Choose Meritorious Over Meretricious

Some years ago in the early months of starting my second business, I met with a friend who had recently started his own private equity firm. He had met with some substantial success by helping a company experience dramatic growth. He had helped Precision Drilling build itself from a small one operator service company into one of the largest North American drilling companies in a handful of years. He continued to have a close working relationship with the principal of the company. Our fledgling company was producing a product for service companies in the directional drilling industry. A shareholder and I were meeting with our friend to talk about how we could position ourselves such that a company like Precision Drilling would be interested in swooping in and purchasing us. Our friend patiently told us that in order for us to be valuable to a company like Precision Drilling we needed to be offering some value. We simply were too young and too small to be of much value to anyone. In other words, we had to do something before we could be something. We were looking for the exits before we had even entered the building of our entrepreneurial efforts. We were looking for a shortcut to success. We wanted to sell what we didn’t even yet own.

In Two Paths, we talked about the choice with which Hercules was presented. He could choose a life of ease or one of struggle. We’re each faced with these choices as well. We can choose to be entitled and dependent on the support of others or we can fiercely face struggle and pave our own path testing and developing ourselves along the way. Many of us want the designation without the dedication. We crave the certificate without the commitment. We want to be validated before we add value. We seek praise before we produce. Amateurs want to be just like their idols. They want to follow the leaders. Whereas, the best want anything other than being like others. The best are desperate to separate themselves. As Arnold Schwarzenegger observed, “There is nothing worse than being average.” The worst thing to pros is to be like others. The best thing for amateurs is to be like others. The mindsets of an amateur idolizing and the pro separating are the exact opposite. Until an amateur changes their mindset they remain an amateur. The two paths is partly a distinction between seeking external versus internal validation. Those that aspire to be something are seeking external validation. Those that wish to do are intent on internal validation.

George Catlin was an American artist that painted pictures seeking to depict native culture from the Western US during the early to mid 1800s. In the process of observing native culture to inspire his art, Catlin noticed that most tribes contained similar roles. There were chiefs, braves, and medicine men. Catlin was intrigued by a fourth role seen in most tribes known as a dandy or Indian beau. Preston Manning in his book Do Something! Quotes Catlin’s description of this role as, “Such persons can be seen on every pleasant day, strutting and parading around the village in the most beautiful and unsoiled garments, without the honorable trophies however of scalp locks and claws of the grizzly bear, attached to their costume, for with such things they deal not. They plume themselves with swans-down… and sweet scented grass and other harmless and unmeaning ornaments, which have no other merit than they themselves have, that of looking pretty and ornamental … (However), these clean and elegant gentlemen … are held in very little estimation by the chiefs and braves and are therefore but little respected.” The chiefs, braves, and medicine men that sacrificed and toiled to serve and protect their community looked with deep disdain at the group of poseurs, the dandies that showed up and strutted their stuff on sunny days. Catlin was intrigued by the flair of the dandies. He thought their colorful characters would make colorful art. When the Chiefs noticed that Catlin was painting dandies (after he had painted them), they became irate. They wanted not just the painting of themselves removed from being presented anywhere near that of the dandies they wanted the paintings destroyed. They didn’t want to be, in any way whatsoever, seen as similar to the dandies. The contrast between the two roles became crystal clear to Catlin.

Manning finds the parallel from Catlin’s observations to politics writing, “In our communities today, especially in political circles, there is the ‘political dandy’—’familiarly known and countenanced in every (political) tribe’. This individual has no substance, does nothing of real value politically and has little to contribute to good government, but nevertheless ‘struts and parades around the village … in the most beautiful and attractive attire … having no other merit than that of looking pretty and ornamental.’ Unfortunately, social media can be used by a skilled campaign manager or communications director to project a most attractive image of the ‘political dandy,’ an image attractive enough to enough voters to secure the election of the dandy to a municipal council, a legislature, or a parliament. Only after the election, with the passage of time, does the electorate come to realize that this elected official—by now he or she may even be a cabinet minister or a Prime Minister—’has no other merit than … that of looking pretty and ornamental.’” We want to be wary of the dandies and encourage more doers. Moreover, we want to become those that contribute as opposed to posture.

