Doping, Adderall and The Meritocracy

Soon after the Lance Armstrong doping scandals emerged last year, I was talking to friends about the prevalence of doping, and my shock. “How could it be true?” I asked. And my friends said, “Are you being willfully naïve? Doping isn’t optional, it is required! they informed me. Riders were kicked off teams for NOT doping. And it’s not just biking…” and a lecture on professional sports, and how they work, ensued. You can do a blood transfusion, and train while on drugs, then do another transfusion before the testing to clean up your blood. There are new, undetectable drugs.

Next they told me you could take Adderall and improve not only your basic school performance, but also your S.A.T. scores. Kids were opting out of studying, and the months-long, grueling Kaplan SAT prep courses and popping pills instead. One girl, now at an Ivy League college said:

“Do I want only four hours of sleep and be a mess, and then underperform on the test and then in field hockey? Or make the teachers happy and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?”

Madeleine estimated that one-third of her classmates at her small school, most of whom she knew well, used stimulants without a prescription to boost their scholastic performance. Many students across the United States made similar estimates for their schools, all of them emphasizing that the drugs were used not to get high, but mostly by conscientious students to work harder and meet ever-rising academic expectations.”

“Steroids are now in the middle schools,” one of my interloctors said grimly. And even before middle school, parents are “redshirting” — putting 6-year-old kids in kindergarten to give them an advantage — they’ll be bigger, stronger, and more advanced than their peers, an advantage that appears to follow them throughout their lives, especially in sports.

If there is a national, secular religion in the United States it is the belief that America is the Land of Opportunity, that we are a Meritocracy, that any kid, no matter who they are, or where they come from, can work hard and move up in the world. That their effort matters. “You too can be the President,” every American kid is told. But one unintended consequence of this belief, it is that, as a result of our being a meritocracy, if you have not succeeded, you are of lesser merit. It is shameful to be a failure in this country. Everything from doping to boob jobs speaks to the struggle to gain an advantage in a competitive world. But this is a rational response to a society where the winner takes all.

So how do we keep the dream alive? How do we make it a dream worth striving for? I am reminded of one of my most retweeted tweets: “Avoid a life of chasing prizes not worth winning.” You’ve been such amazing commenters, I’d love to hear your ideas.

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

24 thoughts on “Doping, Adderall and The Meritocracy”

  1. This is one reason why I think the shift to a maker culture is part of the answer, at least for now. As much as American culture is a competitive culture, it’s also a creative culture, a problem-solving culture, and if we lean on these characteristics we can have young people who have a happier, more balanced outlook on life, and also contribute to society by way of a core value. Competition can still infuse maker culture (you must have seen this on etsy), but in the end the value is intrinsic and neither replicable nor squeezable into a standardized test. Creating things will show a person powerfully that life is not zero sum.


    1. I had never thought of the Maker culture as being a solution, but I also agree. Work that is intrinsically satisfying reduces the need to compete, and dominate. Creation and cooperation, not competition!


    2. Interesting response! Lately, I have felt that there is a definite weight placed upon making your own things, growing your own food, building your own furniture/home. I think that your idea of personal or handmade creation is very true!


  2. I was about to bring up cosmetic surgery but you mentioned “boob jobs.”

    My wife and I are in our 60’s. We were commenting the other day that we don’t know many women in their 60’s or even 50’s and 40’s who do not dye their hair. My wife has never dyed her hair nor does she wear makeup. She (we) know she’s unusual but it just struck us as odd that so many women routinely do this and think nothing of it. No doubt men do it or something like it too (shaving heads to deemphasize baldness).

    One problem with the use of prescription psychotropic stimulants by students who aren’t ADHD is that in order to keep up the performance they’ve got to keep up the drugs. It’s not just a matter of getting into college, it’s also a matter of staying in college and actually learning something. I think many parents who pressure doctors to prescribe these things have no clue.

    Looking at this from a higher altitude it seems like all of these (doping, speeding, dyeing, liposuctioning) are all about looking good but not about being good. There’s a difference and I think our current ends-justify-any-means culture has forgotten it, or never knew it.


    1. Good points all. Yes, I read somewhere that 75 percent of all women dye their hair over the age of 35. Another surprise for me! I am also a non-hair-dyer. Be who you are!!


      1. Great blog posting! But I must disagree that dyeing one’s hair means they are inherently being untrue to themselves. Sometimes it is simply a matter of self-expression, which is why I dye my hair a bevy of rainbow colors. That feels true to my own self and it isn’t about hiding any supposed ‘flaws’ with my hair.


  3. You should read Andrew Gelman’s comments on James Flynn’s argument on why a Meritocracy is impossible — a contradiction: Basically the argument says that “meritocracy” mans two things: (1) everyone gets the same chance, and (2) the ones who perform better get more rewards. But if (2) is true, then the successful people spend some of their deservedly-won riches on enhancing the chances of their children and other loved ones; therefore (1) is not true.


