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

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Merit

  1. While I don’t discount the presence of luck in regards to one’s chances of success, I’m not sure you can rule out hard work as being a primary factor in being successful. Maybe the top businessmen or celebrities got where they are because of fortunate circumstances, but I’d be very surprised to find anything but a positive correlation between hard work and “success”.

  2. quriosity

    I think Gladwell’s thesis is not so much that luck is responsible for people’s success. Rather, it’s that successful people make it based on much more than inherent talent and individual merit — they are given the right circumstances that give them the opportunity to develop their natural abilities and become good at what they want to do. Gladwell thinks that many more people could become successful if society did more to create those kinds of auspicious circumstances for more people.

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