Meritocracy

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Mmmmmmm…Sweet, cold, refreshing meritocracy…

Everyone seems to love the idea of a ‘fairer society’. Even the Conservative party, whose latest ‘new’ idea is the increased presence of selective grammar schools.

The richer and more right-wing among us predictably argue that only ‘competition’ and ‘meritocracy’ can create an environment of fairness and excellence. This works extremely well when trying to play to the selfishness and overconfidence in all of us, particularly when appealing to the exaggeration inherent in a parent’s love for their child.

It only falls down when you point out that any level of inequality (which is impossible to completely eradicate) generates a permanently uneven playing field.

The less-rich and more left-wing (equally predictably) argue that only ‘redistribution’ and ‘extra support’ can balance the scales of that uneven playing field. But don’t worry they say, this won’t damage the progress of those with natural talent. This works extremely well when trying to play to the bitterness, the mediocrity and, to be fair, the compassion that’s in all of us.

Those who are more honest on either side will see both approaches as suspiciously flawed and self-serving.

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If you happen to be one of those people who has actually experienced ‘social mobility’ in action you will have a different insight into what it means in practice.

It means being envied by those you leave behind.
It means being looked down on by those who it threatens the status of.
It means feeling guilty about those who can’t come with you and angry at those who try to keep you down.
It means losing acceptance from your old world and being rejected by your new one.

It also means an uphill battle with odds stacked against you, no matter how ‘meritocratic’ the competition you find yourself involved in. There is no such thing as fair, and prejudice, snootiness and nepotism will always play a role in any rise to the top.

And at the end of it all what do you win?

A life where you voluntarily exclude yourself from the community you came from, where despite your success someone is always better off and far more keen to demonstrate it in a world with far more heightened sensitivity to the ruthless nature of competition.

Being part of the ‘elite’ is an odd desire that haunts us all. Yet what it really entails is a subscription to a culture and a way of life that defines itself by the way that it excludes others.

“Fine” you might say, but here’s the hidden cost:

‘Exclusive’ is a term that nowadays brings to mind nothing but bright and happy imagery. But when you compete for power as an end in itself then all it does is to isolate you and your kind in an ever more distant world, detached from everyone else.

This ivory tower used to be a cold unpalatable vision of a treasure that wasn’t worth having. Now, thanks to the delusions of modern ‘fame’, we are packaged a form of the same product that promises us not just superiority (and exclusive VIP access to a members-only club) but also the sense that we can have intimacy and adulation while we’re at it. After all, once you’re rich and successful, you can always rub it in everyone’s faces by turning them green on Instagram.

Yet basing your life on access to the higher echelons will likely only bring you a feeling of being the pauper on the front doorstep of someone else’s palace. The sense of yearning for access to the platinum lounge when all you can afford is gold doesn’t go away until you’re the richest soul on earth. And then you’ve got to stay on your toes lest someone else grows richer.

To actually have power that is wielded for a purpose (other than vanity) is to win the trust of the many and not the few; it is to work together with people of all kinds, backgrounds and abilities and reap the rewards of playing a role in a myriad of other lives.

Those who want to build something, to make and create what is valuable to the world and those around them will put themselves amongst that world and involve themselves willingly in the lives of others. They will connect you with the people, ideas and dreams that make you better, wiser and happier than you were. They will use all they have to bring out the best in us.

And they’ll do all this because they can; which rightfully grants them honour.

These are the people that we should want to rule our nation.
These are the people that we need to lead our world.

And splitting them up at 11; to show them how separate and different they deserve to be treated, does not sound like a recipe for producing that kind of leader or that kind of human being.

There is a point to meritocracy and it isn’t an expensive and abstract sense of righteousness or a certificate of approval for those who win a 100 metre race with a 90 metre head start.

