In a time where we are starting to revisit and critically evaluate age-old narratives that have permeated the value system of our society, there are some ideas that just seem harder to shake off than others. ‘God is dead and we have killed him’ proclaimed Nietzche in the 1880s, with the literary works sprouting out of the Enlightenment fundamentally changing our relationship with religion, resulting in a whole manner of significant cultural changes falling by the wayside now that we don’t have to live in fear of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity. Despite being creatures who are incredibly susceptible to rigid dogma and enigmatic leaders who promise a fast-track to the pearly gates, we are pretty good at progress. If a closely-shared idea becomes incompatible with our continual search for truth and understanding, we’re happy to discard it along with feudalism, race eugenics and bootcut jeans, although the latter is regrettably making a comeback.
The ascension of the principle of individuality was such a core and liberating feature of the Enlightenment, and rightly so. You are a sentient being capable of independence and self-reliance. Although you are inescapably a part of a wider social network, your own consciousness is free, it is assimilated within your personality. You do not have to follow the same ideologies and rituals that your fore-bearers brought you up with, you yourself can explore and mash-up whatever philosophies and mantras you see fit. The world is your oyster, as the saying goes.
But is the world your oyster? How much of an impact can you actually make on the world at large or is it pre-determined for you? Is it that in saying to everyone that the world is their oyster and they can go fishing for them, some people have Poseidon’s trident, some people have a rake and some are unfortunately stuck with a dessert fork? Those who profess that we live the kind of society where anyone can make it are actually singing from same hymn sheet, in a concerted effort to maintain the existing social order. Let the fools dream of climbing the stairs to paradise, whilst we surreptitiously raise the ladder just out of reach. As much as individualism has inspired people to finally take control of their lives, maybe we are still shackled.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers which discusses the myth of the self-starter and the idea that those who go on achieve extraordinary feats of human achievement are those with disproportionate levels of hard work and talent. As the cultural claim goes, these people are superhumans who have earned all their success, but Gladwell is deeply sceptical and illuminates this with some interesting case studies.
For example, a Canadian study showed that school children who are deemed to be gifted and talented are disproportionately born in the earlier months of the year, where the cut-off for each year group is in December/January. If you are a child born in December 2007 and you are competing with classmates born in January of the same year, the significant differences between your cognitive development will often paint the older children as being brighter or more able to grasp concepts than their peers, despite these older children being intellectually average relative for their age. I remember that when I took the 11+ plus exam to get into secondary school, I was told that because I was born in August, my marks would be adjusted accordingly for my age, because I was going to be behind an applicant born in the previous September on average.
But most interestingly, the path for these kids to actually becoming successful is due to the inculcation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children who are instilled with the idea that they are gifted and talented believe that they are gifted and talented and tend to live up to that expectation more than children that are not told this. They capitalise on opportunities that are provided to them and behave in ways that fosters the development of actual talent, which is an extraordinary finding.
Not only that, but this belief tends to accumulate into advantages during the course of the child’s life. Like a few pounds growing to thousands when invested in the stock market or by Redditors gaming those pesky hedge funds, a small advantage can compound to huge successes later on, also known as the Matthew effect. And this works both ways, with those who are disadvantaged from the outset tending to accumulate further disadvantages. Not having the privilege of time to dedicate to academic work, the lack of financial security meaning that you have to work part-time rather than develop a useful hobby or skill and restricted access to health and social care rendering your mental health untreated are all negative compound effects. The rich getting richer whilst the poor get poorer is not just an anecdotal saying, it’s a well-documented sociological phenomenon.
Gladwell also talks about the role that sheer luck plays in success. Remarkably, some of the richest men in modern history, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, were all born between 1953-1955, all at just the right time to benefit from the rise of the personal computer. If they were born 10 years either side of this, they would have been either too old to adapt to new technologies or too young and would have missed the chance to seize this rare opening in a small window of lucrative ingenuity. Even though these remarkable individuals presumbaly had the desire and intellect to become pioneers, they hugely benefitted from Goldilocks conditions and owe a lot to the stars aligning at the perfect moment in humanity’s storyline. Their hard work and talent would not have afforded them success at any other time. I’m guilty of this, I hold my hands up. I’m incredibly proud of some of the accolades and milestones I’ve managed to reach on my own journey, but am all too quick to flatter myself. This is, of course, massively hypocritical given that if I didn’t have the same parents and the same opportunities to immigrate to the UK, go to a good school and take part in extra-curricular activities, I would not be where I am. And that’s indisputable.
