Fast Company: What's so bad about a meritocratic workplace?
DE BOTTON: The work we do is supposed to reflect our talents, intelligence, and so on. Therefore, the meritocratic idea that you "make your own luck" is a very punishing one and explains many people's anxiety and depression over the work they do.
FC: What's the alternative?
DE BOTTON: There's often a language of deceit in workplaces, like, "Hey, everyone's having a great time here!" An acknowledgment that, actually, sometimes work is pretty horrible could make people happier than some saccharine picture that makes them worry, "What's wrong with me?"
FC: It's wrong to be ambitious?
DE BOTTON: Not if you're ambitious about the right things. Eighteenth-century aristocrats valued skills such as riding horses and dancing. Today, the only merit that counts is our ability to make money. We measure ambition in financial terms, so a woman who stays home to look after children views herself as worthless. Why can't we be ambitious about, say, spending time with kids?
FC: How do we change that?
DE BOTTON: Organizations can begin by ditching their resume-based view of merit. Many recruiters subscribe to a meritocratic view of education. But smart employers know true merit is an unexpected beast and doesn't always dwell in the "academic achievements" section of a resume.
FC: And we all revel happily in mediocrity?
DE BOTTON: A society in which only extraordinary achievements are valued is setting most people up for a cruel fall. You're no more likely to become as wealthy as Bill Gates than a 17th-century peasant was to become as wealthy as Louis XIV of France. Give your employees realistic expectations and tell them you value what they do now — not what they might become in the future.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.