It’s that the greatest responsibility should go to those with the greatest ability to handle it; and that should benefit us all. Simply put, the only reason why we should allow leaders or divisions of power to exist is not to privilege the sainted few or as a way of persecuting the rest but because they make teams and groups of people perform better. Otherwise, quite rightly, there’d be no reason for everyone else to put up with it.

Yet guess what? We do: because, by and large, it works!

Whether the way we allocate power and choose our leaders is the best way is certainly up for debate and so too is the level of opportunity we are prepared to make each other pay for everyone to have. But surely starting off with inescapable facts and a shared underlying goal instead of false idealism and BS is a surer way to go about it.

I’m aware this may be a drink that some find hard to swallow, but caught between ‘Diet Communism’ and ‘New Plutocracy Zero’ it might just be the best product on the market.

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Photo credits: The Prime Minister’s Officee.c.johnsonDocChewbacca

Small World: Big Data

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‘Big Data’ is a phrase that gets thrown around like a Frisbee nowadays. Working in a hospital as a data analyst I get to use the phrase quite a lot without anyone actually asking what I mean by it. But what’s it all about and why should you and I and everyone else in the world care about the potential of all that information?

Though I fancy myself as something of a wordsmith, I’m not sure I could do a better job of explaining it than Mathematician Dr Hannah Fry, whose brilliant BBC Four documentary on the subject I watched this afternoon (Yes, I really am that cool).

Enjoy!

 

Photo Credit: KamiPhuc

The Disunited Kingdom

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I get it. People are bored of politics. Until something important happens and then it’s all too much. That’s where we are right now.

A clear, stark line was drawn between the people who wanted things to stay the same and people who wanted them to change.

Basic psychology seems the easiest explanation. If you felt like you had something to lose you needed convincing, where facts were thin on the ground. If you felt like you had little or nothing to lose, you might as well shake things up.

I know that almost no one who voted to leave the EU (whatever that eventually means) will read this blog. Then again, few of those people have much power over how their country is run.

All that ‘leavers’ have grown to expect in the last few weeks is bitterness or smugness or an ignorant ‘I told you do so’.

Facts on paper meant nothing during the referendum campaign and they don’t mean much to those who voted out right now.

The benefits of the EU were empty-sounding words to those who wanted out. Freedom to work in Europe. Scientific collaboration. Shared responsibility for the migrant crisis. Market stability. What do these things mean to someone working on minimum wage (if they have a job) in a struggling seaside town or a council estate? Exactly nothing.

Globalisation

To many people, ‘Globalisation’ is just another word for lots of change I can’t keep up with. Someone should stop it, or at least slow it down, and give me back control.

Pull up the drawbridge and take me back to 1955.
Nationalise the railways.
Send the foreigners home.
Protect my job in a failing industry from the Chinese.

None of this stuff works of course, but it tells us something about what people want and what people fear.

People want tangible benefits from joining in a game where everyone wins. Otherwise, why play by the rules? The rich don’t even pay their taxes, so why should I trust them? Or worse, come to the conclusion, as Michael Gove so eloquently put it: that they’ve “had enough of experts”.

Many of us who voted to remain, came from working class towns, went to university and never came back. We moved on, went where the work and the money was, and stayed within the social circles that our new lives opened to us. We literally left those places behind. So it has new and poetic meaning when those are the people and places that put our bright and shiny futures into so much doubt.

And therein lies the great irony.

It’s easy to forget sometimes and hard to understand, that all of our lives are so dependent on groups of people that we never really meet. People we wouldn’t mingle with. People we’d pass in the street. People who make and sell us things from the other side of the planet.

“You can’t just shut yourself off from parts of the world you don’t trust or understand and pretend it won’t affect you.”

This is the very ignorance many of us have accused leave voters of when, in fact, we’ve all been doing the same; and in our own back yard.

As voters, we all feel pretty helpless. We can’t super-glue the labour party back together. We don’t really get to influence what a few dozen politicians decide is the best deal for our country. It won’t be up to us whether the United Kingdom itself gets split up into pieces.

