Oh, you think meritocracy exists? Tell me more about how you’re always overlooked.

So you want to talk about meritocracy, and how hard work will pay off, and justice will come your way someday? Cool story, bro.

My turn, let me start with a little story that’s slightly less crazy than your imaginary meritocracy pipe dream – something ridiculous about growing up religious.

I grew up being an ungrateful little shit, coming from a long line of ungrateful little shits, growing up religious in Texas.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have to be an ungrateful little shit – after all, I was born a white male, in America. A lot of my first-world-problems complaints in life have never really amounted to more than this:

Religious in the South should be qualified, because down here religion can sometimes (or sadly, often..) be different than religion may be in other, more sane, areas of the world. Our god was the god of perpetual disappointment, the god of lifelong imaginary toil and punishment, always teaching us some lesson or another through some perverse self-deluded belief that things not always going your way was god’s way of saying you’re not good enough.

In many ways, our god was the “God of America”, that is, the god of the american dream – the god behind all those oddballs out there thinking if they stick to the rat race long enough, work hard, pray, and get along more often than not, they’ll win the lottery and be rich. – the very same oddballs who vote republican against their own self-interest and the interest of their country and brothers, because if they win that lottery, a high tax rate for the betterment of others sounds like it’s really going to hurt. In other words, our god was the god of irony, never you mind the bits of scripture about helping your fellow man, let’s get rich!

If you can’t tell by this point, our god was the southern baptist god, the god against fun, and, basically – against everyone, it seemed. Generally speaking, life under our god was a struggle, for no good reason. Even when things were amazing, enjoying anything, ever, felt like some sort of sin. When you lost, god was punishing you, and when you won, it was because god did it, there was no such thing as personal achievement – it was weird.

To put it lightly, I learned some really wacky belief and faith systems early on in life.

It’s wasn’t all bad, not at all. Growing up religious meant I learned a whole lot about having structure in life, and to think about the big picture, a lot. When your god is the god of keeping score, you think a whole lot about every little misdeed, and wonder if the last will be the one to do you in for good.

Another positive: my parents and religious friends were not only religious, they, like me, were also human! That means they weren’t perfect, which means they slipped up from time to time.

Fortunately, and, paradoxically, the god of brimstone and hellfire and eternal punishment is also conveniently eternally forgiving whenever you feel like he should be. Convenience god for the win!

You just say a little prayer at night, asking god to help you be better next time, and because he’s in charge of you and everything ever, you dont really have to actually put in the effort to change yourself for the better tomorrow, because whatever happens is god’s plan, right?

Instead of putting in the effort, you say your part, chant your dogmatic little bit for the millionth time, brush the feeling of guilt off your shoulders, and wake up with a smile the next day, ready to point your finger of blame and play the church version of keeping up with the jones’ another day.

Back then, life was, seriously, quite easy. Especially with such a nice little loophole as a corner stone to our wacky warped little way of seeing the world. You chew your charcoal teeth, judging everyone else’s pearly whites, and continue the cycle until the reckoning (day of final judgement, which you’ve been practicing for for your entire life..) comes. All the while, so happy to be in the exclusive hip little club of ungrateful judgmental white people on god’s side.

At some point, the hypocritical paradox of religion in ‘Merica began to bother me, and, I discovered rock and roll. True story.

I found the rock and roll tunes more relatable and honest than a thousand pages of whatever-you’d-like-them-to-mean/revised-by-imperialistic-kings parables. The tunes’ lyrics seemed to come from an ironically cleaner, purer, and truer place of wisdom – this make sense in retrospect, because, you know, every band’s really good stuff is the stuff that comes from a place of honesty, before they make it big.

The heavily-revised modern version of the bible is alot like those other tunes, you know, the ones written by committee and evaluated for chart metrics. In other words, discovering rock and roll for me was a lot like spending your whole life listening to Nickelback, and then discovering Tool.

Some really great rock tunes planted the seed – and in time a great inner turmoil sprouted – believing in a cowards’ god was easy. If life sucked, we blamed god and were oh-so-helpless to change anything about our lot in life, because, gosh, god just wanted things to always be the way they were. But, when I thought about it quite a bit, believing in a god of convenience was easy, but it was a cop-out, and false.

