There will come a point in every conversation in which you challenge someone on the inherent biases in any purportedly merit-based system at which its defenders will point out that the winners in said system are very talented and work very hard.

The motivation for the winners in any system or institution to believe this is strong, as to believe otherwise is to admit that one's own success is a function of luck or other non-meritocratic factors.
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Perhaps it is correct that the winners in life win because they are talented, smart, and hard working.
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In my brief life experience, though, I've always found it odd that the people who have influential connections always end up being the most talented, smartest, and hardest working people.

Life has a lot of coincidences.

70 thoughts on “IRREDUCIBLE”

  • For most of the early part of my life, I had decided to be an actor (don't sneer, I was actually pretty good in a knows-his-limitations-and-plays-them-well kind of way), until an older relative of mine, knowing of this intent, gave me a book entitled something along the lines of MAKING IT AS AN ACTOR. I believe she thought she was helping me succeed–and in a way, I suppose she did. Just not the way she intended.

    The book was lucid, practical, and utterly unsympathetic to its readers. And it included a list of "Things You Will Need To Succeed"–the usual suspects: talent, a day-job, photos, representation, etc.–and at the very end of that list was the word, in bold letters, LUCK.

    Following that word was a clear, calm explanation that without a great deal–a *very* great deal of luck, which nothing could guarantee or tip in my favor, I would never, absolutely never make it. That all the talent and willpower in the world wouldn't do the trick–that acting was a matter of luck. Period. I read that, and internalized it, and realized that if that was what it would take, I wanted nothing to do with acting. Luck? LUCK?! I refused to subject myself to anything so uncertain, demeaning, and unfair. No–screw it, I was out.

    My life took a different course, needless to say. But I'm not sure–still, now–that I drew the correct lesson from that book. Because while everything it said was true (and acting would most assuredly have crushed my soul into splinters by now), it neglected to include an important footnote, vis: "Oh, and by the way, this will be true for every other profession or life-path you choose. Luck is an essential component to success–every single kind of success ever in the history of humanity has been the result, in part, of luck. So don't quit just because you hope to avoid a ride on the roulette wheel–you can't."

    It took me years to realize that lesson, and bitter years they were. I sometimes come back to acting–still pretty good, and there's local theater aplenty where I am–and I realize how much I miss it whenever I do.

    So what's my point? Just this: Human beings are programmed to reject the notion of luck for the same reason we reject the notion of fate: It's humiliating and terrifying to believe that we are subject to something worse than the whims of an angry god–that we are, in fact, subject to the chaos of the mindless vortex. But we can kick all we want–we *do* need the luck, even if it's just being born to the right parents in the right class with the right family friends. Sorry to tell the smart, hardworking white people of wealth the truth, but–no matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, you got where you are in part–in large part–because of luck.

  • I dunno – people in past centuries seem to have had a pretty strong understanding of Fortuna [cue Carl Orff]…and so invented alcohol and drugs.

    Was it the Industrial Revolution and Science that gave us the mistaken impression we were large and in charge?

    I get the whimwhams just thinking about the fact that over two thousand years since Aristotle a lot of us still think wealthy people deserve to rule, that getting rich is a manifestation of virtue, and that these morons are going to send us into the hell of global warming.

    OK, back to the bottle.

  • There is a certain subset of people who fail to achieve success through bad luck or circumstances beyond their control. I won't deny this.

    There is also a certain subset of people who fail through making stupid decisions.

  • There's luck and then there's luck.

    My older daughter also hopes to have a career in musical theater, an ambition I consider whimsical at best. (I have told her–bad dad that I am–that her odds of playing power forward in the WNBA are probably better than her odds of being the next Bernadette Peters despite the fact that she has never played basketball). Yes, she has a nice voice; yes, she can dance, yes; she learn how to act. But at the end of the day, there are tens of thousands of women who also have nice voices, who can also dance and act and they are all chasing very few great opportunities to have a career that will pay the bills. We went to Ann Arbor a few years ago for her to audition for U Michigan's Musical Theater program. 1000+ applicants, 10 spots for boys, 10 for girls. But more telling to me was the info on what their grads were doing–this was provided in the informational packet they gave the kids who came to audition. One had an understudy's part on Broadway, one was a star on "Glee" and the rest were doing dinner theater in Branson, MO and Lincoln, NE. This did not, to me, seem to look like great odds for success and these are grads of one of the pre-eminent programs in their field. (Incidentally, Ed, I told my daughter that if she was going to major in Theater in college that she had to double major in an academic field. She chose Political Science. So there is always hope that she can be a struggling academic instead of a struggling actress.)

    OTOH, I went back to school at 28, did four semesters of pre-medical science in a post-bacc pre-med program at an undistinguished city college (the best education $700 a semester could buy), got accepted to 3 of the 5 veterinary colleges I applied to, chose the one I liked best, got my veterinary degree at 34 and after a few years of struggle as a young veterinarian, met an older doc who wanted to sell his practice. I borrowed money from my mom for the down payment (it was pretty nominal sum in the grand scheme of things) and have parlayed it, after nearly 20 years, into a pretty successful career. Was I lucky to meet the doc whose practice I bought? Yeah. Was I lucky that it was in a great area to practice? Yes again. But in the grand scheme of things, it required much less luck than my daughter will need to make it in the arts. Why do I say this? Because I have classmates (most of whom are women) who have also started or bought practices where they are successful all over the country. There are a few who aren't but most of us are doing well. And I have classmates who were the first in their family to attend college, much less graduate school.