But we can try to understand. When we forget how much we rely on one another, we pretend that we’re aren’t all part of a giant trade deal already. One where all parties need to be happy for things to work. And not just for us and the people we hang out with, but for everyone.

 

Photo credit: Freestocks.org

Tuesday Bluesday

Tuesdays are the hardest day of the working week. Wednesday is half way to the weekend and Thursday is almost there. Friday is a cake walk. Monday’s get an unfair reputation for their difficulty but the truth is that for many of us it takes a day for the weekend to wear off.

With that in mind, here’s a motivational video made by Mr T to keep your spirits up…

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You. Are. Welcome.

Photo credit: Torres21

METRICS: PART ONE

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What Makes a Good Goal?

William Blake once wrote:

“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

The film Hannibal aside, Blake was not known for encouraging psychopaths, so it is perhaps more useful to infer that having dreams and goals that you never really go after is not a good thing.

Yet most people fail at the first hurdle: simply trying to define what it is that they want.

Unless you have a clear idea of what it is that you truly need and desire then you have no more chance than of arriving at a birthday party without knowing the address.

Metrics, as I referred to in last week’s post, is a fancy word for pinning down exactly what success would mean in a way that you could measure. Now, that may conjure images of numbers on spreadsheets or lines on graphs but it could just as easily mean a consistent feeling; one that turns up when you do the right combination of things in the right way.

But what goals are the right goals? And what way is the right way?

My contention is that:

  1. The right goals are ones that are completely under your control and that you’re pretty damn sure will make you happy.
  2. The right way is one that will make you happier no matter whether you succeed or fail.

To test this, let’s use a common life goal as an example: falling in love.

For a myriad of reasons, most people have some sense that they would like to pair off with someone and feel at least vaguely wonderful about it for an extended period of their lives. Yet, if you’re single, waiting for fate or blind luck to throw someone who is amazing and fancies you AND you could tolerate for several decades to come into your life seems like a manifestly stupid approach.

Here’s where control matters.

Problem number one is that you can’t control whether you will ever meet someone who this would happen with. If you can’t control all elements of a goal then its not a goal, its a hope or a wish.

So let’s say your new goal becomes to deserve to find someone who will love you.

Problem number two: because you can’t control whether you meet someone (and whether it would work out), if it never happens or takes a long time to happen then you could accomplish your goal and it would make you bitter or even more miserable. It also assumes you only deserve love if you try hard all the time which is another issue altogether…

So even though deserving to be loved by someone amazing is within your control, it might not make you happy even if you succeeded.

Third time lucky. Your third attempt at setting a goal: to be the best version of yourself possible.

If you are aiming to be the best version of yourself possible you’re liable to maximise your chances of attracting other people (and not just romantically) and have a good time while you’re at it (because, I’m assuming, the best version of you would want to have a great time whenever possible).

I’m suggesting that a goal, in other words, should be within your power and produce a win-win scenario. And those are two ‘metrics’ on which to base the goal of setting a goal.

The process of working out what you really want and how to measure it (to know that you’ve achieved it) unfortunately is not something anyone else can give you. It comes through personal experience and a creative examination of the pattern between your feelings and the things you did to feel that way.

And if that’s confused rather than inspired you, then I leave you with a clip from Dead Poets Society that will hopefully cover my arse and do the trick.

Photo credit: RyanTaylor1986

GOALS

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How to Climb from the Bottom to the Top

In order to set a goal that motivates you (and to break that goal down, no matter it’s size, into a task that you are motivated to complete right now, today) you need a clear, measurable end result and to know that you have reached it.

Without getting too philosophical, this means that you have been inspired by the idea of something good enough to put in efforts to have, experience or achieve.

