False Merit, Appearing Real

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

Our understanding of science and engineering gives us highly reliable ways to evaluate the merit of some natural material for certain applications. But we face many challenges when we try to evaluate the merit of people for certain situations. Many questions arise like how to decide what merit is, what are the rules, and what are we measuring?

Studying organized sports can give us many insights into the evaluation of merits. The merits in baseball used to be solely about a player’s physical attributes and batting averages. The lesson from Billy Beane, as chronicled by Michael Lewis in his book Money Ball, showed other factors should be considered. By seeing what was the true “merits,” as opposed to merely associating past performance with guesses of future performance, Billy Beane was able to beat the system.

The college admission system is another area where the discussion of merit is always on-going. In the search for “well-rounded” candidates, colleges use various mechanisms such as grades, SAT, participation in sports to evaluate the merit of a student. As soon as an institution that can award merit chooses an aspect of performance that can be gamed, people will begin to cheat.

It is important to keep in mind that merit for one system does not dictate the value we can bring to the culture as a human being. Merit often begins in our head – we have been taught or brainwashed into believing we should value certain measurements much more than some others.

In our culture, we mistook a certain measurement as the true merit for making a selection.  For being successful in an academic environment, the SAT score does not measure our aptitude for anything. The SAT score is more of a measure of our economic settings and how much did our parents spend on preparing us for the test.

We should be mindful that one form of merit does not apply to all aspects of our lives. Scoring well on an SAT exam does not say anything about how successfully we will handle many other aspects in our school, work, and family. Our culture no longer has just one door where everyone must fit through to achieve merit. Our culture is being radically shifted in so many directions, and there are many doors that an individual can explore.

Perhaps our mindset on what merit we should be focusing on needs to change. One way to earn true merit is whether the merit is contributing, a contribution that we can be proud of.

What is much more important about merit is the story. We tell ourselves the story about the possibility and about our ability to contribute to the story. We tell ourselves about grit, about resilience, and about speaking up when we need to speak up. These days, we live in many circles, and there is not just one path. There are many ways to earn merit, so we should ask ourselves where can we contribute and how can we pick ourselves?

If we are going to seek merit from a system that awards merit based on corruption, we will inherently become corrupted. Instead, we can earn merit by picking ourselves and by giving ourselves the challenge of showing up, turning on a light, solving interesting problems and leading the others.