The Myth of Merit

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, an interesting study that contradicts much traditional thinking about success, merit, and entitlement.

The comforting aspect of Outliers is that it turns out that all those arrogant muckymucks who thought they were better than you really weren’t so special. But the downside is that neither are you.

The traditional narrative is that people who excel make it to the top through willpower, dogged effort, and especially through that magical spark of something that is only found in the hearts of special people. Gladwell marshals some quite persuasive evidence that the very successful people in the world — the outliers — really benefit from being born at the right time and from receiving the right kind of assistance and influences in their lives.

Bill Gates became successful because he had unlimited access to a timesharing computer as a teenager. The Beatles became successful because they got a gig in Hamburg, Germany, playing eight hours a day in a strip club (read the book to find out how this makes sense).

According to Gladwell, the important takeaway is that many more people could be much better at what they do if society could provide them with the kind of environment that allows success to happen.

Gladwell’s arguments and evidence are intriguing and persuasive. I have doubts about how much influence this book will have — the myth of merit is too seductive. People love rags-to-riches stories. Many successful people are convinced that they have made it because they tried really hard or were smarter than everybody else — or because they are specially blessed by God or some other higher power.

As I’ve said before, it’s easy to think God is on your side when all the lights are green.

AB — 24 Sept. 2009