Saturday, November 5, 2011

Meriticracy or Grace?

The other day I was thinking about this talk by Hugh B. Brown entitled "The Currant Bush".  The main message of the talk is this:
"I wanted to tell you that oft-repeated story because there are many of you who are going to have some very difficult experiences: disappointment, heartbreak, bereavement, defeat. You are going to be tested and tried to prove what you are made of. I just want you to know that if you don’t get what you think you ought to get, remember, 'God is the gardener here. He knows what he wants you to be.'  Submit yourselves to his will. Be worthy of his blessings, and you will get his blessings."
He gets to this point by relaying an example from his own life when he was passed over for a military promotion because of his religion.  His reaction:
I saluted him again, but not quite as smartly. I saluted out of duty and went out. I got on the train and started back to my town, 120 miles away, with a broken heart, with bitterness in my soul. And every click of the wheels on the rails seemed to say, “You are a failure. You will be called a coward when you get home. You raised all those Mormon boys to join the army, then you sneak off home.” I knew what I was going to get, and when I got to my tent, I was so bitter that I threw my cap and my saddle brown belt on the cot. I clinched my fists and I shook them at heaven. I said, “How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?” I was as bitter as gall.
Of course to get from this experience to the conclusion above, he has a Spiritual experience to help him realize that going through these difficult experiences are for his own benefit.  But did you catch the meritocracy theme coursing through this message?
  • "Be worthy of his blessing, and you will get his blessings."
  • "I have done everything I could do to measure up.  There is nothing that I could have done - that I should have done - that I haven't done."
 Today, I watched The King's Speech which is, of course, a movie about the King of England who overcomes a major speech impediment to deliver a speech to declare England's intention of going to war with Germany in World War II.  The contrast with him and the charismatic Hitler was stunning.  The contrast between this king who had really done nothing to earn the distinction other than the luck of being born to the right parents and his speech therapist, who completely dreamed up his own methods of speech therapy to help soldiers literally traumatized speechless from World War I, was also stunning.

Do you see the meritocracy message here?  The King was able to rise the occasion, to live up to his calling because he trusted in the efforts of his speech therapist to overcome his major disability.  He became great but he really had no business being great other than the dumb luck of having a father who was also a King.

Finally, I recently read Freedom which was a really fascinating book, a page turner in fact (it's a rated R novel so I felt guilty the whole time), but let me give you a run-down of the major characters in the book:
  • A division 1 woman's All-American basketball player for a major university.
  • A struggling musician who eventually becomes enormously popular, well regarded in the industry, basically a rock and roll legend.
  • A high-flying lawyer for a major corporation who gets spotlighted on a you-tube video that goes viral.
Ok, here's what I'm getting at.  President Hugh B. Brown uses a story about how despite heroic efforts on his own part he was passed over for a promotion.  By contrast, the King's speech describes how a person who did nothing in his life to deserve it, delivers a speech to inspire a country.  Finally a popular novel describes the struggles and trials of some pretty amazing and talented people.

Where, in this, is the message for me? 

What am I looking for?  Well, like most inhabitants of this planet, I was not blessed with world class skills in anything.  I'm better at some things than others, but mostly I'm either average, maybe slightly above or below depending on the subject, or pretty bad at pretty much everything.  I can blame this sad fact on a combination of bad luck, bad luck that I wasn't born with any natural gifts or that I did not get the proper nurturing or training growing up.  I can blame this on my own bad choices or lack of discipline or whatever.

But in this economy, more and more average people feel vulnerable.  Through technology a lot of jobs have been lost through automation.  Globalization has allowed more of the world's elite into our labor markets and has stiffened the competition for good jobs.  Furthermore, this same globalization has opened up the world's poor to take on what used to be good paying manufacturing jobs.

More and more, you have to be world class to achieve true job security.  In other words, as Seth Godin says, you have to be doing real math today instead of arithmetic.  Seth Godin's entire blog is basically someone who is elite writing to others who think they are:

Many fields have precisely this same division. There's a chasm between the proven, repetitive work that can be farmed out and the cutting edge risky work that might just change everything.
When someone asks you what you do all day and you respond, "I take what comes into this basket, do a standard process to it and then put it in that basket," it sounds a lot like you're doing arithmetic, doesn't it? Far better to have a job where there are equal parts magic and art involved in processing the stuff in that basket.
What's largely missing when a prophet gives a story from their lives, or when famous author writes a novel, or a director creates a a move is that these creators have no idea what it means to have a life-long struggle with coming up short in pretty much everything.

Some of us struggle with loneliness because we have pathetic social skills.  Or struggle to build something because we lack focus or a skill or bad training.  The problem is that the story of most of us never gets told because if we could pull it together enough to write a novel good enough for anyone to really read and enjoy, well, we're no longer "most of us" anymore.

If we ever truly suffered through disappointment or serious sin or addiction,  it is likely we will not be climbing the calling latter on our way to General Authority which is why most stories found in conference talks echo President Brown's.  Why, despite how amazing they are, they face challenges.  Whereas, the rest of us probably deserve most of what we get, and can't seem to find a way out.  For one, I would have had no shot at that same promotion and if I got passed over, I would know exactly why and it would have nothing to do with my religion.

One reason, for me, why the King's Speech resonates because its message is that anyone literally could be a King and deliver a rousing speech, as long as we have the right mentor.

My dream, actually, is to one day start a software company that does basically everything in exactly the opposite way  Google does it:
Even in today's economy, tech companies regularly complain that they can't find enough qualified candidates to fill software development positions. You might expect them to loosen their requirements and provide more training as a result, but actually the opposite seems to be true: Screening procedures are getting tighter. The latest trend is to subject interviewees to elaborate quizzes designed to assess their coding and problem-solving abilities
I want to hire a bunch of average programmers from state schools and community colleges and see if we can't hit markets that Google would not even think of hitting.  Most of my employees would have to have been raised in poor neighborhoods, and no, they did not program as a children because their parents could not afford computers.  And yes, it would be a requirement that they came to me looking for a job because they were desperate.  The more nervous and desperate they were in the job interview, and I mean seriously and authentically nervous, the more likely they would be to get this job.

Here's why a company like that may succeed:

Did you know the average person has no chance of either qualifying or paying for four years at Stanford or Harvard and has pretty much nothing in common with Mark Zuckerberg.  But these guys are the ones writing the software platforms for the rest of us?  How could they possibly know what we want, really?

And I think the poor in our society are obviously underserved, largely because they have no money, but they have some money, and they have serious needs.  Finding a way to nurture the poor to a place where they can make a real contribution in our society is the big under-worked challenge of our day.  I could go on about this some more, but that would be another blog.

One counterpoint to the Hugh B. Brown speech and a message that is probably under-declared in the church both President Brown and I attend, is the message of grace.   In fact the two underlying messages the come from the principle of grace exist in tension but also in beautiful harmony with each other.

First,  we are all literally children of God and that average is actually pretty amazing because have God's spiritual DNA coursing through us.  Second, we are all incredibly weak and hopelessly flawed and are in desperate need of God's grace to accomplish anything worthwhile.

It is my belief, that what passes as meritocracy in our country is really just some people getting really, really lucky - lucky to have been born to the right parents, to have received the right training at the right time, to get hung up on a specific passion in the right field.  The rest of us muddle along hoping for our chance.

To close, I'll leave you with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's quote from his really good book entitled,  Black Swan.  Of course, Taleb is among the elite who is smart enough to realize how dumb many in his peer group really are despite how smart most of us think they are. 
The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or “incentives” for skill. The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.