    So there is luck and there is luck. How much of it you need can be very much affected by the path you take on the way to your career.

  • One last thought on luck and why I think I am incredibly lucky.

    I wanted to become a veterinarian since I was a little kid. Probably since I was 10 or 11 years old. But I bombed my sciences during my first pass at college. I dropped out, worked as a car mechanic, I went back to school and got a degree that didn't set me on a good career path. When the idea to go back to school was presented to me by a veterinarian I had worked for as a high school student, I jumped at the chance and was determined not to screw it up.

    But here's why I am lucky. I wake up every day and get to go to a job I love. There are stresses and headaches but they are mostly minor compared with the satisfaction I get from my work. I have made relationships–with my patients and their people–that give my life meaning. Every now and then, I get to save a life. Or greatly improve an patient's quality of life. I'll never have a huge house, a yacht or summer cottage in the Hampton's. But I have job satisfaction that money can't buy. And that makes me truly fortunate.

  • What a wonderful expression, Wetcasement. Never heard that one.

    And, Rosiesdad, you were lucky that your mum had the money to lend you.

    Why can't I make italics in these comments?

  • Most often success in life is a combination of luck, privilege, talent, and hard work. The proportions vary widely. I can certainly identify contributions from each, in my career. Successful people often focus on talent and hard work, in creating a self-serving story. You can always find a few examples of people who, through work and talent, overcame bad luck and desperate circumstances, and you can always find parts of your own story that look like that. Religious fanatics can find the image of jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich. On the other hand, you can also easily find lazy and untalented fools who got lucky, or had connections. One way to find those fools is to look in the mirror.

  • RE: Major Kong

    Ed Ochester has a poem that goes something like (paraphrasing, including the spacing):

    A retired miner in Dr. Cappaletti's office, crippled and wheezing:

    "If someone tells you he
    got rich from
    hard work ask him

    Might be from his book Dancing on the Edges of Knives.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yes, the winners of "The Lucky Sperm Meets the Lucky Egg Club" who think that they earned their wealth and social status.
    The Koch Brothers, for instance.
    George W. "Little Boots" Bush, is another.
    Jonah 'Moby Prick" Goldberg, is yet another.

    And not only were they born on 3rd base, thinking they hit a triple, but they think the only reason they aren't in the dugout after having touched home plate, is the umpires, who regulate the game.

  • Number Three says:

    The one thing to remember about human nature: The best ego defense is a sense of victimhood. That's why defeated oppressers (e.g., Southerners in 1865, Germans in 1945) so quickly adopt it. It's also why civil rights/affirmative action law went from civil rights in the 1960s to 'reverse racism' by 1978 (Bakke decision). It's why so many of the most privileged in our society today — the Wall Street guys — revert to it, like the 'takers' have any chance against the 'makers' in a world so biased in favor of wealth. It's why people with health insurance (often government-funded, always government-subsidied (see the tax code!)) are always on the look-out for (usually bogus) stories about how some person was 'screwed over' by Obamacare.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    J. Dryden,
    You sound a lot like me.
    I also always wanted to be an actor.

    And I was successful in by 30's – on a very local level, getting to do 5 or 6, or more, plays a year.
    In my area of Upstate NY, it got so that I didn't have to audition for most parts, since everyone had seen me in one role or another, and knew what I could do.

    Unfortunately, I made no money. If I got paid at all, it didn't even cover the expenses of getting to rehearsals.
    Still, I loved what I was doing.

    In many parts of the world, what I did regionally, would pay enough for a middle class existence.
    No wealth, no mansions, no luxury cars – but a solid, middle class existence.

    But not here in America, this stupid fucking country.
    America doesn't have a clue about the arts.

    If you make it in some art form, from singing, to acting, to painting, to whatever, you make millions.
    If you don't, you do it for the love of doing that thing – cost's be damned!

    Now, I'm so physically handicapped that I can't even think of doing what I love best: acting – unless someone decides to make "Ironside," that old TV classic starring Raymond Burr, into a play.

    Oh well, I had fun while it lasted.
    And I extended my childhood dream of acting, until I was 41.
    No money. But a lot of love, blood, sweat, buck's, and tears.
    And love.
    Not many people can say they did what they love until they were over 40.

    Some people are lucky, and some aren't.

    Since I don't think money is any sort of a scorekeeper, I think I was pretty damn lucky to be able to do so many great theatre parts.
    The only parts I wanted to play that I didn't, were Richard II, Falstaff, and role of Pseudolus "The Sloppiest Slave in All of Rome."

    Today is Russian Orthodox Christmas.

    And even though I'm a non-believer, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, or a Happy Holiday, or whatever…

  • Usually, successful people explain their result by "talent and hard work" while unsuccessful people explain theirs by "bad luck".

    It's a bit like cliques: we are only against them when the don't benefit us.

  • When I was growing up, my dad would tape the book jackets of autobiographies of wealthy and successful people over my music posters. Finally, I decided to read one of them. I forget who it was, some tech billionaire. I got about half a chapter in; the guy spent a couple sentences glossing over how, as a freshman at UCLA, he was randomly assigned a roommate: the son of the CFO of an up and coming chip company called Intel, whom he became close with. That summer, he interned for his roommate's dad. His first job out of college was working directly for him, along with the late 70's stock options. I showed that passage to my dad, and searched for that same, hidden "lightning strike" in the lives of all the other John Galts he wanted me to aspire to. At least it stopped him from covering my music posters.

