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« Festivus (and the airing of grievances) | Main | The alternative gift card »

The meritocracy trap

This recent quote from an early PayPal exec is absurd: “If meritocracy exists anywhere on earth, it is in Silicon Valley.”

It's pretty common for successful people to imagine that their success is solely the result of merit. It's more satisfying than pointing to all the external factors that have contributed to that success. The trap is in being satisfied. Satisfaction in their meritocracy causes companies, industries and cultures to calcify, to harden themselves against new ideas and new people.

CULTURE is something we create, and culture works against pure merit. That's because culture creates insulation and connections and histories that count at least as much as the pure horsepower of merit.

HEAD STARTS get compounded. Early success gives people the resources, confidence and connections that can be used to create later success. 

LOCK IN means that organizations and ideas can succeed far longer than they would without it. You don't give up on a social network or smart phone merely because one element of it isn't the best available one. It's easier to stick than to switch.

And of course, lock in goes way beyond operating systems. It includes worldviews, friendships, momentum of all kinds.

At the philharmonic, the first chair violinist might believe the job came solely as a result of merit, through blind auditions. But the combination of culture (going all the way back to the age of 5, combined with access to teachers, combined with the tenure that comes with many roles) means that even at these rarified heights, merit alone isn't the guiding force. On this day, is this violinist actually the very best violinist in the world? (And defining merit gets super difficult once we mix it together with vague measures of effort and potential).

And so, in Silicon Valley there is a deeply ingrained culture that rewards people who understand it, that play by certain rules and have access to various resources that seem out of reach to many. A great idea, powerful work ethic and good design are rarely sufficient on their own. And lucky people who are bold enough to dig in often find that early effort leads to a head start, that they can choose to compound, which, in the most legendary cases, leads to a lock-in a market that can last for a decade or more. 

And of course, it's not just Silicon Valley. It's the breaks I got along the way, the resources that let me do my work and the ability to post this blog daily, it's the farmer who was born with access to a better piece of land, it's everywhere where we build a culture, a system for creating utility, a network. And it works. Until it doesn't.

For me, the huge hurdle we face is, "seems out of reach." In cultures and economies with rapid change (and the Valley certainly qualifies) there are huge opportunities, but too many people talk themselves out of reaching, aren't thirsty enough to take a leap. Part of that resistance comes from the industry itself proclaiming its meritocracy as opposed to actively opening doors and selling people (hard) on finding the thirst, the desire to leap.

[If someone is looking for a true meritocracy, where the deck is reshuffled and the best weighs in first, check out pumpkin growing].

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