Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

When I got the idea to read this book, it was not yet released but being hyped everywhere. It seemed I couldn’t watch a news broadcast or commentator without hearing about it. I had been watching Chris Hayes’ show for a few months, and am really impressed by the diversity of his guests and the real questions he asks about society, people, and government.

It has taken me since Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy was released in June finally to get through it. Some sections I have read three, four, five times. I keep returning to it, though I have devoured all the information once already. What astounds me most about this book is its brave simplicity: the system we have been using for decades is not working for the vast majority, and we need to examine that system and fundamentally fix it, or use something new.

The sentence that I have repeated to myself since I first read it, and one of the core ideas behind the book, is this:

“all the smart people f**ked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.”

Meritocracy is a simple concept: it is the rule of those who are deemed to have higher ability, greater skill, or other measurable talent over others. Those who are chosen as talented move ahead, and those with lesser talent and skill are given fewer, different opportunities. This might be in politics, but truly it is seen everywhere: education, healthcare, athletics, even friendships and cliques. With greater talent comes greater value to society, and therefore more opportunities.

But what if you are an undiscovered talent? What if you are a genius from a poor family, and unlike other kids don’t have resources through schools or private funding to release your brilliance? Or an entrepreneur with an incredible life-changing idea but lack the funding/connections/tools to put your idea into the world?

This is why meritocracy doesn’t work.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy is about all this. It’s a history of an American way of living that American society grew out of. It’s a lesson in what doesn’t necessarily work (only providing opportunities to the selected ones proves to deny society of a vast wealth of brilliance), and a suggestion for how to move forward.

But perhaps more important to me than the history, or the possibilities, is the question. How do we recognize those who have incredible contributions to society, even (especially) when they don’t match our preconceived notions of who should be making contributions at that level?

How do we open to the awesome possibility that surrounds us?

Chris Hayes’ book was so much more than a large-scale examination of American culture. I experienced this read as a call to reflect on my choices and approaches to advancement. How do I prevent myself from moving to the next level of opportunity? How do I choose one person over another for an offer? How do I place value on my clients, on my customers, based on perceived merit?

These aren’t easy questions. They are rather painful to ask, and even more challenging to answer. This reflection, however, gives me a chance to directly contribute to a society that offers new value and new ideas for the greater good of the whole.

What could be better than making real, positive change in the world?

2 thoughts on “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

  1. Just last week I was on a drive with my Mom, talking about the potential of all the missed talent in this country because through some accident of birth, so many children aren’t born into a place where their talents are able to be nurtured or even identified. I sadly wonder if we’ve missed out on the cure to cancer a dozen times already, because the child with the talent to find the cure wasn’t noticed in time to fire up and support their scientific gifts.

  2. Sarah, Thanks for your post. I’ll write that book on my “to read” list. It’s interesting the way lines of thought come together. My sister was telling me about one of Oprah’s shows and her guest was Daniel Pink. He wrote the book “A New Mind”, which seems similar. That’s another book to put on my “to read” list. According to my sister, Daniel says we’ve been living in a left brained society and we’re changing to a right brained one. Kind of the same idea as Christopher Hayes. I call left brainers, bean counters. Could it be that many of the “Elite” are bean counters and not as creative as right brainers? It does seem to me that the old structures that we built our society upon are crumbling. I think that’s a good thing. I’m tired of being a creative person who’s work is not valued because it can’t be quantified in a ledger. Maybe we’ll create a society like the world Gene Roddenberry created in “Star Trek”. Every human being has something to offer society. I’m looking forward to the time when every human being gets to explore and discover what their particular genius might be, and then offer that to the world. This is definitely an exciting time to be alive.

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