Giftedness and the Myth of Meritocracy

“I have a notebook in the back of my closet with my life plan written in it,” she tells me.  At fourteen the path is clear: which courses she will need in high school, the university she will attend, the research she plans on completing as well as the place she will eventually live. She knows the grades she will need and she is not afraid to share the anxiety she has when contemplating the next step in her plan.  For a moment I am reminded of a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with a thirty year old gifted adult male who told me, “I think I was in elementary school when I realized that the meritocracy I was being ‘sold’ didn’t really exist,” and wonder if it is important to share this perspective?

You see, I live and work in a system purports that “good grades” will get you into “good schools” which in turn will get you the “good jobs” and if you learn this early, the world is yours. Most believe for a gifted student, this should be a piece of cake and for many it is.  The problem with propagating this myth is that there are no guarantees and what happens when the curveballs or dead ends come? What happens when an individual fails to see the myth and instead believes that the failing is in themselves?  Do we have a responsibility to debunk myths? But wait… Where would we be without that myth? Is it something we can only discover on our own? Does believing in the myth help make it a reality? What is the impact of this myth on the psyche of our society? This topic has been well explored. You can check out some of the articles at Psychology Today to see the “gift” of failure.

I hit adulthood with a back up plan-it was the gift from pragmatic parents who didn’t want me to become a starving artist. Some days I wonder if I hadn’t had a back up plan, if I would have given myself whole-heartedly to the dream but most days I am fairly certain that the back-up plan had more appeal for reasons that go well beyond what I wanted to “do” versus how I wanted to “live”. But still it took me a a few “failures” before I came to that realization and if the truth be told, I can still get sideswiped when things don’t go as I hope. But it was a lucky encounter early in my career with Norm Goble, the then President of the Canadian Teachers Federation that has given me tremendous perspective. He had just delivered a keynote address entitled “If not you, who? If not now, when?” at an ATA Summer Conference that left me weak in the knees. At the reception afterwards he was standing alone and I went over and asked him how best to proceed as a teacher. I have carried his response with me ever since.

“I am an ambitionless man. I have simply followed the opportunities that were presented to me.” Now I know that the opportunities that present themselves will vary significantly from individual to individual and the opportunities available to a someone of a certain ethnic or socio-economic background will not be the same. But in his response to me I saw life and the path we take as an act of courage and not simply merit. It is courage that will allow us to see the opportunities that abound, while merit will try to steer us in a certain direction. Sometimes they work together magnificently, and other times, they do not. My path may not have provided me with the meteoric ascension that the myth of meritocracy promises, but on most days, I can see a world full of opportunities. And luckily, on most days, I can muster up the courage to explore one or two which on many days take me to unexpected and wonderful places.

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8 responses to “Giftedness and the Myth of Meritocracy

  1. I find your post very encouraging. I wandered through my career taking advantage of opportunities and thought I was a failure because I never won awards or even attention. Now I know that my path meandered but always led onward, and it is still leading me today. Thank you for your wonderful post.

  2. I love this:

    “The problem with propagating this myth is that there are no guarantees and what happens when the curveballs or dead ends come? What happens when an individual fails to see the myth and instead believes that the failing is in themselves? Do we have a responsibility to debunk myths?”

  3. I don’t have the answers but wanted to contribute my own personal experience because you point out some very interesting points. Looking back I realized that the expectations I felt from family and school to be the “good girl” and “good student” , helped me to stay on track and survive in an otherwise unstable environment. By the time I reached maturity I had reached a lot, and was able to start having my own reflections and perspective in life. Some how 2 companions helped me in this journey. Courage and resilience. That and caring parents that did the best they could.

    • Thank-you for sharing. I agree that courage and resilience are virtues that we can and should foster in our children and students…genuine caring helps with that!

  4. This really resonates with the concept of fairness, which is so intense for gifted people. The unfairness of how things work out can get to anyone, but especially someone who is gifted and struggles with life’s injustices. Your wonderful point about courage and resilience is priceless.

  5. Thanks Gail. I have been interested in the link between the underachiever and what might be a perception of an inherent unfairness in the system for quite some time. My approach for the most part has been to try to share an understanding of how systems work although intersecting values makes this more complicated all the time.

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