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The Death of Earned Competence

It's almost impossible to truly believe you're the "best" at anything.

By Petrarch  |  August 10, 2017

For as long as there have been elderly people and younger generations, there have been complaints that "today's youth" are lazy, shiftless, ill-disciplined, and otherwise uninspiring.  No doubt the first apes to come down from the trees were scorned by their elders as being too lazy to climb back up where they belonged.

It's hard to accurately compare different generations because the environments are so different - we all know it was enormously easier for a high school graduate to find a solid family-supporting job in 1950 than in 2010.  Today's young people are starting their adult lives - marriage, children, moving out of Mom's basement - later than ever before, but it doesn't seem entirely fair to totally blame them.

Still, we all have choices to make and consequences to endure.  A McJob may be all that's available, but a McJob is still honest labor and may lead to something more, since experienced McDonald's employees are encouraged to become franchisees who regularly retire as millionaires.

Instead, young men are spending their days playing videogames.  The Chicago Tribune interviewed one of these slacker/losers, who made a very interesting point:

"When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded," he said. "With a job, it's always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward."

What's In It For Me?

At first glance, this seems odd.  How could the reward of a job, particularly a grunt job, be up in the air?  Everyone knows what their hourly wage is, and we can all watch a clock.

But this forgets that, for most people, the paycheck is only a part of the rewards they need and desire, maybe not even the largest part.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs definitely has a foundation of the physiological needs a paycheck can meet - food, shelter, clothing, and such - but once the bare minima are met, people start caring about more mental rewards like respect, esteem, and self-confidence.

A fry-flipper might meet their physiological needs through their employment, but nobody is going to expect or receive much respect or esteem from that lowly position.  If a worker feels like their job is the bottom of the barrel (quite probably because it is), and also does not feel like they will ever have the opportunity to rise out of it, how motivated to work can you expect them to be?  Only the threat of actual starvation would spur diligence, and in our modern welfare societies that's unlikely.

Yet for thousands of years, nearly all men were able to lead their lives, earn their daily bread, and provide for their families one way or another, most of the time.  We'd look back at them with horror and disgust at the poverty, but at the time, few of them minded because everyone else they knew lived just the same.

And that's the key point: In our totally interconnected world, hardly anybody has any opportunity to feel they like truly excel at anything.

Gaston Is The Best?

Consider the classic song from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, wherein all the men of the village sing about how great and manly Gaston is.  And indeed, as he responds in verse, "As a specimen, true, I'm intimidating."

But who was he comparing himself with to reach this conclusion?  The men of his village of, what, a thousand souls max?  In the movie, he looks fairly beefy, but hardly what we'd consider to be world-class today.

This didn't matter to Gaston: he had no clear idea what was out in the rest of the world, nor did anyone else he knew.  As far as he or his village mates could see, he really was the best.

We see the same thing in American historical reality.  President Abraham Lincoln was famously a champion log-splitter and wrestler; he excelled at what were definitely manly undertakings.

But champion of what?  In 1830, when he was 21, his entire state of Illinois contained a whopping 157,445 people - and that was three times as many as were counted in 1820.  By way of comparison, the Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls more than 640,000 students all by itself.  If young Lincoln was state wrestling champion, that would mean he'd beaten, well, about the same number of opponents as the champion of a local meet of a half-dozen L.A. high schools.

Not really a presidential qualification when you look at it that way, is it?  Yet for Lincoln and his peers, as with the fictional Gaston, it was enough to build confidence and credit for earned competence.

The same is true for the ladies.  Gaston considers Belle the most beautiful girl in the village - against some uncommonly-well-qualified competition in the form of the three anonymous blondes who've fallen for him - and perhaps she is.

Today's girl, though, isn't comparing herself against a few dozen others her own age.  She's looking at the supermarket tabloids and envying someone like Angelina Jolie or Kim Kardashian, considered the most beautiful out of some four billion women alive on Earth today.  Feminists do have a point when they complain that world-wide standards of female beauty are flatly impossible to achieve for inhabitants of the real world.

The Rest Are All Drips

The problem is that modern technology has allowed us to compare ourselves with such a staggeringly enormous number of people, far more than ever before, that just about all of us can never measure up.

Are you the best soccer player on your team?  Great, but you could rattle off dozens of names of people far better than you.

Are you the strongest or prettiest?  We all know of people more so.

Are you the richest?  Nope, not that either.

How about the best tiddlywink player?  Well, maybe you're the best tiddlywinkler any of your friends have ever heard of, but that's only because nobody cares about tiddlywinks, so where's the glory in that?

Because of our constant saturation in global media, there is absolutely no domain of expertise on earth where anyone who cares cannot instantly identify dozens of people better at it than you.  No normal person has a chance at earned competence in any meaningful domain that many people care about.


Popular videogames, like movies, are known to the general public.  Just as everyone knows what Star Wars is even if they don't like it; similarly nearly everyone has heard of the Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft computer games, along with many others.

But who are the champions at playing those games?  We all know Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, but who's the best in GTA or WoW?  For whatever reason, they aren't household names even in their own gaming communities.

This provides a psychological opportunity and a possible explanation for the popularity of gaming among young men: Unlike anything else in their lives, playing videogames offers a real, viable opportunity to be "the best" that any of their friends know by name.

The problem is that it's phony - competence at a videogame does not translate into any skill of actual value unless you are an Air Force pilot.  But so are a lot of things in today's world - watching sports and wearing official merchandise does not make you an athlete any more than wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat gives you political power or sleeping in a garage turns you into a car.

In the meantime, just as a large chunk of America celebrated Donald Trump's victory even though they had nothing to do with it beyond pulling a lever, young men build their mental self-image via an entirely fake and inherently meaningless activity that is, by definition, completely unproductive.  But if it's the only way they can realistically get that confidence boost, can you really blame them?

Maybe instead of ridiculing the gaming community, we'd do better to try to think of ways their natural human desire for the respect that comes with being good at something can be met somehow with something that's both actually useful and genuinely achievable for a normal guy.