We’re Built Wrong!

I just read an excellent article: The False Theory of Meritocracy.  The entire article is a great read and one point really resonated with me: “Native American tribes often had different chiefs for peace and war… We all have unique capabilities that must be constantly reassessed in a world of shifting priorities.” 

This concept is more critical to successfully navigating business today and the economy we now work in than I think we realize.  In fact, WE ARE CURRENTLY BUILT WRONG to support the economy we are living in today and which we will be working in for the foreseeable future.

The industrial era may have been well supported by the vertical ladder of hierarchical meritocracy and by producing students/employees trained to climb it but these are outdated concepts today.

Our current school system was designed to staff a budding industrial economy.  As we moved from agrarian to industrial work, it became an urgent imperative to learn up the farmers’ children in readn’ writn’ and ‘rithmatic.  Jobs were to be had, money was to be made, an industrial revolution was to be led and we didn’t have a population equipped to run the equipment. Enter K – 12.

Then came management.  First it was the folks who worked their way up from the assembly line.  Showing aptitude for the numbers and the metrics, understanding the workings of the plant and eventually becoming leader.  This scratch and scrabble path often produced the been-there-done-that, I’ll-tell-you-how-it’s-done, you-can-succeed-me-when-I-die method of career progression.

To bypass this long, involved, dues-paying process we encouraged our children to get-good-grades, get-into-a-good college so you can get-a-good-job-with-benefits. Enter the 4 year degree.  This of course often produced the I-went-to-Harvard-so-step-off method of progression.

Unfortunately, our current economy cannot accommodate such a plan any longer.  In an information/services economy new qualities like flexibility, comfort with ambiguity, creativity, resilience, application of individual talent and the like are more valuable than ever.  The concept of different chiefs for peace and war is spot on. Understanding what our skills, resiliencies (or lack of them), and talents are and being able to articulate and apply them appropriately should be something organizations demand and individuals expect to deliver on. 

 But where are we asking students or employees to identify, develop, practice and articulate these qualities in themselves? Unless specifically sought out as an elective, most students can sail (or struggle) through school and their first job search never having explored what their skills are, where are they more or less resilient?, what are their unique talents and can they articulate them?  What jobs require those talents?
And I’m not talking about life-purpose jobs – any job.  There’s a guy who makes a boat load of money designing labels for wine bottles.  That’s it!  There’s the woman who opens her own sandwich shop.  There’s my friend who cleans houses – LOVES to CLEAN HOUSES.  Look, when you have a talent, it feels good to use it (our brian is actually wired this way).  If we use our talents at work, we’ll feel better at work and the work will be better.

This is so important to figure out.  The current school system was designed specifically to support the budding industrial economy.  We need to build something new.  Current organizational effectiveness efforts need to focus more on individual accountability and purposeful engagement – demanding it and/or training people to develop it.  What we want to engender is more: I’m-good-at-this-and-you’re-good-at-that-right-now-so-let’s-make-this-thing-sing kind of career.  Of course we may end up with the I’ve-got-a bigger-portfolio-career-than-you-so-step-off kind of career progression – but I think that might not be so bad.

Of course this concept upsets a number of foundational elements in the academic and working worlds: how do we teach kids to develop these new qualities?, How do we compensate employees for applying their skills and talents appropriately and moving to new work when the circumstances change? How can we better equip ourselves to match jobs with the right people and vice versa?   Hmm…where to start….

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