Merit or Duty Part 1: What will make us happier?

In the next two posts I would like to compare two completely different preconceptions how we look at life and work. One is a western ideal, meritocracy. The other is one of the fundaments of Hinduism and Buddhism, dharma. I believe that understanding both these concepts in context is important, in order to benefit from both western and eastern wisdom. My hope being, that this understanding can bring you some peace of mind, when struggling at work.

Let’s start with meritocracy.

Meritocracy is a system of administration, a society, where appointments and responsibilities are assigned to individuals based upon their “merit”. Meritocracy was firmly established on this planet during the American revolution of 1776. The revolution called for political equality, social and economic opportunity and changed forever how status was accorded. Before the revolution, a persons opportunities in life where largely defined at birth. You were either born peasant or aristocrat, butcher or baker, business man or house wife. Meritocracy changed all that. Today we tell our kids and ourselves: Everything is possible, the world is your oyster.

My hero, Claude Nicollier

As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Seriously. Claude Nicollier, the first and last Swiss astronaut, was my hero: On the 22end of December 1977 he participated in mission STS-46 and spent 7d 23h 15m 02s on the Space Shuttle. Wow. I knew, that the training for astronauts was hard. You had to both have the analytical mind of a scientist AND not throw up on the worlds craziest roller coaster.

I did not become an astronaut. Maybe with more dedication, focus, skills and little bit of luck it would have worked out. Who knows. Everything is possible, if you believe in meritocracy. But would I be a happier human being?

Meritocracy can be a wonderful ideal. It allows us to dream. To try. To fail. To try again. But it also changes our society, our work environment, the way we look at other people and ourselves.

This can be best understood, as Alain de Botton elaborates in his book “Status Anxiety”, by thinking how we feel and behave at a class reunion.

Everyone is looking forward to meet old friends. Mostly, because it allows us to compare our lives, know where we stand, what we achieved. We all started at the same school, probably came from similar social backgrounds. Believing in the idea of “merit” is believing that you had the same opportunities in life as your class mates. Optimal conditions for compulsive envy, for anxiety.

The same effect can be observed at work. As soon as someone is promoted, given a new role and title, our believe that all is due to “merit” acts up. Even if we don’t want more responsibility, we will feel a tad smaller than the promoted colleague. As shown in the drawing above.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us, that we should detach ourselves from the fruits of our actions. But doing this is quite a challenge, if we firmly believe that we “merit” the fruits. That’s probably why, in the midsts of the battlefield of life, Krishna reminds Arjuna of his dharma, his duty: “Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior nothing is higher than a war against evil. The warrior confronted with such a choice should be pleased!”

But will it really help us to find evenness of mind at work, if we simply replace “merit” with “duty”?

Let’s explore this in the next post.

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