The narrative that we live in a meritocracy is an alluring one. Who doesn’t want to believe that the successes that we achieve are down to our passion, grit and determination or due to a god-given talent? We spend our lives seeking self-esteem and confidence, and so when we secure a win, we want to believe that we have taken an important step in our journey for meaning and fulfilment.
Those who wish to peddle this gross misrepresentation of how success supposedly works are quick to point to individuals who have “made it”. Our society laps up a rags-to-riches story, and whilst of course they have some utility in inspiring those from underprivileged backgrounds, they rarely touch on the structural problems that imprisoned that remarkable individual in the first place. No one can be inspired out of poverty. Marcus Rashford, who is now doing unbelievable work to alleviate child poverty in a developed country, is not telling young kids to work hard and to become footballers like he did as a primary solution to their hunger. He’s investing money in systems that will help kids get fed, a system that had previously harmed him and despite his sustained efforts, still appears to be impervious to change.
It is well-established that exceptions do not make the rule, and it’s slightly perplexing how this same group can be satisfied that a tiny fraction of people have managed to break out of cycles of poverty and oppression, despite everyone else in their shoes being resigned to an inescapable stasis. Just because a lucky few slip through a gap in a fence doesn’t mean that a fence doesn’t exist and stand in their way.
This conversation is most divisive in discussions around hiring in the context of diversity and inclusivity. The knee-jerk reaction tends to be, “I just want the best person for the job, is that too much to ask for?!” Not many rational thinkers would advocate for a barrister or a plumber or a teacher to be sub-optimal in their profession, so wanting the best person for the job is a pretty universal and uncontroversial thought process in that regard. But what is the archetypal best person for the job?
We can start from a literal equivalency as ‘the most qualified’, the person who on paper is the most experienced for the role. The trouble is that in a large number of professional industries, those who receive the requisite qualifications typically come from similar backgrounds. As of 2019, 65% of the most senior judges in England and Wales went to an independent school, despite only 7% of the population being privately educated. Obviously there is a significant gap in the opportunities one can undertake from leaving school to becoming a judge, but why is it that so many of those that excel in the legal sphere go to private schools? How can it be that such a narrow section of society can consistently be appointed to these roles, despite having no superior advantages in work ethic or resilience?
There is an interesting argument to be made about the heritability of IQ and its subsequent influence on educational outcomes. Intelligence, like physical attractiveness, is a highly heritable genetic trait and it may be the case that further research will conclusively prove that nature will supersede nurture when it comes to future success. Gladwell discusses the way in which our society places certain types of observable intelligence over others and how ‘concerted cultivation’, a parental approach of active encouragement in a child’s education and personal development more utilised by middle-class families compared to working-class families, plays a considerable role in how intelligence affects an individual’s potential.
But even we place IQ on a pedestal, intelligence in isolation doesn’t get you into the private meeting rooms of the metropolitan elite. No doorman is asking you to complete` a Mensa test to demonstrate your intellectual prowess. Even psychometric testing for graduate roles, which attempt to measure your trait intelligence and ability to process information flexibly, is not an indicator of competence within a role, where things like conscientiousness, self-efficacy and motivation start to have more impact. But a demonstration of IQ early on in childhood certainly acts as a springboard where, like the older kids in school doing better than their younger peers but not actually above average for their age, children are told they are intelligent and clever at an early stage of their lives.
Countless studies have shown that private schools foster the greater development of IQ than their state counterparts through specialised infrastructure, such as smaller class sizes, high quality, dilgent teachers, access to a wide-range of extracurricular activities and an extensive alumni network stretching across a number of industries. I know that some private schools have a selection process to get into, but the primary means of entry into these institutions is money, which is something outside of a child’s control. It is evidently the access to specific branches of education and opportunity that make the top-level judge, but those currently occupying these positions have bought into the illusion that it is their personalities and character that have solely landed them there.
We know that there has been a reluctance to open up the ‘vanilla boy’s club’ in the words of Trevor Phillips to women and ethnic minorities, but could the reason for this be a shared delusion in the self-fulfilling prophecy? These individuals were reminded that they were destined for greatness, so they believe that they are the narrow blueprint for greatness and anything that falls outside of that does not conform to the accepted notion of those who have the potential to be great.
