Myth: We live in a meritocracy. It’s good for us.
Much like Steve Jobs, we should think different. We think we vest power and resources on the basis of merit—talent, effort, and achievement. That’s how meritocracy was originally defined fifty years ago.
But we’re wrong. We aren’t nearly as meritocratic as we’d like to think.
It starts with the word deserve. As in, “Don’t hate on billionaires. They worked hard and are getting the reward they deserve.” Fair enough. Let’s pull on that strawman’s silage.
What about the 20% of U.S. adults with a net worth less than $5,000, or the 25% of households earning less than $30,000 per year? Are they too getting what they deserve?
Does one human deserve to have 200,000 times more resources than another? That’s what a billionaire has compared to the 20% of adults mentioned above.
If you believe resource allocation is a matter of merit, then the hungry and destitute—are they undeserving? And where would such a callous argument secure its footing?
Just food for thought. Too bad the hungry can’t eat it.
A little Vonnegut
Part of my inspiration today comes from Kurt Vonnegut:
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue…Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact how hard money is to come by, and, there, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves.Kurt Vonnegut
The modern folklore we tell insists that money is there for the taking, if only you would work for it. Effort is rewarded in a meritocracy. You see, you need #vision and #perseverence, just like Jeff Bezos. Just read this LinkedIn post:
Americans love to put successful entrepreneurs on a pedestal. But we conflate the cause—a good idea and elbow grease—with the effect—getting rich.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
And what’s more American than a quote from a founding Father?
Just a jealous guy?
Let me clarify. I don’t dislike Jeff Bezos. I believe that he worked his butt off for 25 years. I’m glad his hard work has led to success.
Bezos deserves success. But I’m not sure anyone deserves $150 billion. This is where our idea of meritocracy breaks down.
He was a normal person with a big dream. He worked from a garage with a spray-painted logo and personally drove his sales to the post office. All very relatable stuff. Serious kudos to his start-up spirit.
But I take umbrage with the mythos surrounding him.
The Bezos/Amazon story shows quintessential survivorship bias. It’s the idea that we see the “survivors” of a selection process but don’t see the “victims” who have fallen by the wayside. The conclusions we draw don’t take those victims into account.
The classic example of survivorship bias comes from a study of bombers during World War II. A team of U.S. Navy engineers saw the damaged planes that returned to base and concluded, “The spots with the most damage deserve the most reinforcement.”
That makes sense…at least at first.
But statistician Abraham Wald considered an alternative idea. The planes that returned were survivors of a selection process—i.e. battle. But what about the victims?
Wald realized that the most damaged areas of the surviving planes were areas that didn’t need reinforcement. Those areas took damage, yet the bombers still survived! The victim planes must have been hit in areas where the surviving planes were not damaged.
So Wald came to the opposite conclusion as the initial engineers. The locations least damaged on the surviving planes deserved the most reinforcement. That’s where the victim planes must have been hit.
And Wald was right. Or perhaps you think the surviving planes simply wanted it more?
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Bezos and Survivorship
We see Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey and a common formula appears: normal person + cool idea + wild dedication = immortal success.
Well…I’m a normal person. I’ve had cool ideas. If I apply wild dedication, then I should expect to see immortal success!
But the problem is that Bezos, Musk, Oprah, etc. are the survivors. Their ideas went through the creative destruction of the economy and have come out on top. We don’t see the victims, many of whom also had awesome ideas and extraordinary dedication.
What differentiates the survivors from the victims? Some people will claim there’s an intangible virtue involved. It’s that special sauce. Maybe it’s social IQ or charisma. It’s the willingness to work an extra hour, send that extra email, make just one more cold call.
My answer isn’t nearly as popular, but I think it’s much more true.
The differentiator is luck.
If a meritocracy rewards the lucky for their luck (and punishes the unlucky for their lack thereof), then I think a meritocracy stinks.
Luck in a meritocracy
The American ethos is anti-luck. We make our own luck. We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. We’re a nation of rugged individuals. Jeff Bezos? He was self-made.
I want to offer the simplest personal anecdote as a means of countering this idea.
As long as I can remember, I’ve excelled at pattern recognition and memory. I’ve always been a fast learner and a good test-taker.
These are valuable skills in society. I was good at school and I’m now a good cog in the corporate machine. I can solve problems quickly and back up my answers with objective analysis. You probably can think of someone like this in your life, too.
But my skill wasn’t self-made. How can you look at a smart three-year-old and see anything other than good fortune?
A combination of factors were at play. My parents’ genes, a healthy home, the right mental stimuli, and then an element of pure randomness i.e. why does one child like math while another enjoys eating Crayons? I didn’t earn my brain. And yet our meritocracy is specifically rewarding me for it.
Of course, my life isn’t pure luck. I’d like to think I work hard. But ignoring luck in my life would be an obvious mistruth.
We all played a genetic and environmental lottery. Through no actions of our own, some have won more than others. That’s just luck. Those who refuse to acknowledge that lottery have blinders on. And a meritocracy is blind to that idea.