You therefore need to able to do two different things:

  1. To be able to measure how good your performance is at the task or collection of tasks (your progress or closeness to achieving your goal)
  2. To be able to set standards on the way to your eventual goal that…
    a) Are beyond your current standard
    b) Are within reach (in the circumstances and with the resources available) with a time frame that doesn’t exhaust your interest or patience

You could call them Metrics and Mile Posts (the subjects of my next two blogs). The important point here is that they are NOT the same thing.

For Leicester City this year the goal they set was not winning the premier league. It wasn’t even qualifying for European football. It was avoiding relegation.

The miracle they are on the verge of achieving is not one of defying their own limited abilities. If that were true then they would not have been able to get this far (8 points clear with 2 games left in the richest league on earth) on luck. Instead it is a testament to one of the most perfect examples of motivation and expectation management in the history of sport.

At every point, in every instance of unexpected victory or supposed over-achievement, their wise old owl of a manager, Claudio Ranieri, somehow managed to keep the team focused on the next thing that would be most likely to produce the best result. Not the trophy, or the glory or the bragging rights but the task that was next in line that built upon the last.

He spoke about free pizza for the team keeping clean sheets. He somehow kept Jamie Vardy’s focus on working for the team when all the press wanted to talk about was breaking goalscoring records. He deflected questions left and right about individual players, about chances of winning the title. All the wild and wonderful things that fill the minds of fans and poison the minds of players with a job to do and a game, a matter of days away, that all their focus will be needed to win.

Do we believe that Arsenal or Manchester City or United have any less desire to win the premier league? Do we think that they aren’t prepared to work as hard, to do what it takes to make it to the top?

Some will disagree, but I don’t think so.

What is harder and more fundamental to success than even desire, ability or hard work is the focus of mental energy required to put everything into what needs to be done in order to succeed. That is the only way that a team of people with fewer resources can compete with and beat a team with more: by making more efficient use of what they have.

It also presupposes that you know what needs to be done (your metrics) and that you can keep your mind on the smaller tasks that will get you there (your milestones).

You can’t pressure or boo or simply criticise a person into producing their best and that includes yourself. If those things worked then the bad publicity clubs received would power them to the top. What you have to do is to find the sweet spot; where that person believes that the next task towards their goal or dream can be gripped like the very next rung of the ladder, one in immediate reach.

That’s how dreams are achieved. That’s how leagues are won.

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And when you’ve blocked enough shots and won enough tackles and made the opposition work for every point they win from you, the oldest cliché and the truest adage of football comes into play: take every game as it comes.

 

Photo credit: pietropiupparco

THE HUMAN CRISIS

Awkward truths matter.

What is worth living and dying for?

The question seems so big that most of us instantly distance ourselves from it with rolling eyes or a tired disinterest. In other words, like a night in alone with a scary movie, we shove a metaphorical pillow in the way. It’s the same thing we do when we watch news reports on terror attacks, or pass a homeless person who gently pleads for our change.

Albert Camus describes this effect as abstraction; when people put barriers between themselves and the things about the world that are difficult to fight or understand. Through politics, the words we use, through mountains of bureaucracy and now increasingly through technology we put a shield between ourselves and other people. Deliberate or not, the effects can be severe.

Camus was born in the early twentieth century and his thoughts on the world were coated in the shared experience of the things that people do and justify to each other. And what a generation learned from the horrors of two world wars and the injustice of a market crash is eerily reminiscent of the inner struggle we all face about the world today.

In a speech the French philosopher gave just over 70 years ago in New York, he explained the devastating effect of this tendency to numb ourselves to the terror and indignity that goes on all around us in a lecture called ‘The Human Crisis’.

I came across a video on open culture of Viggo Mortensen (of all people) retelling his lecture in the same spot, 70 years later to the day.

If you have the time or inclination to be reminded why honesty matters and why the freedom we allow each other; to speak from the heart without the threat of repression or violence, even and especially when we disagree, is so important then I can highly recommend a watch.

Note: the footage is shaky and Viggo doesn’t rock up until about 11 minutes 30 but the words and delivery are powerful.