Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

You can learn a lot about life by sitting quietly in a dark corner and nursing a slowly cooling cup of Starbucks. I do not intend to eavesdrop, but I suppose as one ages, it is cheaper than a movie, and occasionally interactive. But like most audiobooks, it has to grab you immediately to concentrate your attention.

The three men sitting at the next table were late arrivals, and probably didn’t notice me lurking in the shadows -or, more likely, didn’t care. It was a Monday morning, and at two of them were dressed in standard office regalia: neatly pressed shirts and ties under wrinkleless suits, and shoes that reflected the dim lights from the faraway counter. The other, obviously older man, was similarly creaseless, but wore his high-end sweat shirt, designer jeans, and spotless sneakers with evident hubris. His greying hair was immaculately coiffed, whereas the heads of his companions were merely combed into rough semblances of wind-damaged, partly logged forests.

“You’re so lucky, Fred,” one of the besuited men said to his smiling friend in the sweat shirt. The tone of his voice belied his words, though. “You could spend the whole morning here if you wanted.” In fact, he sounded like that would be something he would hate.

Fred shrugged, but picked up on the message. “Be kind of boring, though, wouldn’t you say…?”

“You really enjoyed working, didn’t you?” This from the other man, who seemed differentiable from his friend only because he still hadn’t tightened the tie around his neck. Otherwise they  both seemed corporate cogs in machines neither controlled, nor perhaps even understood.

The smile broadened on Fred’s face and he sipped on his coffee before he answered. “I’m still working, Jerry -just not in the office anymore.”

I could see Jerry sigh. “I suppose… But at least you made the break. I wish I could do that.”

His friend glanced at him and shook his head condescendingly. “Fred got lucky, Jer: he bought and sold at the right time…”

“I guess…”

“Well, some of it was luck, I suppose, Theo…” Fred took a tentative sip of his coffee and then nibbled on the partially eaten cookie on his plate.

Theo moved his hand absently to his tie, and straightened it over the buttons on his shirt. “Come on, Fred. What else could make you decide to buy those stocks when you did?” He glanced at Jerry for approval. “I mean we all had the same information about the market…” He was trying to keep his voice friendly, but even from where I sat, I detected a sour note of envy.

Fred smiled and leaned over his cookie once again, so his plate would catch the crumbs. “All you had to do was ask, Theo. I wasn’t keeping anything secret, you know…”

Theo picked up his coffee and kept it near his mouth for a moment before taking a sip. “I didn’t think they were going to take off quite so soon.”

Fred simply shrugged and tasted his coffee again. “I had a hunch they would…”

“That’s what I mean, Fred: luck -pure and simple.”

Fred put the cookie down after taking another careful bite, then sat back in his chair. “England had been active in Africa, Theo, and after that flood in the south east and the subsequent slowdown in their economic output, I figured America and Germany would try to corner what was left -they were both big partners, remember -and they had the most to gain by diversifying quickly.”

“I remember that,” Jerry piped up. “I was thinking of switching out of England. But…”

“But you didn’t,” Fred said, gently. He sighed. “Let’s face it, we’re all doing well. We’ve worked our way up the system by hard work, and we deserve what we’ve made.”

“We’ve had our fair share of luck, though,” added Jerry.

“Exactly,” Theo said. “We all assume we live in a meritocratic system; we just assume that all the good things of life -education, jobs… and money, of course- are, or at least should be, awarded on the basis of merit. Effort. And what we end up with, we say is a direct result of those things that we have earned. The work and time we’ve put into it -how clever we are…”

The two others studied him closely, wondering where he was going with the argument. “And yet, most of it is really luck, isn’t it? Where we were born, and to whom -even our genetic inheritance- is luck, for goodness sakes.” Theo sounded quite agitated and even pounded lightly on their table at one point.

Fred took a contemplative sip of his now-lukewarm coffee and put it down again. “So, are you saying that luck is bad?”

Theo shook his head. “No, just that we don’t earn luck…” Contempt dripped from his mouth.

Fred smiled. “Luck is more likely to happen if you position yourself in the right spot, don’t you think?”

Theo scowled. “So? It’s still luck!” His voice was getting louder.

“Luck that you’ve earned by figuring out where to be. What to buy -and when…” Jerry was silent for a moment and carefully examined his coffee, but Theo was still glaring at him. “Sometimes, what seems like luck, is simply good judgement. I learned pretty early in this business that luck rarely happens by accident, Theo.”

Jerry stopped fidgeting with embarrassment and looked at his watch. “I think we have to go, Theo. We have that meeting at eight this morning, remember?”

They both looked at Fred as they stood to leave, but it was only Jerry that spoke. “Nice seeing you again, Fred. We must get the wives together for a drink sometime, eh?”

“Thanks, Jer,” Fred said, nodding as well to Theo. “I’d like that. Have Judy give Ellie a call to arrange it.”

The two scraped their chairs away from the table, but only Jerry turned and smiled as they left.

Fred noticed me still sitting at my table and nodded. “Sour grapes, I think,” he said, smiling as if I’d been sitting with them all along. “Theo comes from money, and I think he feels guilty about it.” He stood to leave and glanced at me again. “Sorry, I hope we didn’t spoil your coffee time.”

I have to admit that I felt a little embarrassed at having overheard so much, but I just shrugged politely. Sometimes, I think I should sit by the window, but then I’d miss so much…

After all, it was their conversation that lead me to read a provocative article by Clifton Mark in Aeon about the problems that had never occurred to me about meritocracy:  https://aeon.co/ideas/a-belief-in-meritocracy-is-not-only-false-its-bad-for-you

‘Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing… Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success. This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people. However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best.

‘According to Frank [the US economist Robert Frank in his book Success and Luck (2016)], this is especially true where the success in question is great, and where the context in which it is achieved is competitive. There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates [founder of Microsoft] who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.’

In fact, ‘in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth…  Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses… worldly failures become signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.

‘This is why debates over the extent to which particular individuals are ‘self-made’ and over the effects of various forms of ‘privilege’ can get so hot-tempered. These arguments are not just about who gets to have what; it’s about how much ‘credit’ people can take for what they have, about what their successes allow them to believe about their inner qualities. That is why, under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of ‘luck’ can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.’

I think maybe more people should go to Starbucks…


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