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?
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.