  • It's not what you know it's who you know. There was a time when hard work and a little bit of luck would have helped you make it. These days it's damn near impossible to make it to home plate if you didn't start on third. I don't think these days you could buy a veterinary practice with money you borrowed from your mom. I'm not trying to be a jerk here, but just make a larger point that the cost, and risk, of everything seems to have just gone through the roof.
    Even college, with sky rocketing tuitions (which we all know goes to the profs, despite what Ed says), is seen as a risk. Will it pay off to send a kid to college and spend X amount to,get a degree? I came out with a poli.sci and history degree and my wife with a psych degree and even without a whole lot of direction we landed on our feet. But I don't think those are options for my kids. Those degrees will get you moving around every three years looking for tenure. AND THOSE ARE THE LUCKY ONES.

  • Rosie's Dad, I was also a Theater major when I first went to college, and I have taken a different viewpoint – the time to pursue your dreams full throttle is when you're young. If you don't have the luck and you don't make it, you have time to recover. But you definitely have a better chance of working as an actor than being a WBNA forward, you just might not be making enough money to survive!

    My daughter is a musician. She's a junior in high school and she wants to be practical and have a more clear career path in music by going into education or therapy. But nothing gets this girl going more than performing, and I hope she realizes that and goes for it before she settles on something else.

    I should add that I never finished college (well, not yet – I should finish next May with Bachelor's in Public Administration), but my part-time career is as a musician. I don't make tons of money, but I make a little extra every couple of weeks singing as a cantor, a church choir section leader, and various other gigs I pick up – I recently have made a nice chunk of change ($50/hr!) as a ringer in a couple of community choruses, since I can sightread and have a piece performance ready with very little rehearsal. So there is always a way to keep the things you love in your life, even if they aren't the way you make a living.

  • @maurinsky: First, congratulations on going back to school and your impending graduation.

    I would never discourage my daughter from performing. There are great local repertory groups where should could perform in shows for the rest of her life. She has made good friends acting locally; I am just afraid that she hasn't woken up to the reality that this may have to become an avocation while she pursues something else as her actual career. And still find both meaningful and rewarding. But I have hope; she is bright and hard working and still young. (She did, at one point, consider studying to become a cantor but I think that ship has sailed.)

    @Graham: There is no question that I was lucky to have family support when I went back to school. Some was financial (although not a huge amount, every little bit helps when you're living on Mac and Cheese and Tuna Noodle Casserole), some was emotional. But much of my "luck" was my willingness, in my late 20's and early 30's to forgo life comforts to be a middle age student pursuing my childhood dream.

    My wife was a violinist who decided to become a physician when the wear and tear of performance began to wear on her. (We met in organic chem at the aforementioned undistinguished city college.) She didn't play for many years but recently began playing at her church with a group of other talented musicians. She really enjoys it and looks forward to it. (She also enjoys her work as a primary care physician.)

  • GunstarGreen says:

    It has been my experience that, in American society at least, reward is inversely proportional to effort. Everyone I know that makes minimum or near-minimum wage busts their ass every moment of every day, while everyone I know that makes near-six-figure wages spends at least half of every day goofing around on the internet, a.k.a. 'researching'.

    The belief in a meritocracy is the province of the privileged and sheltered. It is only maintainable by those that have had literally zero dealings with the underclasses. A rational, non-sociopathic human cannot interact with the working class AND upper class in this country without understanding that 'hard work and bootstraps' counts for exactly nothing. Who your parents were and who you know has FAR more to do with your success than any other set of factors. Period.

  • You may want to gently suggest to your daughter the theater major that she take a semester's worth of practical courses at a community college and pick up an electrician's license. Theater electricians are still well paid.

  • Where I lived in Costa Rica there are an inordinate number of expat sociopaths, a number of whom were former real estate agents who made their money during the boom times and were insightful enough or lucky enough to get out before things went bust. Every single one of them would tell you without prompting that their success came from hard work. (Why so defensive, big guy?) I am a chef who spent nearly 4 decades busting my butt in pressure cookers and am now what some would consider homeless, although I don't live on the streets. So when some loud mouth real estate agent talks about hard work, I don't know whether to sneer, snigger, laugh or sigh. This country is broken, that much is obvious.

  • "Luck comes to those who are prepared to take advantage of the situation."
    "You are where you are today due to what you did 6 years ago."
    "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

    Just had to put that last one in there since I saw 'Animal House' last week.

    I have been fortunate to be a part of the luckiest generation. I am a moderately intelligent, moderately hard working (retiree), well married white guy raised by a union employed father in a working class neighborhood.

    The number of different careers/directions my life could take once I came back from Vietnam physically intact and with a G.I. Bill in my pocket… Let's just say it was virtually limitless. Not limitless monetarily but a middle class existence was assured.

    Not so much for the black guys in my platoon/training cadre/squadron. Not so much for my nephews. Hardly at all for my great-nephews. Probably non-existent for my great-great-nephews. (Read the above as applying to nieces, grand-daughters, etc.)

    Lucky? Damn right I was lucky. I feel that you cannot generate luck. You can, if you wish, seize opportunity.

    We can if we as a commonwealth wish, provide more of those opportunities. The political will to do so is lacking.

  • middle seaman says:

    Two short observations: what is success? I am not sure I know. Organization and community success typically has little to do with talent or contribution.

