Lessons in meritocracy from Gadaffi’s son

At a very stimulating dinner the other day, somebody told me an anecdote that happened to him “at Davos a few years ago”, when he was chatting (as one does) with one of the sons of then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

(I should say that the topic of conversation at the table was “meritocracy”, and whether the Chinese Communist Party might, surprisingly, be better¬†at fostering it in its internal ranks than America’s allegedly transparent and hyper-democratic electoral systems.)

In any case, Gaddafi junior (I don’t know which one), said something like:

Do you want to know why Israel wins all the wars against Arabs? Because the Israeli army is meritocratic: they pick the generals that will win wars. In our armies, we pick the generals that will be the smallest threat to the boss.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it? And is applicable to a lot else, isn’t it?

Alain de Botton on success and anxiety

Thinking more deeply, or at least differently, about success seems to have become a genre. Malcolm Gladwell has done it, I am doing it right now in the manuscript which I am rewriting, and now Alain de Botton, another young author, is doing it in this TED talk below.

His key points:

  • we live in an age of anxiety.
  • the problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates” (the old term). Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault.
  • So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations.
  • The dominant emotion in this age of equality/anxiety is envy. We envy everybody who does better.
  • With it comes fear: the fear of the judgment of others. If we have a boring job, others will look down on us and we will feel bad.

I think he underestimates the anxiety that previous generations had, but he does have a point.

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