Our god was the god of shifting the blame.

Our god was the god of shifting the responsibility.

Our god was the god of cowardice, the god of a spineless fool, too scared to ever try and be something or make something happen.

Sound familiar?

From that point onward, it was the same old boring story you’ve seen a million times before. I started asking a whole lot of “why?”, and bickering with my friends and family about our god getting ten thousand prayers about the football game on sunday, but a smaller percentage about world hunger.

Eventually, I was born again.. again. To anyone who’s been through something of the same, I highly recommend just about anything MJK has ever done, you’ll enjoy it, because his personal story is the same as yours.

I decided to ditch my parent’s twisted merit-based belief system from hell, and decided to embrace the random chaotic universe – and find another way of looking at things.

Starting a long journey towards a different personal belief system that worked better for me was not easy. There was a whole lot of “if there’s a god, why would he do such and such, so there must not be one”, then as I grew older, I learned that sometimes beauty is hidden in tragedy, and that there’s a lot more to life than everything always going perfectly. Without a rainy day, you’d never notice the sun.

.. So maybe there’s a god, or gods, after all? – I just, personally, don’t really care for any of them if this is the divine design. I’ve seen software written better than this.

In time, I settled into a live-and-let-live style belief system. Identifying as agnostic to some extent- that is, I don’t really care who’s right or wrong, or if there is or isn’t a god or gods.

To me, everyone has a right to their own personal belief system, even if it does them more bad than good – every man’s story is his own journey, and you’re free to find your own way and happiness in this existence, I think. If you want to believe in the rat race and that hard work with minimal fun & enjoyment pays off in the end because you get a gold star sticker from god for being better than everyone, knock yourself out, doesn’t bother me. If you want to actually follow the teachings of your christ, or the buddha, or whoever, or whatever – cool.

Turning a corner in terms of personal belief did not automatically make me a better person, hell, I’d argue I became a worse person, for a good long while. I, like any good christian, or former-christian, took the parts that worked for me right along to my ‘new life’, and left out a lot of the harder parts.

I found the lifestyle choice of being a pessimistic self-involved little asshole easier than putting the thought time in to *why* I was so pessimistic, so I brought that right along with me. Calling myself, cutely, a “realist”, and rejecting silly optimists as silly.

Another thing I brought along with me from before was that more often than not, I rode proudly onward on a bullshit high horse of self-delusional judgement and holier-than-thou. I had everything in life figured out, and was kicking ass and taking names. I knew the politics game, and had seen the other side of dogma. I knew ALL ABOUT life (right?..), and that being a good person, or at least better than others, was, truly, just telling a good story – just marketing.

The self-marketing lifestyle worked really well for me, and still does, more or less. I learned early on that, sadly, life can be a lot more about spin, than truth or hard work. You can run with this, and learn from this bitter truth, or spend a whole lot of time decrying it and being upset over it – and find yourself in the same place in the end. Spin works wonders for you, as long as its grounded, to some degree, in truth – until someone calls your shit.

Growing up white male american, with nothing more than first world problems, I didn’t really understand what it was to truly want something. Not just want something, but want to truly DESERVE what you want.

I didn’t know what ‘want’ was.

I had good-enough grades, I got into college, I skidded along, and landed a really amazing job in the big bad corporate world of big-brand software. My biggest fear in life, ever, was having to make it on my own if my ever-disappointed parents ever made good on any of their good-christian promises to disown me for this grade or that.

Then, I met my wife.

I went into meeting my wife pretty confident and arrogantly – still riding my high-horse of convenience, constantly feeling a hot-shot for this or that. I was still a software engineer, of course, so, predictably, I wasn’t really a hot shot with the ladies, but I felt like one anyway.

Here’s how it happened: I wrote up some random missive for the Nth time on craigslist, utilizing my gift of spin. Dudes, let me tell you, if you have a heart, a brain, and can write, craigslist is a guaranteed-win – it’s like shooting fish in a barrel when every other post on there is just aiming at the predictable cliches. The problem is, there aren’t a lot of winners out there – so you go on some dates with some of these people and your mighty steed, that high horse, gets bigger and bigger. By the time I met Amanda, I felt like god’s gift. By that point I had convinced myself I was ready for the real big leagues, no more N-year girlfriends, no more half-in/half-out bullshit, just ready for something real.

