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When the Perfect Really Is the Enemy of the Good

Very few aspects of our lives are completely meritocratic. As much as we might like it to be the case, we usually aren’t evaluated solely on our talents and effort. Something that has nothing to do with us will almost always affect our success – and that should change how we try to attain it.

To understand why, consider a math test. If your performance on the test were only judged by the number of correct answers, it would be pretty meritocratic; you’d study hard knowing that every hour invested would help to improve your score. But what if you took the test and then received a lottery ticket that would completely determine your score? The results would not be based on merit at all, and you might not spend any time studying.

Plenty of situations in our lives fall somewhere in between. A promising student’s application to the nation’s top university might fail because there was already a track star-cum-virtuoso violinist in the sophomore class. A great book may never get reviewed because the critics were too busy or the galleys got lost in the mail.

These things aren’t the student’s or the author’s fault. They’re just bad luck. Yet when luck is part of the equation, we have to change our approach. Striving to be the best is not always the best strategy, especially if our time is limited.

When managing our time, we often face a tradeoff between the quantity and quality of the things we do. The student might spend weeks trying to put together a stunning application to a single college, or send five pretty good ones to a range of schools. The author could try to write the Great American Novel over a period of decades, or churn out a decent book every couple of years.

In a meritocracy, both the student and the author might choose the first options, secure in the knowledge that their efforts – if they truly did come close to perfection – would be handily rewarded. But that’s not the reality they face. When the situation is more like a lottery, the only thing that matters is how many tickets you’re holding.

Moreover, sometimes factors besides luck can turn these kinds of situations into a lottery. For instance, it may just be the case that the admissions office and the book critics have different views of what’s important than the student and the author do. The problem is that neither the student nor the author can ever be sure what matters to their respective judges; even without any element of randomness, they’re still looking at a crapshoot.

Realizing that success was partly beyond their control, the student might slap together a dozen college applications, and the author might crank out a dozen books. Quality might suffer somewhat in their eyes, but who could predict what the outcome would be? The judges, whose preferences were unknown, might still approve. A B+ effort from the student’s or the author’s point of view might have the same chance of success as an A.

I worry that quality really is suffering in the areas of our economy where merit is not a sufficient driver of success. We don’t have as many authors writing Great American Novels, and we don’t see some of the most promising students doing their utmost to enter elite institutions. Surmising that their talents and effort might not be appreciated, they choose quantity over quality. As a result, we live in a world awash with mediocre products and unfulfilled potential. A bigger dose of meritocracy might be the cure.

Image credit: sergign/Shutterstock

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