  • Access to opportunity is definitely luck. How you execute is not. Having well-educated parents meant I was expected to go to college and grad school and I was afforded a good private high school education followed by tuition-free college and grad school. But, nobody held my hand as I struggled to write my Ph.D. thesis. Getting a job as a physicist requires some basic skills that cannot be faked or gamed. Staying in a job as a physicist requires spending many nights and weekends in the lab. I've never been as tired as I was during my post-doc. I'm in the "not very bright but works hard" category of physicist, so I do believe that hard work pays off. Clearly I won the gene-pool lottery by being born in the US to educated and devoted parents but I would strongly deny that everything I have done is due to luck alone.

  • My father started working as a carpenter's apprentice when he was 12 (he lived in Ireland when it was still a 3rd world country). I still have yet to make as much money as he did! It was my bad luck to be born into a family that didn't value education – my parents valued work, and my siblings and I all have a great work ethic – but there was no expectation that anyone would go to college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. I tried to open some doors when I was a senior in high school – I got a full scholarship to a summer music program at a university and saw that there were possibilities for me – but my parents refused to fill out the FAFSA and so I couldn't go to any of the colleges that accepted me (Wesleyan, Sarah Lawrence, Amherst), and instead paid my own way in the local state university until I ran out of money.

    I am fortunate to have an optimistic mindset and the stubbornness to keep trying no matter how many times I get knocked down. Those are lucky qualities to have.

  • Last night, TCM presented a tribute to their host, Robert Osborne, who has been with the network from the beginning. Talking about his career as author, actor, host, etc., he kept emphasizing that, far more than talent or charm or hard work, he has been extremely lucky. He kept bringing this up over and over again. Nice man with a level-headed outlook.

  • I am the child of a single mother with mental health problems. My wife is one of five siblings from a lumpenproletariat family. I have a degree in political science. My wife did not finish college. I am Mensa-smart but lazy. My wife is not Mensa-smart but very diligent and hard working.

    We both work in IT for multinational corporations and pull down six figure salaries. I shudder to think how successful we'd both have been if we'd had family connections. :-)

  • RosiesDad and anyone else who considered actually going into the arts may be interested in the article "The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later", following music graduates of the most prestigious, "you've made it!", arts school in the whole country. Of the people who could be found, about a third were working in a professional orchestra, a third were doing music-related things like teaching in a high school, and a third were out of the field entirely.

    This was during the 1990s. So, if you stack all the odds in your favor, if you do everything right, if you attend the best school and graduate during boom times… you have about a one-third chance of really making it in the arts.

    It's… like being the fourth-best weightlifter in the country, when the Olympic team includes three competitors. It's a familiar kind of inversion: most successful classical musicians were rising stars growing up, but most rising stars don't grow up into successful classical musicians. And just like professional sports require the smashed dreams of many, many high-school stars who destroy their backs and knees to find their hopes of a professional career dashed, the classical music pipeline takes a lot more in at the front than it spits out the other end.

  • Most people I know who went into music are working as teachers and making music in their non-work hours. I think if you have to have achievable expectations – no need to have dreams smashed. Many musicians I know have successful non-musical careers (because learning music does help a person develop good habits), but they also make money with their musical pursuits.

    I do know quite a few struggling opera singers.

  • @maurinshy: my wife's work ethic–developed over a lifetime of practicing her violin for 4-6 hours a day–is what got her into and through medical school. She had the discipline to go into the library and put in hour after hour to master material that in no way came naturally to her. And she does love playing in the church ensemble.

  • When I was living in ABQ and working as an insurance adjuster, the business owner told me over only the second beer that poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy, and wealthy people are inherently more intelligent and hardworking. If that weren't the case, why are they living in trailers and I am where I am?

    Great logic, Boss. This dude was a trust fund baby who inherited the company. His younger brother and their various nepots who strolled in and out of the place, knowing little and doing less, earned hefty salaries. I grew up dirt poor, often in trailers, and the owner had often complimented me on my brains (which I think he was surprised to find in a female, but still: the bear could dance). We both knew all this, rehashed it all on the spot, and still he insisted.

    At the root of it, he was not comfortable calling his birth into comfort "luck"; he felt he deserved it all and was virtuous for having "achieved" it. Yet he was very comfortable explaining my self-improvement through hard work as "luck" because, in his opinion, it was so unlikely. I think his fundamental distaste for the poor was what drove this, but I still can't figure out if his position was simple stupidity or outright hypocrisy.

    (P.S.: he was a deeply self-fancying Libertarian. Anyone faint from the shock?)

  • Having been poor and homeless and now relatively wealthy, although no where near the 1%, I can tell you without reservation that being poor is a hell of lot more work and a hell of a lot more stressful that being wealthy. And like I said, I am not even anywhere near the 1%.

    The biggest shocks: I rarely if ever pay interest on loans anymore. Why do so when I can pay in cash? That saves me hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year for doing nothing.

    And investing has been remarkably simpler and easier than I ever thought. If you have the money to invest the opportunities just seem to line up and all you have to do is a modicum of research and not be a complete "mark" and there doesn't seem to be much else to it. I could never have imagined the amount of wining and dining and ass kissing that goes on when you have money to invest. Most Americans seem to have no idea how rigged the investment game has become for those already with money. Its a no brainer, can't lose situation.

  • It's relatively easy to explain. Managers often give more positive attention, resources and developmental opportunities to those employees they perceive are or will be the best contributors. Managers often give less development and positive attention to those employees they expect will be lower performers. The employees given more resources and development often perform better than those given fewer resources and development opportunities. Thus, the self-fulfilling prophesy strikes again.