Then I met her.

You’ll never understand what I mean here until it happens to you, and man, I hope this has or will happen to you – I’m just like you, and everyone else, all I really want is to love, and to be loved. I fall in love easily, and just like every true american, I’m the best thing ever – so who the fuck is so and so to say my shit stinks, right? Then you meet a real, genuine, responsible, honest person – and, if you have any goddamn wits about you at all, you feel like you hit a brick wall at highway speeds – who the fuck am I? Right? Right.

Before I met my wife, I had *never*, never met anyone worth a damn. I say that with absolute honesty, and let me tell you, I am fortunate enough to have more than a few amazing people as life-long friends, *all* worth more than a damn – but this kid was in another league. Before her, I had told myself I was ready for something real, ready for “the one”, and then, on the very first date, I met “the one” – and immediately had an unexpected reality check.

Never before her had I had this primal fear in the pit of my stomach, this sickening understanding of how false, fake, shallow, and immature I truly was. And, here’s the thing – Amanda, my wife, is the sweetest person in the world – she didn’t say a damn thing to make me feel that way, and, well, that’s kind of the point. I’d done the longterm he-said/she-said girlfriends before where you’re both judgy mcjudgerson and too prideful to truly give a shit – I’d had the girl who checks your shit all the time to make herself feel better, and really, that’s okay, because you know you do it to her too – it just feels good in this really horrible way, right? Right. Amanda wasn’t that.

Amanda and I didn’t meet to become husband and wife, in fact, she was convinced we weren’t each other’s types – it was just a casual coffee, and after that very first date I went home with my head aflame in paranoid fear. Here was someone worth hanging on to, someone worth a damn – and immediately the self-delusional spin and hype of ‘being ready’ for something like that collapsed. Suddenly I knew what desire truly was, what it was to not just want something, but deserve it. Suddenly, instead of being the sure-of-himself yet-another-asshole – I was the guy who needed to grow up real fucking fast, and do my damned best to ever be 10% of what a woman like that deserved.

I’m still trying, and failing all the time, nearly 5 years of marriage later 🙂 Fooled her!

Meeting Amanda felt like losing my religion, all over again. It was immediately clear that I needed to be next-level, and leave the asshole-me behind.

A few weeks after meeting Amanda, I met her parents. My future father-in-law, Dennis, was this really funny and awesome guy. He’s the kind of guy that when he tells you something, you have this feeling it’s 90% bullshit, but somehow, deep down, you completely believe him and every little story he tells. I can promise you that I truly believed him, very deeply, when the first thing he mentioned to me upon meeting me was that Amanda grew up in the desert in California, and that there’s a whole lot of desert out there. He told me that I needed to go see it sometime, so I could understand just how much there really is – he said people go missing out there all the time, and that, if I ever mistreated his daughter, I would really understand just how that happens. Then, he winked at me, and laughed.

The thing about my father in law is, he’s just like his daughter, he’s the nicest guy in the entire world, and there’s just something about him, and his kin, that when they say something, or you meet them – you just get this primal intuition that they’re the real thing, in all ways. Whether it be being the most amazing woman in the world, or the not-bullshitting-you-at-all-about-that-desert-thing father of that woman, these people are legit. You look at these people and you see right down into their soul – there’s a real honesty there – to a terrifying degree, in more than one way.

Almost immediately, Dennis and I became good friends, both having this super-serious on-edge slightly-off-the-rocker intensity, and the gift of telling stories, the gift of spin. He was this really great, genuine, down to earth blue-collar guy – and I loved that about him, but I was also confused.

When I met Dennis, he was a bus driver. He didn’t have any goals or aspirations it seemed, and that seemed good enough for him. Coming from a long line of overachievers with constant guilt and disappointment in one’s self as a way of life, I was extremely interested in how Dennis, the bus driver, was so happy in life, when all the white collar american-dream sell-outs I knew, and was, weren’t.

