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Merit Isn't Just for the Winners

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Merit is a quality that we seek to achieve and have acknowledged. But what is it? To be meritorious is to be deserving of praise. It has been defined as the opinion one man entertains of another. Demerit on the other hand, most of us, seek to avoid. It being a path to infamy. The famous, in a classic and worthy context, are those with merit, or, more accurately, they deserve their fame. That is, that which made them famous has merit and is deserving of praise.

Hard work and skill focused on a specific goal, with the end result achieved, can be merit but it is not that simple. Effort alone does not achieve merit. Hard work, being successful at one's tasks, or being self made on their own is not merit. If merit were simply about getting to a goal, or working hard to achieve it, merit could apply to many things not deserving of praise.

We do not describe a hard-working bank robber who diligently planned his scheme, executed it flawlessly, escaped to live out his life from his spoils a man of merit. He did it himself, worked hard, achieved his goal and lived happily ever after. Still he is without merit.

There must be goodness for there to be merit. Merit is not simple hard work and achievement, but includes how the work is carried out and what is achieved. These are crucial characteristics of merit.

Palman qui meruit ferat (let him bear the palm that deserves it) is not simply, for instance, the winner of the battle bears the palm. Without merit he cannot bear the palm. Deserving of praise is essential to merit. To bear the palm one must have striven valiantly with great effort with honour for a greater good, and therefore, deserve praise. Horatio Nelson in defeating Napoleon was viewed to have merit. These Latin words were inscribed on his funeral carriage and shield. It is Upper Canada College's motto. We would not provide this honour or apply the motto to a bully successfully bloodying another victim's nose to extract his lunch money. Such a person does not deserve the palm, although, arguably he may have won the fight. Importantly, merit may belong to those unsuccessful in the fight.

Merit is not demonstrated through calculated and simply measured steps no matter how much effort is put forth and to whatever end. It is core to one's character -- you exude it by living your life each day deserving of praise.