    This becomes even worse when managers' perceptions are influenced by similarity bias and the halo effect. This may cause managers to over-estimate the performance of their favored employees while under-estimating the performance of others. This is sort of a typical in-group, out-group dynamic.

  • Good example for those of you who stick around for NPF sports posts — the NFL Rooney Rule and how much some of the more racist fans hate it. The late Buddy Ryan's sons both work in the NFL. So does Bum Phillips son, Wade (or did until this week, and likely will again). Monte Kiffin's son Lane did also, and Jim Mora's son Jim Jr. Both Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan have hired their own sons to be coordinators. Both Grudens (don't remember offhand if they are cousins or uncle/nephew). These are all recent examples off of the top of my head, I'm sure a good Google investigation would bring up several others. You never hear a peep about this kind of nepotism. However… bring up the fact that the NFL makes teams hire at least one black candidate for a head coaching job and watch the racism of "they didn't earn the interview" start up.

  • @Totoro

    No one here has said that success is entirely luck. Many have been vociferous in describing how important luck is, but no one said that skill is irrelevant.

  • Certainly in many professions like being a physicist you can't fake it. The point being that luck is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You can be brilliant and bust your ass but if the job market sucks and you can't land a tenure track job, all the late nights in the world won't necessarily save you.

  • I think the notion of meritocracy is itself pretty ghastly, if it means that we're collectively content to sacrifice the spuriously ajudged "less capable" to drudge work, infantilising micromanagement, economic insecurity, poor health, and dismal prospects. We all need bread and roses.

  • Meritocracy is a form of ableism we as a society are okay with I suppose. Beauty and intelligence are both genetic gifts. Meritocracy invariably eats itself. Assuming you start from perfect meritocracy, the winners will invariably pull the ladder up and seek to pass advantages non-meritocratically to friends and family. Meritocracy, pure meritocracy, will always be corrupted and become nepotism. The concept is a lie. And even on top of that, I share your concerns Elle. Meritocracy seems romantic but I actually think it's a very ugly concept when you think about it.

  • Dave Dell has a point he doesn't make explicitly – the luck of being born at the right time. I grew up in the post WW II golden age, graduated from college in 1968, and had no trouble finding a job. I went on from there to lead about the most middling middle-class life imaginable.

    I'm smart, but only a little bit ambitious, with little tenacity. Also, I'm a smart-ass who was unwise enough to speak truth to power at inopportune moments, more than once. Pro tip: don't do that.

    More on lucky timing – the two or three most significant events in all of my experience – truly life-changing – were simple blind luck of being in the right place at the right time. One of them involved the moment when my career had gone to shit and I needed a new job. That very week I found a help wanted add that read like my very obscure resume. I rate that probability somewhere between a small fraction of one percent and divine intervention.

    Along the way, I did manage to accomplish a few things, and I'm rather proud of some of them. But I take about 30% credit for the middling success and eventual happiness I've had in my life. The big factor has been mere happenstance.

    One more thought on timing – I have horrible vision, and have been in corrective lenses since before I was out of diapers. If I had been born in an earlier era, it would have been impossible for me to read or to learn pretty much anything.

    That thought fucking terrifies me.


  • "Some folks are born silver spoon in hand Lord,
    don't they help themselves
    But when the tax man come to the door Lord,
    the house look a like a rummage sale, yes"

    Fortunate Son, Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • Weird Old Tip says:

    "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple."
    –Barry Switzer, football coach at the 'U' of Oklahoma, then the Dallas Cowboys
    Jim Hightower used this quote at one point to refer to Geo. W. Bush during a fiery
    speech; everyone laughed, but Bush got elected anyway. The odd thing is that Mr.
    Switzer, as far as I recall, owed most of his own success to the same kind of luck.

  • @jazzbumpa; you've pretty much nailed the history of Gen X. We graduated college during Reagan/Bush, when there were no entry-level professional jobs to be had. The Boomers derided us for taking menial jobs (record stores, cafes, crappy restaurants), but those were the jobs that were hiring. We did okay during Clinton, but once Cheney's reign began, we were sandwiched between supporting our parents, the Boomers, and our children. Now that things are finally starting to pick up, all hail the Millenials, who are pushing us out of our jobs.

  • (P.S.: he was a deeply self-fancying Libertarian. Anyone faint from the shock?)

    Nope. And still less shocked that the only comment we've had from bb on this thread is, uh, what he said above. I imagine he'd shit his pants at reading what the Yarn Harlot had to say about her recent trip to Cuba. (She's Canadian, so she can go there. She wrote about it in that post and the three previous ones.)

  • This is as much a meritocracy as it is a democracy… We simply delude ourselves for it is a more comfortable way to go on…

  • Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards used that "born on third base and thought he'd hit a triple" quote in her speech at the Democratic convention re: George H. W. Bush; I thought it was original with her. Whoever said it first, it certainly summarizes the usual swagger of the privileged.

