Luck, Hard Work and Meritocracy

There's some interesting discussion around David Leonhardt's review of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers - and particularly around this passage:

These two stories about Gladwell are both true, and yet they are also very different. The first personalizes his success. It is the classically American version of his career, in that it gives individual characteristics -- talent, hard work, Horatio Alger-like pluck -- the starring role. The second version doesn't necessarily deny these characteristics, but it does sublimate them. The protagonist is not a singularly talented person who took advantage of opportunities. He is instead a talented person who took advantage of singular opportunities.[...]

Many people, I think, have an instinctual understanding of this idea (even if Gladwell, in the interest of setting his thesis against conventional wisdom, doesn't say so). That's why parents spend so much time worrying about what school their child attends. They don't really believe the child is so infused with greatness that he or she can overcome a bad school, or even an average one. And yet when they look back years later on their child's success -- or their own -- they tend toward explanations that focus on the individual.

One (perhaps obvious) thing that's worth noting here is that meritocracy, whatever its weaknesses, really does inculcate an extremely potent ethic of near-obsessive hard work - and it really does discriminate, in the rewards it bestows, between people who work hard and people who don't. This means that while meritocratic success tends to be inherited, in an important sense - because the whole culture of obsessive hyper-achievement is just that, a culture that some Americans are raised in and steeped in and some aren't - everybody doesn't inherit the same level of success. Getting into the right kind of schools because you have the right kind of parents is generally a necessary condition for ascending the meritocratic ladder, but it isn't a sufficient one; it tends to create a floor for failure, but it doesn't guarantee a ceiling for achievement. And this is true of narrower sorts of luck, as well, whether it's Bill Gates having a computer lab in his high school or Matt Yglesias starting a blog in the early days of the blogosphere: Tens of thousands of people started blogs in 2003 or 2004, but not very many people kept up the damn astonishing blogging pace that Yglesias has maintained ever since.

Thus the importance of the 10,000 hours aspect of Gladwell's argument - and thus, too, the psychological phenomenon Leonhardt is describing. Before you've put in your ten thousand hours (or before your child has done so), it makes sense to focus intently on the preconditions for success, rather than assuming that with enough hard work and talent you or your offspring can overcome any obstacle thrown in your way. But many of those preconditions are set, by definition, early in the life cycle, and the experience of actually succeeding takes place over the course of years of often-grinding work, in which a given meritocrat's work ethic makes a significant difference in how well you do relative to your peer group. (Not as much of a difference as being born a Kennedy, of course, but then again we only have so many fairy princesses ...)

By the time you reach the end of your career, then, what seems like the defining experience of your life isn't the broad luck of being born in the upper-middle class, or the narrower luck of being in the right place at the right time to join a hedge fund, or start a popular blog, or found a software company. It's the mad, mad treadmill that you've been running on since high school or earlier, the experience of which instills the not-unreasonable sense that despite all your advantages, you really do deserve your success.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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