Do you think parents send their kids to Eton to become clay pigeon marksmen? It is because they are essentially guaranteeing future success for their offspring, irrespective of their child’s potential or intelligence. And like Wall Street, Eton is a system that has been manipulating the social markets for a long time. Ever wondered why Eton alumni have such an affinity with politics? It’s because Sir Robert Walpole, who became the first de facto British Prime Minister in 1725, went to Eton. There’s no special formula in Eton Mess that makes you more capable or in-touch with politics, it’s the self-fulling prophecy that was instilled over 300 years ago! If you go to Eton, you’re clever enough to be the next Prime Minister. And since then, Eton has produced 20 Prime Ministers and countless other politicians in a British society that proclaims to be meritocratic.
Another interpretation for the phrase ‘most qualified’ could be as the most competent, someone who doesn’t necessarily have the wealth of experience, but has the skills and personality to be suited to the role. If we’re saying who has the requisite skills and personality to be a judge, it is currently looking like this role is pretty exclusively reserved for privately educated, White, heterosexual men. Let me absolutely clear, this is not to say that privately educated, White, heterosexual men cannot be exceptional judges, obviously they can be, but I’m simply pointing out that they cannot objectively be the best people for the job so often. It is more likely that the perceptions of what competence looks like has kept the door firmly shut for diverse individuals who actually could be competent if given the chance, but haven’t met the arbitrary standards that have been set for the like-minded.
In the infamous Harvard Admissions scandal, an analysis of more than 160,000 student records showed that Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected.” How can this be an observation based in reality, that it just so happened that the subsection of Asian Americans applying to Harvard were super academic, but unlikeable, unkind cowards who didn’t deserve respect?! As you can gather from my tone and hopefully your own logical reasoning and personal experience, this cannot be the case. It is the perception of attaching stereotypical attitudes to those from diverse backgrounds that is preventing their entry into certain industries, not their merit.
Matthew Syed wrote about how these situations tend to sideline meritocracy in his book, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. Homophily, the subconscious habit we have where we find it validating to have our own ideas imitated back to us by the people that surround us, is the enemy of meritocracy. The issue with homophily is that it forms a collective blindness through a lack of cognitive diversity. Even if a team consists of extremely intelligent people who are incredibly hard-working, if they all think alike, they won’t know what they’re not seeing and will re-affirm grandiose ideals of meritocracy and fairness within them. It’s amazing how quickly barriers to entry are justified on artificial constructs of competence. 50 years ago, the concept that a woman could be an excellent Supreme Court Judge, a neurosurgeon or Army General was rarely entertained, because they were deemed to not have qualities needed to succeed, because only men had ever done these roles justice. We scoff at that idea now, yet still want to make up new reasons to preserve the status quo.
Syed specifically talks about the 1970s, where at the time, members of American orchestras were mainly male since men were viewed to be better musicians than women. Cecilia Rose of Princeton and Claudia Goldin of Harvard questioned this assumption by proposing that musicians audition behind screens. Once this practice had been accepted, the number of female performers rose from five to almost forty percent, demonstrating that a lot of talented women had been ignored as a result of gender bias and that the procedure used for selection had not been objectively based on merit. I can think of a number of narratives that I’ve heard about seemingly ‘objective’ differences between men and women, and although there are of course certain biological diferences, much of these have been constructed for the preservation of power and, above all, pride.
In order to believe this myth of meritocracy in its entirety, we then have to extend it to those who are destitute and believe that the reason they are in a difficult position is down to their own personal failings. As we are beginning to accept the impact that systematic, vicious cycles have on a person’s ability to escape poverty, we will regrettably have to apply that reasoning to our own achievements, which might be harder to come to terms with.
We don’t like to believe that the fruits of our labour may have been planted in soil that was carefully tended to by others, and that our blood, sweat and tears was not really the reason we dragged ourselves over the finish line. People from all walks of life suffer and have to deal with adversity. Those who come from privileged backgrounds also have to deal with insecurity, rejection and heartbreak, as these are, distinctly human experiences. But we can untangle individual determination from a pre-determined likelihood of success without feeling ashamed by it. Acknowledging the headstarts that we have should not detract from your own input into the trajectory of our lives, these ideals can co-exist. But in order to help others realise their potential, we need to stop lying to ourselves that there is a level playing field.
How can the world be your oyster if you are not given the means to explore it?
What if you’re right, and they’re wrong?