I’m not self-made, not a rugged individual. Neither are you. And neither is any billionaire.
The Meritocracy Trap
We like to think that destiny should have nothing to do with where you were born, how educated your parents are, or what elementary school you went to. You are in control of your destiny. We all are.
This idea would make social mobility easily attainable. There wouldn’t be a concrete ruling class. But there would be a fluid middle class—mostly made up of the working class. The educational systems would have its private schools, but the elite colleges wouldn’t dominate the higher education landscape.
Of course, this is another example of Vonnegut’s obvious mistruths. It’s something that we tell ourselves and then blame, and blame, and blame ourselves for being wrong about.
Daniel Markovits—a Yale law school professor and author of The Meritocracy Trap–offers up many illuminating statistics. For example, families in the top 20% of income distribution produce 3.5x more Ivy League graduates than families in the bottom 40% of income distribution.
In light of that stat, how can we claim that intrinsic skill will rise to the top? Do the wealthy have intrinsically different DNA? Of course not.
The rich know the merits
Markovits has a simple answer. “The children of rich people simply do better on the merits.”
He means that wealthy parents pay for private schooling, for private lessons, for SAT prep. City schools just want 50% of kids to graduate. Private high schools want to place all of their students in the top 25 universities.
It’s not that the rich are cheating (although they’re doing that too). It’s that the system “favors the rich even when everybody plays by the rules.” The wealthy were created by the system and therefore know how the system works.
The status quo sees students whose parents earn $200K+ scoring 388 points higher (on average) than students from families earning less than $20K. The system is gamed so that those without resources cannot play.
Do we want a system where a bright kid from a tough home still gets a chance? Or do we want a system where the rich get richer from generation to generation? To boot, Markovits claims that meritocracy is making everyone miserable—not just the poor.
The Quarantine Kings
During quarantine, I’ve noticed a pattern of posts describing the Herculean efforts that historical figures have accomplished while cloistered away. Newton discovered calculus. Shakespeare wrote King Lear. And these stories always end with a rhetorical question addressed to the reader: what are you going to do with your time?
Completing your normal workday via Zoom isn’t enough, you see? Neither is monitoring your kids’ schooling. Navigating Costco from behind a bandanna is amateur hour.
The real cream is going to rise to the top by flipping quarantine on its head, turning the negative into a positive, and creating their own magnum opus. Get ready for my eBook, I’m going to become a Quarantine King! Our meritocracy myth causes so much competition that not even a pandemic is a valid excuse to pause.
I call bulls***. This is another one of Vonnegut’s “obvious untruths.”
I don’t see fault with optimistic thinking. When life throws you virulent lemons, make some virulent lemonade. I get it.
But you don’t need to emerge from a global pandemic as an optimized version of your former self. It’s nuts that I (and many others) have found the need to write that down. Cut yourself some slack.
Another systemic flaw
Why the need for unending improvement? Part of the reason for the rise in “hustle culture” is the realization that systemic promises have been broken.
We grew up with an American dream—e.g meritocracy. The virtue of elbow grease was supposed to lead to (at least) stability, if not outright success. So what happens if you follow that dream to the union assembly line, and then your job gets shipped overseas?
“I did everything right, and now I’m jobless, going broke, and desperate for help.”
Pop quiz: does such a person deserve this fate? Or would you say it’s just bad luck?
The system failed this person. And the more the system fails, the more one realizes that the system was probably broken in the first place. From there, I see two basic options:
- Work to fix the system.
- Abandon the system.
Both options are completely understandable.
Personally, I’d like to fix the system. That means fewer rewards for good luck and fewer punishments for bad luck. Try to discern the signal of true merit from the noise of dumb luck.
But the Quarantine Kings strike me as people who feel they can abandon the system and make their own luck. They will work so hard, they claim, that the system will have no choice but to reward them.
Having one full-time job is for losers. To win, you’ve got to hustle.
Language imitates life
Even the lexicon is morphing around this untruth. Here is Google’s all-time (2004 – present) search volume for the term “side hustle.” The terms, they are a-changin’.
What’s a side hustle? It’s “any type of employment undertaken in addition to one’s full-time job. Generally freelance or piece-work in nature, providing supplemental income.”
The sheer number of people pursuing some sort of secondary employment has influenced our language to invent a new phrase for it.
The goal used to be to do well in school, get a decent job, work hard, and live your life. But now getting a single decent job doesn’t seem to be enough. Why? Because that promise has been broken too many times. People are choosing Door #2—abandon the system.
Just wait—soon we might be wondering, “Will robots take my job?”
Getting off the meritocracy throne
This is the new trickle-down economics. We tell the tall tale of the self-made billionaire who hustled his way to the top. The tale trickles down, percolating to millions of Craiglist flippers and multi-level marketers.
Those systemic victims over there? Ignore them. Look only to the unimaginably rich survivors.
Be your own boss. Run your own business. Work harder and smarter. THINK DIFFERENT.
Want to learn how? Just buy my book.
Here’s the Amazon link.