He looks like your average person. He could be anybody. A taxi driver, teacher or sales person. A manager of a gym.
He’s actually the co-founder and CEO of Google. One of the richest and most powerful people who have ever lived. With a wealth of over 20 billion dollars. And a role in shaping the modern world. In his early forties, he may still have a long career ahead.
His personal style seems pleasing. Down-beat and casual. It is nice that he is not pompous. But those Jeans and T-shirts carry risk for us. They can cause us problems. For if Larry is average. Just like all off us. Then a fortune is within our reach. Everyone can be like him. If only they try.
If Larry is ordinary, then their must be something wrong with you. Why haven’t you made your fortune yet?
Gone are the days when the rich took pains to differentiate themselves from us. Now they look just the same.
This is the flip side of meritocracy
It’s a idea that has brought opportunity to millions of people. Unlike under caste or feudal hierarchies, gifted and talented people are free to succeed.
No longer is power and wealth inherited. Your place in the world determined by your ancestors.
There is a darker side to this system though. If we believe that we have created a world where success is deserved. Then failure is too. It is your own fault.
In the age of meritocracy the question of why you are still poor becomes serious and painful. If you are in any way good, clever or able you should be able to succeed. You are unsuccessful because you are a failure.
But is it that easy?
We can’t all be Larry.
We may fail because we aren’t as smart as others. Who knows what some brains are able to do?
But we may also fail because it is easy to do so. Success is actually hard. Often elusive. The world isn’t structured so that we can all succeed.
We are victims of class, genes, biology and bad luck. As well as our own lack of inspiration and confidence.
Everyone tells us we have opportunities for success. Less often that we are free to fail. In doing so we are no less worthy.
For many it is clear the poor owe their position to their own stupidity. There is no shortage of people willing to blame the poor for their lack of success.
Everyone knows they had a chance? Everyone knows inferiority explains their status. That the rich deserve their wealth. And none of this is bad luck.
Luck is an interesting case.
It is granted that it plays a role in our lives. Yet evaluation proceeds as if we are all held responsible for our achievements. In reality society downplays the role of luck in our lives.
It is hard to live in a world where status is something we should achieve yet is dependent on so many factors. Even harder when the role of luck has been dismissed.
The worth of an individual is far too complex and subtle to measure by career or wealth. Jobs and money are not evenly or fairly distributed. It is wrong to invest them with moral values. Better to keep a distinction between what someone earns and what their soul is like. And remember that we can pay a high price in anxiety for the meritocratic ideal.