I was interested this morning to come across these few lines, attributed of all people to Calvin Coolidge:
Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; there is nothing more uncommon than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
They seem to sum up to me what we as a society basically do respect more than anything: hard work. If someone is talented but lazy then we certainly criticise them for it, but it also seems to me that if someone is of limited competence but do really work hard, then at the very least we respect them morally, even if we don’t always give them the job. So, for reasons unconnected with the rhetorical abilities of President Coolidge (he was famously taciturn), and indeed of these precise words, we do seem to have taken fully on board this message.
Our actual valuing of hard work is, incidentally, different from what we think we aspire to be as a society, which is a meritocracy. If you ask people what they think we are or ought to be, that’s what they say. But in reality I don’t think we do respect that - just think of the public view of the very highly paid in finance or in business: people are fairly happy to accept that they are clever people, but they still don’t respect them or think they are entitled to all that money.
Personally, I take the now unfashionable view that we shouldn’t even be trying to be a meritocracy. The term was indeed originally coined by Michael Young as a criticism. And indeed why should we think that power should be held by those who were born talented, any more than we should think it should be held by those born rich, or to aristocrats? Although I don’t quite agree with him that pure Stakhanovism is the only real test of value, it is, as President Coolidge says, what we do with it that matters.