Meritocracy & the Middle Class Squeeze
Posted by Orrin Woodward on February 3, 2012
Meritocracy and the Middle Class Squeeze
When I was a young, growing up in Columbiaville, Michigan, I loved watching sports. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat taught me so many lessons that I applied to life. In fact, I believe the lessons I learned from watching, playing, and modeling my favorite athletes helped form who I am today. Furthermore, because of my sports heroes, I became an avid reader of sports biographies, learning many of their secrets to success.
I had no idea how instrumental the hundreds of books read of my sports heroes would affect me. In truth, it wasn’t until I began teaching leadership for a profession that I realized what an impact my early reading had on my life. The numerous stories of young men who dreamed, struggled, and persevered until they had their victory, taught me that anything is possible in life if one is willing to work hard enough and endure through the expected setbacks.
Perhaps I was naive and should have known better, but my meritocratic world-view was shaped by playing, watching and reading about competitive sports – one of the last remaining bastions of a performance based meritocracy. In other words, in the competitive arena of sports, no points are given because of your previous record, your family’s background, or your ability to talk smack. Each game has pre-defined rules, an impartial referee, and competitors who begin equal with the right to become unequal based upon their performance as individuals and as teams.
In high school, I suffered from severe low self-esteem, constantly viewing others as better than myself. In many ways they were better, however, I carried it to the extreme, typically defeating myself before the competition even began. It’s hard to hide from the scoreboard, especially when you are a runner and wrestler. All eyes are upon you and you cannot blame anyone else for a lackluster performance. The scoreboard provides the facts for both victories or defeats.
Although starting late in both endeavors (junior year), I rapidly improved through hard work, great coaching, and experience, ultimately receiving several awards – most improved wrestler my senior year (losing 5-2 to the national record holder for pins in a high school career), All-Genesee County in Cross-Country, and anchoring the 2 mile relay that set the school record. I say all of this, not to relive high school sports, but to share a key principle learned. It’s only through the willingness to endure painful experiences, persistent practices, and constructive feedback that a person can separate himself from the crowd. Simply put, meritocracy demands performance.
With my foundational principles formed along with a Manufacturing Systems Engineering degree from GMI-EMI (now Kettering), I boldly entered into my professional career. I believed through the application of the same principles that had helped me achieve success in competitive sports, that I would quickly rise to the top at GM. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
It’s not that my career didn’t start well enough. For in less than three years of working full time, I had received four patents, was in the process of winning a national technical benchmarking award and received a 19% raise. Additionally, my division committed to covering all my tuition expenses for the #2 nationally ranked MBA program though University of Michigan. I was living the life I had dreamed, being on the fast-track at General Motors and developing a tight relationship with the Director of Engineering of our multi-billion dollar Delphi division.
So what went wrong?
One of the most painful moments in a person’s life is when he realizes there is no port of call for the ship of his dreams. In other words, even people who work hard, waiting for their ship to come in, will find they waited their life away. The old plan of working hard, getting good grades, going to college, and getting a good job with benefits is DEAD! In fact, it’s rotting corpse has been buried for years.
My personal realization of this fact came when Laurie was pregnant with our first child. Naively, I went to my boss and explained to him my dilemma. Laurie was working as an accountant, but we both wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother to raise our family. I asked my boss what I needed to do in order to be promoted to 8th level and receive a company car. I knew it would take this level of income to fulfill the plan of having Laurie home.
One can imagine my shock when I was told that I was only 25, and no matter how hard I worked, or what I accomplished, I would not be promoted until at least 30 years of age. Moreover, our division had over 100 extra 8th levels already so being promoted at 30 was a long shot. Talk about a bubble being burst! This was a blow below the belt that I was completely not expecting. I felt like a rat in the proverbial rat race, running around the maze as fast as I could with dead ends everywhere I looked. I vowed to get out of the rat race, no matter how difficult or painful.