    With age comes reflection, at least in some cases. I was inducted into my high school's Hall of Fame (a small high school in a small town) and asked to speak to kids interested in my own discipline (fine arts). Had I been a good student when their age? Yes. Did hard work pay off? Yes. But I had to confront a lifetime of incredible luck for me that no longer exists for them: a system of free higher education at the highest level (U.C. Berkeley) that had imported a bevy of NYC artists to fill out its faculty; a U.S. art world 1/10th of its present size; a road dotted with full-time teaching jobs to assist my career path; cheap NYC real estate convertible for studios; grants offered visual artists by the federal government. This is a world long gone. Even the initially supportive home-town community had vanished: Standard Oil's engineering department had been moved out of my town and with it the educated wives who supported the arts there. Now the town is populated by relatives of the inmates in the newly built penitentiary nearby.

    Like rich kids who take much for granted, I thought my own pluck and talent had created what success I achieved. But a little reflection demonstrated otherwise. So I returned from the Hall of Fame banquet a much humbler person. Additionally humbling is that it took so many decades to realize the importance of luck.

  • Very many of the comments even here in this thread talk about "execution" and "seizing opportunities" as being the main factors in success.

    People who have six-figure salaries and believe they worked hard for that (probably true, for a first-world definition of hard work) simultaneously believe that the guy working three part-time jobs digging ditches and making 30K total between them for 16 hours per day of brutally hard work is not working hard, didn't seize opportunities, didn't execute.

    There have been many studies showing that in general, the "poor" of the world are just as smart, just as hard-working, just as opportunity-seizing as the rich. The rich do just as much dope, have just as much alcoholism, just as much laziness as the poor.

    The primary cause of "bad life choices" is poverty, not the other way around.

  • MS – Not quite sure what your point is here. I dug ditches. I even had a nickname of "scoop" because I claimed I loved to scoop rock. Yes, my job actually was scooping rock. You could tell how hot it had been by the salt ring bullseyes on my tshirt at the end of the day. However…

    I seized some of the opportunities luck brought my way due to being ready to take advantage of said opportunity.

    I lived cheaply – 9 people in a two bedroom house – AND had the GI Bill in my back pocket when the Marines finally let loose of me.

    I was lucky. Lucky to be born at just the right time (1949). Lucky to be the white guy son of a WWII vet, union employed father in middle America at a time when lots of attention was paid to education as a means of outdoing the Russians. Lucky to have married women who didn't think multiple children were needed – one is plenty. Lucky to be of moderately above average intelligence. Lucky to not have been caught driving while intoxicated. Lucky that I had support groups during some very desperate days.

    Opportunities for a person in my situation were frequent. Many blue and white collar career choices – all leading to a middle class life – were available to me. For a man (emphasis on man) in my situation half of being successful was merely showing up on time. Sure, it was luck that I wasn't born in the back hills of North Carolina or inner city Detroit (examples from my bootcamp platoon).

    Opportunities are available if luck brings them your way. But you can prepare in advance when luck comes knocking…

    Show up on time. Do the work. Don't blow your money on cell plans, video games, late model cars, designer jeans, $30 dollar haircuts, $100 sneakers, $150 cable TV bills. Blow some of your time and save some money on learning how to sweat pipe joints, wire a socket, change brake pads, etc Learn basic math and simple Algebra – libraries are free. Take advantage of all the free education available on the internet to learn how to set up and run web sites, learn programming languages, learn foreign languages.

    The more you know, the more opportunities will present themselves. Some of it is luck but some of it is widening the scope of what sorts of luck might come your way.

    Is there something you really like beyond watching TV or playing video games? Find a way to make a living in that field. If you love riding your bike competitively that's fine. You can make a living – maybe not a great living but a living – in the bicycle world somehow. Do the grunt work at the bike shop, learn everything you can and see what opportunities come your way.

  • I should add that universal health care including birth control, immunizations, dental and vision should be available to everyone. A minimum wage adjusted for local cost of living that provides the ability to live in modest comfort is also needed. Minimum housing standards need to be adopted. (I once lived in a city/county subsidized northern exposed apartment with a 6 inch poured concrete wall with no insulation.) Happily subsidized by my tax dollars. Although as an advocate of MMT these taxes or lack thereof aren't crucial.

    Lots of other things would create more opportunities for everyone. This site, among many others, is full of good ideas to keep anyone from having to "work three part-time jobs digging ditches and making 30K total between them for 16 hours per day of brutally hard work…"

  • Mingent Whizmaster says:

    I think bb in GA was channelling the late columnist Russell Baker.
    He had a recurring tripartite bit of the form:
    I am assertive,
    You are forward,
    He is rude.

  • @Sarah

    Happy New Year!

    Read your ref'd article and my britches are clean. :-)

    You obviously haven't been keeping up with my stuff here for years (I'm sure it's scintillating )that allows that your side is going to win in the end.

    Wrote it here several times over several years. I called our dear President's re-elect in 2010 here.

    I bear no one any ill will if y'all can accomplish the x-over to Ameri-cuba in a Constitutionally acceptable fashion that doesn't include Fidel and Cammandante Che's murderous tactics.

    Peace & Luv


  • Too many never have access to opportunity. They grow up without good schools, without two parents, without sufficient food or clothing. They don't have any opportunities to "execute".
    However, painting all successful folks as being so due to nepotism or connections is over-simplistic. Science is a meritocracy of ideas. Good ideas get replicated, bad ideas get shot down. The technological advances since the enlightenment have been due to the meritocracy of ideas. If you reject meritocracy, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

  • Lack of opportunities for the wrong people, lack of consequences for the right people.

    Meritocracy! Huzzah!

