or face the consequences and die.

The Meritocracy our society is today was envisioned by our late former PM, Mr Lee. We are fortunate that when he stepped up to the plate, he faced the impossible and made it happen. Although we paid him well for his efforts, we all firmly believe that he didn't do it for the money. His life was exemplary -- someone who made huge waves abroad, yet kept a humble, frugal, incorruptible personal life at home. He did what he had to because he believed in us. He fought for us; played hard-ball for us; he WAS us to the end.

With his passing, the mantle has firmly fallen on us, the next generation to continue where the previous generation has left us. Now we will we find out if our generation is made of the quality of steel he and his generation were made of. Will we discover that the meritocratic state that hems us in and determines how we are to live does not actually define us? Like him, can we rise above Merit and just do what needs to be done, do whatever it takes because the bigger picture means more to us than our individual whims and fancies? I don't know, but I will say that Mr Lee was an extraordinary gentleman, and  -- I hope -- the likes of whom we will see again in this present generation.