Tag Archives: arete

Surpassing Meritocracy: the Artist’s Way

There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture.  As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business.  Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.

It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance.  And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.”  A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values.  But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values.  What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.  

If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant.  In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you.  Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives.  They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in.  And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.

Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual.  One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self.  “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.

It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities.  As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours.  And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be.  If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else?  In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes. 

Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality.  But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing?  Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?

Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort.  Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness.  You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable.  Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt.  Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.

You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.


On the Creation of Time

When I was in graduate school (for 12 years altogether–what was I thinking?), I had a rigid uncompromising attitude toward my own deadlines.  I had to meet them, even if it meant allowing the rest of my life to collapse.

Not surprisingly, putting myself in this do-or-die frame of mind often resulted in exactly that: my physical and emotional health would suffer.  I would have fulfilled my responsibilities and I was often extremely successful in those narrowly defined areas, but I would feel cheated because everything else would be wrecked.  I’d have to begin rebuilding my life after every major work project.  It was exhausting.

Now, I’ve learned to make time.  I have more deadlines than ever, but I take an attitude of mastery instead of servitude by saying, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”  I’ve found that this nearly always makes me more efficient.  By giving myself permission to remain whole–a whole person–I am no longer a slave to some external timetable.

On those rare occasions when my work is late or when unforeseen complications lead to a less-than-desired outcome, I’ve learned to say, “So be it; I’m human; I’ll fix it now and do better next time.”  Sometimes, this means comping work, spending extra time to make things right, or taking some other loss.  But we might just call that the price of sustained excellence.  It’s easy to operate at the top of one’s ability every now and then.  It takes moderation and self-control to stay in that state of optimal performance long term.  It takes a sense of balance and the maturity to recognize the value of personal wellness.

This was a hard lesson to learn, since I am “up in my head” most of the time, planning and scheming.  I also have an over-inflated sense of responsibility linked to the need for me to see myself as a high-functioning player in every situation.  I grew a lot when I admitted to myself that I had these Type-A traits.

Now I breathe, relax, and make my demons work for me instead of being tortured by them.  I think, when we accept the need for balance, we’re accepting life instead of the deadening supposition that our worth is defined only by what we produce in certain narrow categories.