    1. Great stuff.

      “Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get. That is, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy”.”

      “If there were only one man in the world, he would have a lot of problems, but none of them would be legal ones. Add a second inhabitant, and we have the possibility of conflict. Both of us try to pick the same apple from the same branch. I track the deer I wounded only to find that you have killed it, butchered it, and are in the process of cooking and eating it. The obvious solution is violence. It is not a very good solution; if we employ it, our little world may shrink back down to one person, or perhaps none.”
      – David Friedman, “Law’s Order”

      Another great read is Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years.” I was blessed to read it before I knew who he was.

      See, apropos,


  4. Really great article. I loved it. I see it in business now too where a great designer pops some Adderall to be able to focus for 5-7 hours straight. I have to say that it does really make them better at their job. This issue isn’t about just looking good, but about being better. It’s a tough issue because it’s not defined anywhere what’s morally or ethically wrong. They say that people aren’t “being good” by doing these drugs but what does that mean? The people doing it obviously feel like it’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make.

    I could see society getting fragmented into two classes of people – those who use performance enhancing drugs and those who don’t. It’s sad, but that’s the way the world is headed – just ask any pro cyclist. 😦


  5. I think this relates to our cult of success. We over-index on outcomes and gloss over inputs. It’s true of sports, education, health, beauty…you name it. Then correlation becomes causation and suddenly “success” = money, wallet size = IQ, IQ = capability, etc. These statements are false, yet we still fall for it. Or at least I do. This is the right time to have this conversation, though. This mentality will only strengthen as we become more technologically advanced.

    I ended up here using the ‘who to follow’ module on Twitter for the first time. Thanks for the serendipity of finding an interesting post. 😉


  6. Really great post and it’s been stewing in the back of my head all day.

    … Then there’s the whole social internet with it’s “American Idol” like popularity contests (liking, faving, making Explore, etc.). What does it mean to be popular on the internet these days (or any day)?

    Amping up contrast and exposure to make an image popular on flickr and elsewhere is akin to doping as is gaming the popularity system (quid pro quo commenting, etc.).

    The Flickr explore problem hit me years ago, long before Facebook was invented (I know you were there then), but when my oil company asked me to “like” them on Facebook I knew things had gotten out of hand. I actually do like my oil company, for an oil company, but it strikes me as totally inappropriate to ask customers to like you, whether or not they do. I dropped Facebook early in its devolution.

    So, the question for you Caterina is, where’s the problem: in the infrastructure set up to capture this human need for popularity, or with insecure humans who brag about the number of images they have on Flickr Explore or the number of “likes” they have on Facebook?

    I say this knowing you were co-founder of Flickr.


  7. I have come to believe that meritocracy is just the subtlest manifestation of oppression, one in which you can’t argue with the powers that be because they are by definition _better_ than you.

    What if we had no *cracy at all? What if no one exerted power over other people? What if we genuinely loved and valued every life, no matter how quote meritorious unquote? What if we cared for the sick and infirm and for the just-not-very-ambitious as much as we cared for the rich and the beautiful? What would that even look like? I venture to suggest that it would look… better than this.

    The myth of meritocracy doesn’t bear scrutiny. I truly believe that Douglas Adams was right: no one who wants power is qualified to wield it.


  8. Regarding meritocracy, I stumbled upon a documentary by Alain de Button called Status Anxiety. It’s about the blessings of meritocracy, but also it’s bitter after taste, that blame for failure in life is often shifted to the individual. It’s worth a watch!


  9. I’m South African (and grew up partially in Apartheid, partially post emancipation) and so deeply aware of how much privilege and discrimination affects people’s educational, career, etc successes. I remember some of my schoolmates having poorer grades in winter time — because their families, living in cardboard & corrugated iron shacks in the townships, couldn’t afford candles / gas for the lamps for them to do their homework at night. Even as a child, it didn’t seem fair.

    I’ve mused that the American Dream seems a particularly terrible trap — if you tell everyone they can be powerful and successful if they just work hard enough, the unspoken correlating argument is that if you AREN’T powerful & successful, it is simply because of your own laziness. The reality is that a level playing field needs to be created (ironically, often by treating people differently in order to provide equal chances) in order for a meritocracy to even be possible … but then the culture is telling everyone that if they need help they are weak!

    Net, not shocked that professional sports involves huge amounts of doping … but I do think it’s sad, as they must not be proud of themselves, deep in their hearts and that must surely tarnish the ensuing achievements.


  10. I’ve found that there is this push and drive for a constant evolution nowadays. Things have to keep being new (or improved), faster, better, bigger—maybe that is the problem. We’ve lost touch with being unique individuals. You automatically fit into a role for marketing or political purposes. There is not as much community or family either.


  11. Love this post. I feel I could have written it as I have a blog about the problems with parenting in modern suburbia. I call it swankville. I think we need to focus on what is best for our individual person, child and family. It is hard not to get caught up in the minutia. Instead tune out the chatter and know that sports are still valuable for life lessons and state universities are best if it costs a kid enormous amounts of stress and tutors to try to get into an ivy league.