How could one look at one’s self in the mirror, as a bus driver, and be happy? Impossible.

As time wore on, I spent a lot of time chatting with Dennis, and I learned that in actuality, he’s seen it all, he’s been there and back – and to my great fortune, he tripped into my life early enough to tell me all about it.

Dennis didn’t go to college, and he married himself a polish wife who could cook. His wife was one of 12 children in a catholic household in the truest sense. To his wife, religion isn’t something you shove in everyone else’s face and one-up everyone with, it’s a personal, private thing that’s really quite beautiful – had I been her son instead, I probably would have had the very same genuine, sincere, honest, and kind demeanor that both of her kids have. Having 11 siblings, several who die as a matter of statistical probability, teaches one early on in life the difference between ‘Merican “want”, and reality.

Somehow, somewhere, Dennis picked this same understanding up along the way – though I’m not sure where.

He may have picked up his kind and gentle understanding of the way things are when he was doing EMS for a number of years around southern California, rushing babies to the hospital to be born, and scraping some unfortunate soul off the highway after a horrendous accident the very same day. Driving EMS, he saw it all, truly, all of it. That first real career opportunity opened his eyes, at a very young age, to the reality that the world is both beautiful, and tragic, all at once. I can’t say for sure, but I’d wager those experiences also taught him early on that life is what you make of it.

A few years later, Dennis started his own small business, repairing and customizing wheelchairs – also a humbling experience, working with and improving the lives of the less fortunate. Dennis was rewarded, well, for his entrepreneurial spirit, for taking the risks you have to take to go make something from scratch. Years, later, at the height of his career he was making several hundred thousand dollars a year, as a primary vendor for several prominent southern California hospitals. His risk, and enduring kindness was paying off in big ways – until it didn’t. Sometimes someone bigger moves in with an inferior product, but has the right political muscle, or price, or chinese knock-off supplier, or whatever – and capitalism rains on another parade.

For a time, Dennis had it all, then he didn’t. And I’m sure that stung like a motherfucker, but when I met him, years and years later after the fact – he’d learned a really hard lesson from his rise and fall from fame – life is, truly, what you make of it. Being there and back, Dennis doesn’t give a shit what you think about the fact that he drives a bus now. He has a part time gig, not a whole lot of money to his name, and he lives a happier life than a whole lot of other people I’ve known. Dennis made his mark on the world, and improved thousands of lives in the process, and he’s put in his dues. Nobody can take that from him, the sense of making something from nothing, doing a whole hell lot of a good with it, and being okay with it all when the spotlight moves on.

In recent years, I’ve been a bit of a risk-taker myself career-wise, again setting out on a journey into the unknown to figure out what’s just right for me, when what I fell into before wasn’t working out quite right. In many ways I’ve been quite successful myself, thanks, in part, to hard work, but more-so, thanks to dumb luck. There have been ups and downs in my own personal story, and a stupid amount of time invested in thinking on what success is or isn’t, until I came to the conclusion this past summer that success, for me, is making the world a better place than it would have been without me.

I think, in a lot of ways, that’s Dennis’ personal metric of success as well. The banks may not give much of a shit about Dennis’ retirement account, and if he gave a shit about keeping up with the jones’, he’d have a struggle, but, that’s the thing – he doesn’t. He’s already lapped the rest of us, so self-deluded in our score-keeping game like our popular vengeful god – Dennis has seen the other side, kicked ass, taken names, and, I’d argue, done the world more good with his own short-lived career than the whole of any church I attended as a child.

I’ve found, one of the finer points in life, is being able to look at yourself, and your accomplishments, with pride. This sounds easier than it is. Finding a point of pride can be *incredibly* difficult when you believe in some false god equation of merit equaling success. If you limit yourself to an overly strict, and detrimental, belief system that hinges on merit with some big pay-off at the end- you’re going to be let down, over, and over, and over again.

Often times we are taught pride is a ‘sin’, or bad thing. Indeed, growing up in a religious household, I felt fairly often that one should be kind, and humble in all things, always – and never prideful. But, in time, that was one bit about our religious views that really bothered me – there was never room to celebrate an achievement – because acknowledgement of an achievement was to turn from the one-true vengeful god. Our reward was, always, waiting, in heaven – or so I’m told.