In Farnam Street Podcast Episode 95, Shane Parrish talks with Code Cubitt. Cubitt runs a venture capital company and has spent decades observing and working with entrepreneurs. In the interview Cubitt offers a distinction between entrepreneurs and “wantrepreneurs.” The wantrepreneurs want to play the part. They want to be recognized and wealthy. They are image oriented. These are those that take entrepreneurship programs in school as opposed to leaning in and learning from the school of hard knocks. Entrepreneurs, to Cubitt, have the desire to build something from nothing embedded deep within their DNA. Parrish noted a friend that described “being an entrepreneur as eating glass every day, and then getting up the next day and wanting to do it all over again.” In response, Cubitt offers, “It’s probably true. I say it’s the hardest, most impossible job that you’ll ever love… It’s the most exhilarating two miles an hour that you can ever go.” It’s slow, tedious, painful, plodding work, but it’s worth it to those that are wired for it. The novelty to those that just want the outcome wears off quickly.

The difference between posing and pursuing is as Joshua Medcalf notes in Pound the Stone, “Remember, everyone wants to be great, until it’s time to do what greatness requires.” Put another way by the recently passed Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, “If you want to garden, you have to bend down and touch the soil. Gardening is a practice. Not an idea.” There are those that do and those that discuss. There are those that posture and those that participate. There are those the virtue-signal and those that volunteer. We’re measured more by what we do than by what we say. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote, “The only measure of what you believe is what you do. If you want to know what people believe, don’t read what they write, don’t ask them what they believe, just observe what they do.” Are they making a difference by doing, creating a ruckus by delivering results, or making signs and signalling? Which direction reflects true commitment?

In his book, Orthodoxy, the late writer and humorist, G. K. Chesterton offers a distinction between optimists and patriots as two approaches to citizenship which supports our idea of two paths to pursue. Optimists are fair weather fans cheering from their couch. They wear the country’s colors and wave a flag when it feels good to do so. They’ll do it when things in the country are going well and when it’s easy. Patriots are all-in, all the time. Patriots love their country regardless of how it is doing. In fact, patriots step forward and help out when their country struggles. They join the military, they run for public office, they lead a cause. They love it not once a year on a National holiday but each and every day. It is patriots, according to Chesterton, that make countries great. Chesterton wrote, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” Being a patriot is difficult while being an optimist is easy. Optimists are busy playing the part while patriots are busy doing the work that makes a country work. Chesterton suggests, “The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason.” Dedication and commitment to the cause constantly is the mindset of a patriot whereas the optimist is whimsical and flaky.

The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, offered a distinction on the religious front between Admirers and Followers. Kierkegaard considered Admirers those that showed up on Sundays to participate in fair weather fellowship. They would attend Sunday services, perhaps, stick around for a pot luck, and do the things that made them feel good about being Christians. Admirers like feeling good about their “faith.” They felt good about fellowship. However, when push came to shove, their faith took a back seat. The Admirers were many and could be contrasted with the few Followers. To Kierkegaard the followers were those that didn’t just feel their faith but lived true to it all day, every day. They were devoted. They were willing to stand and fight for their religious beliefs. They stood by their faith in spite of personal cost. Followers are those that are persecuted as opposed to Admirers that renounce their faith when pressed or under threat. Admirers are doing faith for feeling good and fitting in while Followers are committed to their faith as their primary purpose in life.

As a CEO of a high growth technology business, Frank Slootman in a Linked In post offered a distinction between two types of workers. Slootman saw staff as either passengers or drivers writing, “Passengers end up in the same place as drivers but they are dead weight.” He worked to ensure that his business was populated with drivers and not passengers. He encouraged staff to, “Ask yourself at the end of a work week: did it really, really matter that I was there? At the end of the month? Tough questions that many would rather avoid. It is a call to action to make sure you can answer that question to yourself and others with overwhelming conviction.” Don’t be dead weight, be part of producing traction to the desired destination.

The choice of two paths is embedded as a choice between ease and effort in many dimensions of life. The distinction lies at the difference between earning merit and presenting meretriciously. The meretricious are putting on a show. They may look nice but aren’t very functional. Hercules’ path of struggle is the one that Chiefs, Braves, Entrepreneurs, Patriots, Followers, and Drivers have chosen to pursue by putting in the work and devoting themselves to improvement over the long term. It is this path that has the potential to lead one to becoming meritorious. Writer Seth Godin offered Physical Therapy as a metaphor in a blog post from March 31st of 2022. He presented the distinction between Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy as being reflective of an approach to life. Physical therapy is about putting in the work. It’s about actively being part of your recovery and healing. It is consciously being uncomfortable in order to get stronger. Massage, on the other hand, is about lying down while someone else makes you feel good. It’s passive, dependence. Though it may make you feel good, the effects of a massage are short lived relative to the long term recovery benefits of physical therapy. Pick the path that does good instead of feels good. Picking your path is about asking the question: Will you thumb your nose at those that pose while instead being one that figures out how to develop skills that show?