  12. There is an effort by Stanford University called Challenge Success which is speaking to parents about easing up the pressure on kids. I think it is a great sign that Stanford University is behind this message as they have seen a great deal of unnecessary pressures over the years. You can be successful with a degree from anywhere as long as you are healthy and balanced and work hard.


  13. OK, y’all, this makes me want to spit nails. Pray that you never get seriously ill or injured.

    “The president of MD Anderson is paid like someone running a prosperous business. Ronald DePinho’s total compensation last year was $1,845,000. That does not count outside earnings derived from a much publicized waiver he received from the university that, according to the Houston Chronicle, allows him to maintain unspecified “financial ties with his three principal pharmaceutical companies.”

    DePinho’s salary is nearly triple the $674,350 paid to William Powers Jr., the president of the entire University of Texas system, of which MD Anderson is a part. This pay structure is emblematic of American medical economics and is reflected on campuses across the U.S., where the president of a hospital or hospital system associated with a university — whether it’s Texas, Stanford, Duke or Yale — is invariably paid much more than the person in charge of the university.

    I got the idea for this article when I was visiting Rice University last year. As I was leaving the campus, which is just outside the central business district of Houston, I noticed a group of glass skyscrapers about a mile away lighting up the evening sky. The scene looked like Dubai. I was looking at the Texas Medical Center, a nearly 1,300-acre, 280-building complex of hospitals and related medical facilities, of which MD Anderson is the lead brand name. Medicine had obviously become a huge business. In fact, of Houston’s top 10 employers, five are hospitals, including MD Anderson with 19,000 employees; three, led by ExxonMobil with 14,000 employees, are energy companies. How did that happen, I wondered. Where’s all that money coming from? And where is it going? I have spent the past seven months trying to find out by analyzing a variety of bills from hospitals like MD Anderson, doctors, drug companies and every other player in the American health care ecosystem…”

    BTW, the CEO of UnitedHealthGroup got paid almost $39 million recently. 1 Year.


  14. After reading some articles on ADHD and ADD I asked one of my physicians to prescribe Adderall to me. He made me take a one page written test which confirmed I was ADHD. The diagnosis clicked with my history of poor school performance and mediocre sales performance in the “adult” world. Something just didn’t feel right. I felt I was lazy. It made me think of my father and all the unfinished projects he left. I was exhibiting these habits too and decided I needed to do anything to not be that person. I was always slow to wake in the morning and would have to drink a half a pot of coffee before dashing off to catch the next mass transit ride. I think this is probably why I developed insomnia in my early thirties and lasting until my current age of 44. That and anxiety brought on by a high pressure sales job.
    Fresh with my ADHD diagnosis, I had to find a psychiatrist to have my prescriptions filled. I did my homework and tried both Provigil and Adderall. See
    Initially, Adderall proved too speedy, and the generic label on my prescription bottle boldly said Amphetamine Salts in capital letters. I stuck with the Provigil for a while, it did give me a profound “Awakeness” I didn’t need a second half pot of coffee at the office to kick in to work mode, I was there. The Provigil was mind speedy, not body and mind speedy like Adderall. Now my problem was, How do I capture all these fantastic ideas floating around in my head? I scribbled furiously on stickies that would be stapled to pages, notes upon notes, notes about notes. I was still in the same predicament, but now massively overloaded with notebooks and now iphone, ipad, Evernote entries and emails to myself, etc. There was no organization. After getting bored with Provigil and needing more of a body pickup, I went back to Adderall, found the proper dose of one Aderall XR capsule in the morning and one regular tablet in the afternoon. I seem to have no side effects, no racing heart, I am awake, alive, engaged, everything is clicking. If we only use 10% of our brains, I am sure I am using 15% -20%, or at least that is the way in makes me feel.
    I don’t think I am any different than people that smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol to relax, both of which I do not do. I feel productive and actually feel my goals are attainable. Sometimes I wish there were more time in the day to do what I want. I am not really sure of the long term side effects, but I don’t plan on being on stimulants forever. For children with growing bodies, I am not its the best. It’s legal speed, let’s be honest. What is it helping this children do? Memorize things to pass tests? Where does it play the role in creativity? Something that wasn’t too encouraged when I was growing up.
    I recall a time a few years in between the last 10 years when I was into meditation, twice a day, morning and night. This had a great affect on my life in many ways and I intend to return. I’d like to see more studies on the meditation link and productivity/creativity. Yes, I do think we are in a society that will sacrifice a lot to get ahead. Many of us won’t know what it is like for Google to want to buy our start up company or take it to an IPO, no matter what we do. I think you have to celebrate individual talents and match them with life choices and careers. Maybe crack open a Jung book or two and learn about your archetypes? Who knows? But doping will never go away.


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