Yes, the United States has a culture. For those of us living here it may seem transparent, but there are ways in which we part company with even our most comparable countries. One of them is our love of competitions, which are not only central to our educational and vocational experiences but pop up in group recreational activities. There is something about needing to know who is the best that gets our interest.
While we may bewilder Canadians, western Europeans, Australians, and northeast Asians by competing at choral singing, ranch chores (rodeo), and even ballroom dancing, we are taking that to a further extreme by inventing entire lives based around it – and those choosing that regimen are the worse off. That is the thesis of Daniel Markovits’s “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition,” in the just-released September issue of Atlantic.
Markovits, a Yale law professor whose article is planned to be released in book form, exaggerated – most Americans know little firsthand about the things of which he wrote. But for those regretting not being in what has been called the 1%, he offered a look at the underside of how they got and stayed there. And it’s not pleasant.
Have you wondered about the lives of those with the half-million-dollar-and up salaries in “finance, management, law, and medicine”? Per Markovits, they now split off in preschool, when they prepare to “apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews,” which is repeated with “elite middle and high schools” that “commonly require three to five hours of homework a night,” all focusing not on “experiments and play” but instead on “the accumulation of the training and skills, or human capital, needed to be admitted to an elite college and, eventually, to secure an elite job.” From there, these one-percenters “work with unprecedented intensity,” for example, if they are large-firm lawyers, producing 2,400 annual billable hours (calling for 70-hour weeks), or, if bankers, putting in 20-hour day-and-night combinations. Those ultimately successful, per sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, survive a “final elimination” by being “still able to maintain a good mental set, and keep their family life together.” And eventually if they want they can retire, after which they will probably spend much time, money, hope, and effort helping their descendants do as they did.
Although this program, which despite Markovits’s use of the word, is not truly meritocratic – per my post earlier this year with oboes and Guatemala in the title, the type of merit is also critical – it causes problems. It endangers three areas most would call key to a generally successful life: happiness, sex, and longevity. It may provide its practitioners with net worths unknown without entrepreneurism or large inheritances, but with, until the work ends, little opportunity to be enjoyed. Per the author, it forces even very young people to stick to their preordained plans at the expense of exploration and self-discovery, in the process “exploiting” themselves and “impoverishing” their “inner lives.”
Of such choices for themselves and their children, it is easy to see the appeal, especially for Americans, who, even those of lower family education and incomes, have long heard about “making something” of themselves, and, if particularly smart or capable, of getting to “the top.” Winning such long, massive competitions can provide powerful self-esteem and eliminate any fear of having failed or underachieved. Being without any real possibility of financial failure has its advantages. However, I suspect the truly smart people, with vision of wider scope, know that excelling in this way is not the best they can do. There is more to life than that, and those in the tracks described here are missing it, completely and permanently.
Evaluating our success is open to great debate. Even if we agree on who was better than whom and by how much, one simple truth still applies: those winning rat races are still rats.