  • A good friend gave me the books "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan". Very well written, and touching on this topic among others. It reminds me of when I was job hunting back in 1984, just out of college. I had taken the Civil Service test, and applying for anything that seemed even remotely bearable. I was actually contacted for a job that I hadn't even known was available – it had been advertised, had multiple applicants, and been filled. The successful applicant lasted two weeks and was fired. They called the top three people on the list and asked us to come in. According to the service chief, of the three of us I was the only one who bothered to wear a suit for the interview. He hired me, and I was there for twenty four years. Sheer luck, in short, led to getting the job. I've told my sons "everyone who succeeds, tried; not everyone who tries, succeeds." You can prepare, work hard, and do everything right and STILL fail – we Americans are very uncomfortable with this truth, and will do everything possible to ignore or deny it.

  • I once got to see the Curriculum Vitae of the President od Iniana Power and Light. It went something like this:

    Education: two years at East Bumfuck Junior College
    First job: mail room for six months
    Second job: President of Ipalco. Thereupon followed 18 pages listing the Boards of Directors he and his wife sat on.

  • Hi y'all, from my window down in South America, where we say we believe but we mock of our own beliefs, I see that up there in North America many of these discussions are possible because of a cultural frame of mind. You DO believe. And believing in luck or believing in hard work is something that cannot be challenged even on the basis of solid evidence. Belief is difficult to shake…
    And probably the Calvinist script on hard work as a virtue no matter what the results, has been hammered into your DNA, hasn't it?
    @Elle: we all need bread and roses. This is not meritocracy, its basic human rights. Meritocracy is about being "led by those who have more merits"

  • I've heard that "success comes from working hard" pep talk from two batches of professors now. It's clear that it is rife with the cognitive biases and logical fallacies you often mention here on this site.

    The argument basically consists of the following:
    A) I worked hard, and look now I'm successful. (Hindsight + survivorship biases)
    B) Therefore hard work caused my success. (Post hoc fallacy)
    C) If you work hard then you will be successful like me. (I don't even know how to classify this obvious fallacy, a little help? Something like overgeneralizing from one data point?)
    D) If you do not work hard then you will not be successful. (Denying the antecedent fallacy)

  • Along with luck and winning the genetic lottery of having things like intelligence is the importance of having those skills, abilities in "emotional intelligence" or whatever it's called this week. Being able to shamelessly self-promote and/or play the game in developing social contacts/relationships is paramount.

    Experience has taught me that those with little to no compunction to screw over others go a long way too. They have this ability to get away with "dabbing the paint on" in such away so no one notices the dry rot underneath their work. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to come through and mop up someone else's failure to do the job right in the first place.

  • @major

    Cuba is in the mix because that was the subject of Sarah's reference. While I don't know if Ameri-cuba is Sarah's preferred form of a socialist paradise (wouldn't want to put words in her mouth), all y'all Lefties need to hash it out,….. Ameri-cuba, Ameri-Denmark, etc. and get back to me….


  • Science is a meritocracy of ideas. Good ideas get replicated, bad ideas get shot down.

    So all of those shelves full of reports on women's different experience of being recruited, mentored, funded, published, promoted, and collaborated with within the science academy are chopped liver? Funding councils and bodies are apolitical?

    If you reject meritocracy, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    Your hypothesis is noted. I think that at its most abstract the concept of meritocracy is almost tautologous. It's hardly a radical thought to aver that it would be best if the best people were the leaders. The two sticking points, of course, are who decides what is 'best', and what happens to everyone else.

    Anyone who is in activist, or even a keen observer of the world, will have noted that the concept of meritocracy is most frequently invoked as a response to a demand for power to be shared more equally. It is the go-to response to the request for gender quotas for elected representatives, to inquiries into the lack of black people in corporate leadership roles, and as a sop to those who ask why executive suite salaries dwarf those of the shop-floor worker.

    It balms the soul of those who would wring every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat to imagine that they are objectively justified in their station in life.

    If everyone had access to education, healthcare, housing, nutrition, income, political spaces, and work that had been designed to be rewarding and pleasant, then I would have no problem with meritocracy. In the absence of fairness, equality, and equal enjoyment of human rights, it is a self-serving nonsense.

  • I'm curious what all of you who are hating on meritocracies imagine in its place? If the problem is corruption, then no system in the world is immune. A meritocracy at least has the advantage if being based in the idea that those who can do the job well should have the job.

  • I'm curious what all of you who are hating on meritocracies imagine in its place?

    Substantive representation, with descriptive representation as a useful first step.

  • Hi Elle,

    Sure. Science could better represent women. All of society could do better. I do believe that science has done better than most other portions of society. But bias against minorities has a long history. My grandfather was rejected from many northeastern graduate programs back in the 1920s because he was Irish (he was accepted at a school in the midwest). One of the reasons there are so many Jewish physicists in the 1920s-50s is because they weren't allowed to be businessmen and lawyers (Hitler may also have helped). In the 60's my father's physics department was producing more black Ph.D. physicists than the Ivies. The prevalence of Asians in science currently is because we accept immigrants whose grasp of the English language is marginal if they are also brilliant. We ain't perfect, but we are much less old-boy-network than many professions.

    Why are women under-represented in the sciences? Dunno. I do know that women are also under-represented in the boardroom, in Congress, etc. I've mentored a significant number of women graduate students, most of whom have gone on to be very effective researchers. From what I've read, the divergence between male and female aspirations towards science happens well before graduate school. Women are under-represented in the sciences (other than pre-med) at the beginning of college. Much effort has been expended in the past 20 years to increase female participation in STEM programs in high school. It will be another 20 years before we see those recruits as tenured professors.