Insane, right? Waiting on a silly achievement trophy, never taking a breath to appreciate or celebrate personal success. Madness – and yet, some variant of this sickness is in so many of us that we don’t even think it odd. Many people downplay their personal achievements, rather than celebrate them – because they never got the credit they were due, because their version of ‘reward in heaven’ didn’t play out the way they thought it would.

If you’re waiting for a reward, you’re wasting your life.

So many coders I’ve met have these weird hang-ups about the one that got away – the one time they were right about some big project decision, and were unheard, and then vindicated in the end – without credit. Sometimes the story ends there, sometimes it’s even more perverse, with a massively successful product going well, with a whole bunch of credit-takers (or, perhaps, people with a sense of pride?) putting their name in the blank for who deserves the credit. These guys without the pat-on-the-back they always wanted can never see themselves as worthwhile, or take pride in their personal accomplishments and contributions, because they’re waiting on a gold-star-sticker to come down that they’ve always been told will come.

I’ve seen it over and over again, it’s always some guy with jaw-dropping talent and amazing personal achievements, who can never be convinced his efforts are good enough. Nevermind convincing him that his achievements are more than good enough, they’re usually better than good, they’re fantastic – but, it’s impossible to get through. Someone always took the credit, or someone had the idea, or someone worked harder, or was in the right place at the right time, there’s a thousand reasons, and they all boil down to one simple common coder fault:

Coders *love* the idea of a meritocracy, that is, hard work equates good fortune.

Hard work does not equal good fortune.

Trapping yourself in a self-limiting belief system of meritocracy is only going to disappoint you, regularly. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a great manager, or friend, who will see achievement and let you know about it, but no amount of praise from those who count will be heard if all you care about is receiving that pat-on-the-back from the assholes who don’t acknowledge you.

Never grabbing a hold of your own life, and achieving your true potential, because you’re waiting for your pat-on-the-back from some credit-taking scumbag is just about as crazy, and certainly as lazy, as believing in a coward’s cruel god.

When the credit-takers increase, and your 2 man project turns into a 5 man project with a dozen other management-types billing the same account, and you don’t get credit – it’s time to reward yourself – it’s times like those when you need to sit back for a minute, and think about where you came from, the good fortune you’ve had, take great pride in your achievements (or failures!), and plan where you’re going next.

(above photo by Morgan Elizabeth)

Sure, it feels great to tell yourself that you deserve better, and whine about how you’re always overlooked for the promotion because you don’t kiss the right asses. That stuff feels great – but it’s a disservice to yourself, your team, and your company. Instead, I suggest you drop the false god of shifting the blame, your false god of convenience, and grow a pair.

When you’re ready, you’ll need to spend some time thinking about yourself, and what you want, and find a little place in the world that matches those goals. You’ll have to endure conflict and the reality that when you face conflict, sometimes you lose, but remember, you’re likely a white male american, who sits in an air conditioned building, with great computer equipment, reading hacker news all day – your company’s political “conflicts” are a joke, and weathering a few of them rather than shying away like a coward with the blame-finger will strengthen your character.

Having a hard time growing a pair? I understand, I was an lazy asshole on a high horse too – until I learned the difference between wanting something and deserving it. Do you want a better life story, or, do you deserve it?

Dennis has this great piece of advice that he calls ‘the five second rule’. It’s not the five second rule you know – Dennis five second rule: “your whole life can change in 5 seconds, that’s all it takes.”.

My corollary/addendum to Dennis’ rule is this: “Some things happen because they will, and some things happen because you make them happen.” You can let life come at you, passive-aggressively complaining all the while, blaming some god or silly idea of merit when things don’t work out the way you wanted, or you can make your life your own.

Leave the meritocracy that may, or may not, exist behind, take a breath and celebrate your personal achievements as well as those of your friends and family. Don’t wait up or waste your life worrying about some lifetime achievement reward that may or may not come for your poor little white male american soul with so much suffering – make your story your own, and make a dent.

Music: Puscifer – The Humbling River