I love the idea of a meritocracy! It’s a glorious myth that makes a wonderful story. But if you look at how resources, wealth, prestige, etc. get distributed, it’s very hard to make a case for meritocracy.
It’s no surprise we believe in meritocracy. We spend our entire first 18-25 conscious years in school. School is a true meritocracy. The more you work at mastering the material, the more you earn good grades. I don’t know about you, but school was the last meritocracy I had the privilege to enjoy.
At my very first job out of college, I was told, “You do the best job of anyone here, but you’re too young to be making any more money.” Sadly, I persisted in thinking that doing a good job was the way to get what I wanted out of life. I still think that way in my gut, even though I continue to see little evidence of it.
Many very successful people talk a lot about meritocracy and how they just worked hard to succeed. That’s all fine and good, but they’re looking at only their own story. They’re not looking at the vast majority of people in the world who work very, very hard, and don’t get rewarded nearly as well. I’ve also noticed that the people who are highly successful/rewarded/prestigious have a tremendously powerful psychological vested interest in believing in and trumpeting the idea of meritocracy. Otherwise they would have to confront the idea that maybe they don’t deserve all that money/power/fame, and it simply came to them because they were born to the right parents, or were in the right place at the right time.
In capitalism, we give the bulk of the value created by an enterprise to the owners. It’s far better to own 50% of the equity in a successful company that you left 6 months after founding it than to work your ass off for 12 years making that same company a success, but working on salary. What matters as far as material reward isn’t the work/merit, but the capital and ownership structure. (That’s a true story, by the way. The company founder never worked again. The employees, while doing reasonably well, are still working at the same or other companies to earn their daily bread.)
If you want to do a good job, by all means, do it. Personally, I like to be proud of my work, and I strive to do the very best. But don’t confuse that with getting what you want. When you’re designing your life, remember that producing good work may be something you do for the psychic and self-esteem rewards. When you’re going after other rewards, say, money, be as clear-headed as you can about what will help you reach that result. Hard work and skill may not have anything to do with living the kind of life you want.