By Lizzy Carmine (she/her), illustrated by Yi Jong (she/her)
The weight of expectations in society are pressures that can help motivate us to achieve our goals, but on the other side of the coin, they can be crippling. Our inner critic, societal pressures, and healthy relationships are built on surpassing our expectations to become better and more acceptable beings. Or that’s the dream we’ve been sold. Expectations are commonly used and seen as a healthy push in the right direction, so we can successfully achieve milestones in life. But the pressure to have a successful career and stable relationship in a world with “endless limitations” and “equal opportunity” has resulted in our extreme anxiety caused by our work = reward society. It’s more nuanced and complex than this, and we need to acknowledge the many factors at play when it comes to becoming “successful” or achieving greatness.
We spend most of our adolescent lives in schooling institutions, and once we are no longer bound to the structure of classrooms, studying, and exams we are sprung into the world with an immense amount of new authority over our own lives. Whether you attended university fresh out of highschool, or waited until your mid twenties to start tertiary education, the sudden sense of postgraduate freedom waiting for you at the end of your studies is an exciting prospect. For many graduates it’s the first time in their life where they are able to decide what their daily life will look like. I like to call this strange period: “post-graduation blues”. Post-grad blues launches you into full control of your own destiny, and that responsibility can be simultaneously liberating and terrifying. I thought my life after university would revolve around working in a fast-paced newsroom (I’m extremely stressed and anxious at the thought of that) and finally living a more financially stable life. My reality certainly didn’t match my expectations and I faulted myself for my “losses”. The daunting question of “so what are you doing now?” haunted every conversation I had, and set my inner critic into overdrive.
This year in June I emotionally broke down. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from stress that was induced by feeling like I didn’t achieve my goal within society's expected “life milestone” timeframe. Leaving my hospitality role behind for a “real job” in the media industry was an expectation I had for myself that would solidify my intelligence and worth in the world, or so meritocracy had taught me to believe. As I watched my fellow classmates update their job titles on LinkedIn, I saw my inbox fill up with automated rejection letters that felt like leeches on my self-esteem and flared up the rage of my inner critic. Six months of countless hours spent perfecting job applications whilst struggling to pay rent, and with nothing to show for it had left me doubting my self-worth, intellect, and future.
Meritocracy is a term coined by British sociologist Michael Young, a true proponent of social equality. Young wrote The Rise of Meritocracy in 1958, a dystopian portrayal of a society in 2033, where IQ + effort = merit. It was a satire, used to criticise such a society, but unfortunately interpreted in a way Young did not intend. From then on, meritocracy has become the notion that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and if you work hard enough you will receive what you deserve; money, status, and the respect that follows etc. Louis Menand said “attributes extraneous to merit, such as gender, skin colour, physical ableness, and family income, are not supposed to constrain the choice of educational pathways.” The key words are not supposed to. I think meritocracy is a scam that tricks people into believing they are failures if they don’t get the results they worked hard for. The path to success isn’t so black and white, institutions run on bias, racist, sexist, and classist systems that reward rich white men within an ideology that is supposed to allow equal opportunity. Meritocracy doesn’t care about employers' personal biases that influence their perception of you, and their expectations of how well you will perform in a role based on a forty minute interview. Meritocracy also doesn’t consider the effort and privilege getting into networks involves, and the career opportunities that are only available to people within those networks. Meritocracy truly is a fruitless attempt at equality.
Every day the social construct of meritocracy is reinforced by people who measure their worth by comparing themselves to other people’s lifestyles, to determine who is more interesting, smart, or rich. We analyse each other's job titles, relationship statuses, and living situations and create expectations for others to live up to, based on who we think they are. The power dynamics that meritocracy enables has created a bizarre superiority complex I’ve experienced at work; white collar workers snapping their fingers at me for service is my lived experience of this societal construct in action. Being treated as less than according to another person's expectation of who and how I should be according to my job title ignited my initial need to “get a real job”, to not get treated like shit by people who believed they were better than me.
It’s common for acquaintances to ask each other what they do, to get an understanding of who they are talking to, and compare lifestyles to create conversation. In doing so the conversation is inadvertently reinforcing comparison and judgement, instantly creating a set of expectations we believe that person should abide by. Having expectations is a normal part of life, coming to the realisation that we can’t control the outcome of anything or any person is an essential part of not letting those expectations rule our emotions and trigger our inner critic.
Meritocracy is a scam that tricks people into believing they are failures if they don't get the results they worked hard for.
My favorite modern day philosopher, Alain de Botton, uses the term “status anxiety” to explain the suffering that is caused by what others think of us. If people think we are wealthy or attractive, then they will treat us with kindness. Marketing professionals use our status anxiety to capitalise off our insecurities, and this adds to the unattainable expectations we uphold ourselves to, to please others. De Botton’s teachings played an important role in helping me understand that I was subconsciously anxious about my status and that is why I was so stressed about not living up to my post-graduation expectations. I overcame overbearing emotions and stress when I realised that my job title doesn’t equate to my worth in the world. In the current state of the world our jobs have become so interconnected with who we are. There is an extreme variety of choice in choosing what career you want, and our jobs have intertwined into our identity. This means, if we work in a job that society thinks is unimportant then we often feel unimportant too. There's meritocracy making a guest appearance once again.
We need to ditch meritocratic ideas and let go of other people's opinions to create a happier state of mind to live in. You can study in your 30s, start your career (if you want one) in your 40s, find love when you're 60! – reaching milestones within a timeframe is irrelevant to living a happy life. When I decided to let my ego go, I was able to unlock joy from the smallest of things. I went from feeling embarrassed about serving and cleaning up after customers to being proud and thankful to be able to work part-time, and use my “spare” time doing more of what I love. Living off a low income can be challenging at times, but I make it work and I’d rather be happy than stressed trying to force something that is out of my control. I battled with feeling like I was being lazy for a short while thanks to society's excellent job of conditioning us. But once I finally released the expectations I was holding myself to, I started to gain a sense of calm and life started falling into place organically.