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The myths of the "self-made man" and meritocracy

The myths of the 'self-made man" and meritocracy

The recession has caused a significant economic adjustment, including a realignment of assets and the demand and supply of talent. Along with these adjustments has been renewed debate over issues such as the distribution of wealth, the disappearing middle class and the belief in meritocracy. Some recent experts have reaffirmed a perception that both the belief in the "self-made man" and the benefits of meritocracy are largely myths and don't serve society well.

Movies, TV shows and popular media, and many politicians are reinforcing these myths by arguing and promoting the notion that anyone can be wealthy or make it to the top by virtue of their hard work and positive attitude and that's how successful people did it in the past. If this were true, we wouldn't see a virtual explosion of people buying lottery tickets, and governments using lotteries as a significant source of revenue.

Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in North America say there is no such thing as the "self-made man." With more millionaires making, rather than inheriting, their wealth, there is a false belief that they made it on their own without help, a new report published by the Boston-based non-profit United For a Fair Economy, states. The group has signed more than 2,200 millionaires and billionaires to a petition to reform and keep the U.S. inheritance tax. The report says the myth of "self-made wealth is potentially destructive to the very infrastructure that enables wealth creation."
The individuals profiled in the report believed they prospered in large part to things beyond their control and because of the support of others. Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world said, "I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." Erick Schmidt, CEO of Google says, "Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don't have a fraction of what I have. I realize that I don't have my wealth because I'm so brilliant."

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Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, The Outliers, attacks America's myth of the self-made man. Gladwell's meticulous research has shown that enormously successful people like Bill Gates, The Beatles, and professional athletes, scientists and artists, all had people in their lives that helped them get there.

Similar to the self-made myth, the belief in meritocracy is a myth.

The term meritocracy is defined as a society that rewards those who show talent and competence as demonstrated by past actions or competitive performance. The term was first used in Michael Young's 1958 satirical book, Rise of Meritocracy, which describes a dystopian future in which one's social place was determined by IQ and effort.

Proponents of meritocracy argue that it is more just and productive, allowing for distinctions to be made on the basis of performance. When meritocracy is implemented in organizations, though, it invariably results in hierarchical structures. Meritocracy has been criticized as a myth which only serves to justify the status quo; merit can always be defined as whatever results in success. Thus whoever is successful can be portrayed as deserving success, rather than success being in fact predicted by criteria for merit. The book by Lawrence Peter, The Peter Principle, points out that meritocracy promotes individuals based on their ability to perform their prior assignment, not their current or future ones.

Nigel Nicholson, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, argues in an article in The Harvard Business Review, that it is a damaging myth that meritocracy in organizations is based on the proposition that it equals quality and efficiency. Nicholson says "in the kind of meritocracy that companies try to implement, people progress linearly: The very best alpha sits on high, with a team of betas reporting to him (occasionally her), all the way down to the omegas working the machines and dealing with the customers." He says that this approach does not work for 3 reasons: It allow for no scope for learning because people can't change their grades; it ignores the fact that peoples' value or talent depends on circumstances--everyone has unique capabilities that have to be constantly reassessed; and you can't reduce a person's value to a single letter or number on a scale of merit.

Nicholson argues that meritocracy has too many managers looking over their shoulders, striving to improve themselves instead of trying to bring out the best in others. He observes that a rigid hierarchical model has held sway in human society for more than 10,000 years. He says that our love affair with corporate hierarchy plays right into the hands of our ancestral primate instincts for contest, dominance and pecking orders--traditional obsessions and addictions of men in a patriarchal order.

What about women? Nicholson says that women lack the same presumptions than men do; women are more open to cooperation and collaboration, which would explain why so few women rise to the top.

What does Nicholson suggest as solutions? He says a true meritocracy would acknowledge all workers' multiple talents. It would recognize that we live in a dynamic and uncertain world, and structures would be fluid and changing, citing Google, Opticon, Chapparal Steel and others who have experimented successfully with team based cultures, fuzzy hierarchies and spontaneous self-organizing projects.

Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller of the University of North Carolina, argue in their book, The Meritocracy Myth that there is a serious gap between how people think our economic system works and how it actually works. The authors cite data which shows that 20% of American households receive 50% of all available income and the lowest 20% of households receive less than 4%; the top 5% of households receive 22% of all available income; the richest 1% of households account for 30% of all available net worth. Economic inequality in the U.S. is the highest among all industrial countries.

McNamee and Miller say that despite the popular view that the U.S. is a middle class society, it is not because most wealth is concentrated at the top. They also argue that the case for merit would assume wealth to be distributed according to the bell-shaped curve, which it is not.
Similarly, working hard is often seen as a part of the merit formula. But what do we mean by working hard? The number of hours we spend to reach a goal? Energy spent? There is no correlation between hard work and economic success. In fact, those people who work the most hours and spend the most energy are usually the poorest, the authors argue. And really big money doesn't come from working, it comes from owning assets.

McNamee and Miller also challenge the idea that moral character and integrity are important for economic success. There is little evidence that being honest results in economic success. In fact, the reverse is true, as seen in the examples of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson and the Wall Street debacle. White collar crime in the form of insider trading, embezzlement, tax and insurance fraud is hardly a reflection of integrity and honesty. Playing by the rules probably works to suppress prospects for economic success, compared to those who ignore the rules.

In looking at jobs, we tend to focus on the "supply" side of the labor markets--the pool of available talent. Much less attention is spent on the demand side. For the past 20 years the "growth jobs" have been disproportionally in the low wage sector in entry-level jobs. At the same time, increasing numbers of people are getting advanced education, with insufficient numbers of high-powered jobs to accommodate them.

McNamee and Miller say, in conclusion, that our belief in a meritocracy is sustaining a myth that disguises economic inequality in North America and prevents progressive government initiatives to address the issue.

In my work as a leadership trainer and executive coach, I have been struck by how many people blindly follow the images portrayed by the media that try to convince the masses that "you too" can be the next athletic, singing, acting or business star regardless of your background, when the odds are astronomical that it will happen. Also, so many self-help gurus help to perpetuate the myths discussed here by convincing their clients that anyone can make it to the top with hard work and a few positive affirmations. These naive and damaging practices--particularly for young people--just reinforce and sustain the myth of the self-made man and meritocracy.

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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