    That said, the research either is reproducible or it isn't. We have our share of cheats in science, but they generally get caught (or the result was inconsequential). So yes, I am quite happy working in a meritocracy of ideas.

    I'm struggling to understand how my physics research is "wring(ing) every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat". Perhaps you think tax dollars shouldn't be spent on research? The training of graduate students? You can't be thinking that I'm one of the 1%, do you? You don't become a research physicist to get rich, you do it because you can't imagine doing anything else. There are too many easier ways to make a living, trust me.

  • "One of the reasons there are so many Jewish physicists in the 1920s-50s is because they weren't allowed to be businessmen and lawyers (Hitler may also have helped).

    OK, that needs clarification. They were not "forbidden", but the Ivies had very tight quotas on how many Jewish students they would admit. The main-line law firms just didn't hire "those types". So there were clear limits to how far you could rise in certain fields. While there was also anti-semitism in academia, it was not as strong.

  • Just chiming in on what I've observed about how many "successful" people come to believe in meritocracy, based on my own experience with privileged people.

    I went to a fancy private school and rubbed elbows with the children of the affluent classes. IMO, here's how the belief in meritocracy happens:

    Beleive it or not, my experience was that most (not all, but most) privileged people actually DO work pretty hard. When they're young, they take school seriously, they go to class and do their homework, they prep for the SAT, they pursue sprots and other extracurricular activities, so that they can get into good colleges, where they still go to class (most of the time) and do their homework, and pursue enriching activities in their spare time, and then they find a job, and they work hard, often putting in more than 40 hours a week. Etc.

    So naturally, they feel like they have EARNED the money and comfot they receive. And the thing is, very often, they are not so much wrong as they are instead only half-right. They are correct that they DID work hard, and hard work DID contribute to their success.

    The problem is that they miss the entire other half of their success, because it's just invisible to them, like a fish in water. They have no concept of what a privilege it was to have access to a "good" school and test prep to begin with, or just how lucky they were to come from families that never had to worry about money and could pay for all sorts of enrichment, or just how lucky they were to have access to top-notch medical and dental care, etc. They simply do not see how access to the above led to access to good colleges led to acces to good careers, and that the only reason they had the OPPORTUNITY to work had and be rewarded by the well-paying jobs they have is thanks to an entire un-remarked-upon scaffolding of privilege underneath their own hard work. That scaffolding is what's invisible to them.

    When you do point out all of their privileges, they will generally answer with vague platitudes about how there are government programs and scholarships and affirmative action, and surely that "makes up" for any differences in opportunity! And they probably really believe it. After all, they know from experience that "hard work pays off!"

    And their kids will think the exact same way.

  • Hi Totoro,

    Yes, discrimination affects many groups of individuals, both historically and in the present. That this discrimination continues to be replicated across the labour market and in political spaces, including within the STEM sectors, is contrary to meritocracy existing.

    There is global interest in women and STEM, and it's in scope of the UN, the World Bank, and the international development community. Targets within Europe's current and previous economic development strategies has meant that there has been a very sustained research and policy focus on women and STEM over here, and I know that the US has done equivalent work. (The now defunct Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET), for example, which was kicked off in 1998.)

    Above all other occupational sectors, we know a great deal about the supply of female scientists, and their different experience from male peers, from early years education to professorship. I listed some of the areas in which women's experience is different from men in my earlier comment.

    This body of knowledge has been translated into programmes on both the demand and supply side, which have the aims of removing the structural barriers to women's participation in STEM, and building girls' and women's resilience and capacity to pursue non-traditional study and careers. (There may be someone holding their head in their hands right now at the thought that you have not read one of their organisation's lovingly crafted sets of guidance for those with supervisory/mentoring responsibility for female graduate students of physics.)

    As you are unfamiliar with all of this work, it might be helpful to acquaint yourself with it before deciding if you persist in your view that functionally excluding people from physics research based on factors that have nothing to do with ability to do physics means that physics is a 'meritocracy of ideas'. Jocelyn Bell Burnell might be a good and accessible place to start. As well as being an eminent physicist, who seems to have behaved like an absolute brick about being cut out of a Nobel for the work she did on pulsars as an postgrad, she has also taken something of a leadership role on women in science. She's also an object lesson, as one of the first girls at her high school to be allowed to study science rather than sewing.

    I'm struggling to understand how my physics research is "wring(ing) every drop of sweated labour out of the lumpenproletariat". Perhaps you think tax dollars shouldn't be spent on research? The training of graduate students?

    This is the type of wild inference that I imagine goes on within the pages of Soap Opera Digest. As I said, and think, none of this, I don't feel too bad about not engaging with it in detail.

    What I would say, is that I am very enthusiastic about the awarding of research grants only to institutions that have taken action to identify barriers to women's participation, and removed them.

    On the subject of the academy and meritocracy, I would note that (in a European context) academics' trade unions are notorious for their lack of solidarity with non-academic staff. They actively pursue negotiating strategies of wage differentiation, and refuse single-table bargaining. The impact of this can clearly be seen on, for example, the wife of a dual-academic couple of who steps out of an academic career because of its incompatability with child-rearing, and who returns to work as a part-time lab tech.

  • I'm late to the game, but I wanted to simply point out that no one has an issue with the concept of meritocracy, provided that those at the bottom still have their needs met. The issue is that meritocracy in our society is an illusion – a comfortable lie to justify the status quo for those who benefit.

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