Mulling over Meritocracy

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

Writer Malcolm Gladwell: meritocracy is more of a myth than we think

The notion of meritocracy has been on my mind a lot lately. While even I’m not idealistic and naive enough to believe that the world is a fair place, it still irks me that it is sooooo unfair. Forgive me, for what follows could probably be categorized as ‘stating the obvious.’ Fight the urge at the end of each paragraph to mutter under your breath ‘no shit’, or ‘d’uh’. I promise that in just a few minutes, you will think differently about how the world works.

The society I currently live in is one in which having a penis is like having the golden ticket (the glass ceiling is a topic for another day – suffice it to say that it’s almost like I live in a weird Asian episode of Mad Men). Being from the right stock and having friends in high places opens doors and knocks down walls in the Land of Morning Calm. Relationships and who-you-know trump pretty much anything else. Hell, I’ve benefited from it. It’s just the way the world works. Or is it?

During the 2012 Presidential Election in the States, I spoke with my white American friend. Well, ‘spoke with’ is a bit of a euphemism as we got into a heated debate (also a euphemism). OK, we yelled and screamed at each other as if we were both deaf. Long story short – I was pro-Obama, he was anti. According to him, Obama is bankrupting the country because he lets too many people be on welfare and black people want to be on welfare so they don’t have to work (and all the people on welfare are obviously black and taking it by choice). They are too lazy to work. Illegal immigrants are placing too much of a burden on the tax payer because they don’t contribute (even though they are being exploited by working illegally and end up doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do).

While I admit I don’t understand the intricacies of how government, politics and the economy work in the U.S., what irked me the most is that my friend couldn’t see all the unearned privileges and advantages he had – growing up in a middle class two-parent family as an only child with a stern, achievement-oriented father in the Navy. As a semi-professional soccer player, he thinks that he got to where he is by sheer hard work and determination, which in a sense is true. But who was taking him to soccer practice? Who was watching his games and paying for his uniform and new boots? His comeback was that he had taken advantage of all the opportunities that had come his way – true, but he also had all the resources and support at his disposal – human, financial and otherwise so that he could take advantage of them.

More recently, my friend, also American, but African-American gave me what I called an ‘Angry Black Man Rant.’ He grew up in the gritty inner city of Washington D.C. This time, however, we were on the same page, both being the first in our families to go to university etc…We agreed that growing up in a culture of achievement and success was one key way for people to make something of themselves. Neither of us really had that, at least not academically, yet we both succeeded, in large part because there were adults in our lives outside of our immediate family, such as teachers or friends’ parents, who believed in us. We also agreed that for people to beat the odds, they needed a mindset in which there was the expectation of achievement and success. Still, neither of use are ever going to become the next Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Of course, I recognize that advantage exists on a spectrum and I am much more privileged than a woman living in a village in India. I have had many opportunities in my life that I didn’t ‘earn’ – for example, when I was a student I went to Sydney to find work in a bar for the summer vacation. I worked in a bar in my hometown too, but I wasn’t that experienced. The manager of the bar in my hometown – qualified and very much more experienced than me – also went to Sydney at the same time to work. Who got a job in a bar the day after arriving? Me. The pretty blond, blue-eyed, nubile 22 year old. Who didn’t get a job that summer? The bar manager.

Anyway, I read years ago Malcolm Gladwell’s treatise on meritocracy (Outliers: The Story of Success) and how western societies are much less meritocratic than we think. In light of recent events and conversations (yelling matches), I decided to re-read it.

Gladwell tells stories of Outliers – extremely successful people – and exposes how it isn’t just hard work and talent that got them to where they are. There are myriad factors influencing one’s success that the term ‘self-made’ doesn’t really apply as he uncovers all the opportunities and ‘right-time-right-place’ factors that propelled them.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book that exemplify his central argument:

“We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

“The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

So, on that note, I’ll give Carrie from Sex and the City the last word: “Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we’ve been dealt, and accessorize what we’ve got.”

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