Cherries, Meritocracy, and Risk of Swallowing the Pits
Daniel Markovits' Meritocracy Trap Against the Backdrop of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard
Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
10 August 2020
Serendipity is when you’re driving on the 405 freeway toward Santa Monica one foggy evening and it strikes you that a Yale Law professor just mentioned Anton Chekhov in his audiobook. You’re the only one in the car, so you reach for the 30-second rewind button without the guilt of what it confirms (that you weren’t really paying attention to the last 30 or so minutes). You never thought about the possibly harmonious mesh of law and literature, before.
The world, if only for a moment, strikes you as serendipitously in alignment with your life because earlier that day, you had reached for Anton Chekhov’s collection of short stories from your bookshelf. Because earlier that week, month and year, you had desperately sought such tiny crutches of alignment and in its stead got a worldwide pandemic. Because in the gap between your inner thoughts—“to hell with everything, really!”—and not-so-clear-cut societal demands for a clear-cut timeline (grandma’s broken record evidenced by “when are you getting married?” remarks; what your next career move would be, and so on), you want assurance that the intuitive parts of your decision-making have served you well and are there to stay. After all, you perhaps managed to steer clear of settling for the cookie-cutter mold of a job, love, or X,Y,Z and it took lots of convincing for something you already had the answer to deep down. Why?
Daniel Markovits, the aforementioned law professor, posits in The Meritocracy Trap that in profit-seeking and our modern-day merit-seeking habits, we have solidified a denouncement of everything in our path we once held enjoyable, including ourselves. He writes that competition becomes inescapably personal in systems of meritocracy, where there exist economic value and stock in the form of human capital.
The yearning for such elite membership is a peculiar one. What comes to mind: schools consumed by rankings, law firms and banks with reputations outpacing and outperforming themselves, HR and internal departments naming themselves ‘human capital management.’
In Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, one can sense how Chekhov may have lamented the commodification of land. Profit-seeking: Cutting down cherry orchards to make room to build plots for leased villas. One forgets to ask, “Why?”
Markovits argues such commodification applies to human capital as well, because in building ourselves up as our own biggest assets, we position ourselves as asset managers of our own portfolios: ourselves. In theory, that sounds golden — who wouldn’t want to be more successful, accomplished, set? But it’s worth noting what that can lead to if left unexamined. Because, here too, one forgets to ask, “Why?”
In foregoing things we truly enjoy and are good at, in reaching higher and higher the meritocracy ladder, we risk swallowing unpleasant hurdles—‘cherry pits,’ so to say. Time spent strategizing the questions worth skipping over on a standardized test instead of sharpening critical thinking skills, glorification of the billable hour rather than an hour with family, business trips with city views but with no room to enjoy the city. You get the idea.
It may all seem worth it because we then get slapped with a degree (never you mind the debt) and with dinner party remarks (“Wow, in her twenties and accomplished so much already”). But in swallowing the pit, we also risk choking on it. Choking on it when we realize the wobbly tipping point at the edge of the ‘money serving you or you serving money?’ quandary.
Chekhov is an observer, a humanist, more than an ideologue. Hence his refrain from judgmental criticism. Instead, like a kind friend, he offers observations and leaves the ultimate decision-making in our hands, so long as we’re not lying to ourselves that what others may demand from us is inherently what we should be demanding from ourselves, too.
LUBOV. What truth? You see where truth is, and where untruth is, but I seem to have lost my sight and see nothing. You boldly settle all important questions, but tell me, dear, isn't it because you're young, because you haven't had time to suffer till you settled a single one of your questions? You boldly look forward, isn't it because you cannot foresee or expect anything terrible, because so far life has been hidden from your young eyes? You are bolder, more honest, deeper than we are, but think only, be just a little magnanimous, and have mercy on me. I was born here, my father and mother lived here, my grandfather too, I love this house. I couldn't understand my life without that cherry orchard, and if it really must be sold, sell me with it!
. . .
My dead, my gentle, beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye!
Your truth is your cherry orchard. In Chekhov’s play, the cutting down of a cherry orchard may have symbolized the abandonment of the familiar to make room for progress and a new social order. It may have stood for a no longer useful raft in the changing tide on which you are told you are bound to sink if you don’t jump ship and produce, commodify, build, make money, thump your chest like Leo did in Wolf of Wall Street, hang out with the right crowd at the right time in the right place, etc., all while foregoing things that may have actually mattered to you instead.
I wish I had these two written pieces, one written in 1904 and the other in 2019, when I was fresh out of law school last year and stuck in the middle of a summer rainstorm in a random cafe in Madrid, Spain. Markovits and Chekhov would have helped unravel my predicament. I was set to start work as a newly-minted associate that coming Fall, but intuitively knew deep down I had swallowed and choked on one too many pits in the past thanks to the impervious concept of making decisions (except, not really) by settling for something that wasn’t really ‘me.’ This time I backed out, respectfully. I got a one-sentence “we’re disappointed to hear that” response against the backdrop of my heart-felt vulnerability, and then proceeded to walk straight in to the rain. Did I make a mistake? I didn’t know if this was the right decision — it certainly wasn’t the correct one to the school counselors concerned more with rankings than their students. But it sure did feel truthful. Something about that summer rain and honesty with oneself made for one very cathartic cleanse. One to which I owe my current peace of mind.
I’m not an asset manager. My hope, for myself and for you, is that we instead first learn to be our own best advocates and counselors with knowledge of the rather rudimentary but oft-forgotten concept of eating cherries that bring us delight and discarding (not swallowing, not choking on) the useless pits.
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