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charlotte thaarup on meritocracy

On Meritocracy and Critical Thinking Post Covid-19

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Have you felt a little like life has been on hold, waiting for the new normal? But also wondering what the new normal might look like? And whether there even will be one?

If you are young and starting out, your ideas about how life was going to be might have been seriously shaken. If you thought you had job security, you might have been proven wrong.

My little business went from booked out, to nothing. At the same time there seemed to be major changes in all domains of my life – life changed radically in a couple of days.

For some this time has been a blessing. If you are in a good relationship, in good health and financially independent then it is likely you have enjoyed this time. For many others, however, there has been enormous uncertainty and intense stress.

Our brains are predicting machines; they are designed to download experiences so that we do not repeat the unpleasant and dangerous but so that we repeat and remember where and how to get the good stuff. This means that our brains download all of the implicit assumptions, not just of our families and close contacts, but also of our culture.

On top of that, our brains are designed to function as much as possible in autopilot, as this uses the least brain energy. The intensity of the fires followed by Covid-19 made it difficult for us to predict the next challenge, and to function on autopilot. These huge events have the potential to wake us up, to see things with more clarity.

What happens when we are confronted with flawed downloads, with downloads that no longer fit our reality? When we realise that the way we understood the world to be is not how it is? When what we believe in shows itself not to be true, not to match our experience?

One such flawed download is the belief that we are in control, the delusion being that we can firmly predict anything. Covid has certainly challenged that.

There is no such thing as immaculate perception and when we are fed messages repeatedly that further feeds the idea that what we experience is a given truth, a given meaning perspective. This is why we need critical thinking so that we can continually challenge our meaning perspectives or assumptions, and understand the slippery state of the mind when it comes to confirmation biases and other biases.

Professor Alex Edmans was discussing critical thinking on Radio National’s “Big Ideas”. One of the examples he gave of confirmation bias was Simon Sinek’s view that as long as you have a clear “why” then you will be successful. To illustrate this, Sinek tells of Apple’s strong commitment to their “why”, their vision. According to Edmans, Apple actually never had a clearly articulated “why” and there is no evidence whatsoever that this is what made Apple successful. Rather the success could be down to so many elements: a very bright leader, a well-connected leader, the right timing, the right place, the right people and so on.

Why does the message appeal to us? And it does! Sinek has had huge success with his writing. The reason given by Edmans was that we are all able to do the “why”, and this gives us hope.

The problem is that even with the best “why” we are not all going to be great successes. This means that failure tends to become personalised, seen as due to a lack of commitment, focus or just personal inadequacy. From here we miss that we live in a system which is so skewed that there are more men named “Andrew” leading top 500 Fortune companies than there are women. We miss biases that play a huge role in who gets top positions, and we miss that “success” is certainly not based in merit. In other words, it is not an equal playing field. Yet meritocracy tells us that it is.

Dr Daniel Markovits has written a book called “The Meritocracy Trap” and his point is that “meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win”. The message of meritocracy is that when you work hard and smart and deal proactively with challenges, then you will be successful.

We are fed the message of meritocracy on a daily basis, our TV series are full of these messages, our heroes are those who came from disadvantage yet made it. The reality is that this happens less and less often as our systems increasingly become less and less committed to equality. If you are born into disadvantage, the challenges in getting to university or having resources to start a business are becoming larger and larger.

The post-Covid period has the potential to challenge our ideas and perceptions but we need to dig deep, we need to get to the underlying assumptions of our society and ourselves. While doing so we hold ourselves in tenderness, in kind curiosity as we free-fall into knowing that we don’t know anything. We may know how to make a cup of tea and build a house, but why we are here, what it is about, we know nothing.

You might be wondering what the link with mindfulness is? Mindfulness is all about getting to know the mind. And the fourth element of mindfulness after mindfulness of the body, feelings and thoughts is focusing on the bigger picture. Seeing the deeper and bigger patterns, and therefore piercing our deeper delusions and unravelling our foundations till we get to a place where we realise nothing is given, all there is is a little life with the potential of love.

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