The Joke of Meritocracy: Thoughts on My Success à la Malcolm Gladwell's Bestseller Outliers
Last month marked the 8-year anniversary of watching my agency burn to the ground. Mile markers like this make me reflect. As an entrepreneur, I’ve made some great decisions and experienced a lot of failures. Along the way, I've also gotten lucky. More than once I’ve found myself somewhere unexpected just when it seemed my luck was running out. It's not a linear experience as some would have you believe. Our current culture praises entrepreneurship and sometimes glorifies it, but mostly it portrays it as a journey from the bottom to the top, leaving out the many, many peaks and valleys along the way. I still refer to this journey as “the stunning discomfort of entrepreneurship.”
Recently, I re-listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s classic, Outliers: The Story of Success, and heard it differently this time through. As with all life experiences, we are never in the same place at the same time, so I reflected differently on his well-crafted manifesto about the western view of success.
The Soup We’re Swimming In
Storytelling is popular today. It’s not just in market research and insights as an industry where I spend a lot of time, but most mainstream speakers are in tune with the need to tell audiences a better story to efficiently entertain, inform, and perhaps convince.
But I have always been wary of stories. My first wave of distrust typically surges when the storyteller panders to some base emotion. I hate the sappy, oversimplified retelling of someone’s lowly status where the hero miraculously overcomes what first appeared to be insurmountable odds.
I get that it’s a story arc. I get that it’s a hero’s journey. I just hate how it doesn’t tell the story. At the very least it doesn’t tell the whole story, and to my point, therefore doesn’t tell the real story.
As a successful professional, I’m often battered by others’ opinions of how I achieved my success. They reach for a simple story they can understand. One where opportunity, mindset, connection or trust fund is solely responsible for my current position. The first clue I’ll give you about my story is that it didn’t include a trust fund, nor did my father lend me a million dollars.
The reality is that people don’t like complicated answers, but success is complicated.
People, Americans especially, don’t like answers that show the makings of success are often outside the hero's control. Americans still love the bootstrapping story only painted in the light of the hero's fortitude and compelling bravery.
What people don’t want to hear when they ask you about your success is that you aren’t entirely sure how you've become so successful. They even more so don’t want to hear you have a sneaking suspicion that undetected small opportunities and cultural realities left you in the right place at the right time through no doing of your own.
At first, this might come off as false modesty. Odds are (literally) many people have been in the right place at the right time and NOT reacted in the same way as you and therefore have not experienced success. Or perhaps they did react correctly, but other outside forces contributed to the demise of the opportunity prematurely.
What the Book Says
Indeed, the myth of meritocracy doesn’t break down the most important part of the journey that is replicable.
Success, according to Mr. Gladwell, is more often just the recognition of an opportunity, the action to take advantage of it, and the persistence needed to see if it can be parlayed into a subsequent win.
This stringing together of opportunity and action with persistence is far more responsible for success. He likens it to momentum physics or, my mom could have told you that with her, “Make hay while the sun’s shining” maxim.
The Joke that is Meritocracy
The bookstore shelf is lined with rich people’s stories of how they achieved success. Most, in my opinion, are a thinly veiled attempt to convince themselves and any other takers about the unique way they rose to success. Often times this hero's journey smacks more of the extreme and often unrealistic rise of the underdog to a slow, uncompromising, yet compelling victory. Many don’t see the problem with this portrayal of lone badass who overachieves. It’s another good laugh at meritocracy.
The storyline exists for a reason. It's enticing. Even those who succeeded with million-dollar loans like to use this story arc. Conversely, poverty and nobility are not inextricably bound. At some point, we need to acknowledge it's not always the most deserving who are in the positions of power. The sooner we realize this, the quicker we will get to the truth about success.
MENTORSHIP VS. SPONSORSHIP
My life has moved pretty fast and rarely within a structured environment that supported more crafted mentorship. I kind of figured out success a small piece at a time. I don’t want to tell my story for others to replicate. I want to tell my story so people can see the mindset I've approached each opportunity in my life with. Talking about missed opportunities is also an important part of telling the whole story and providing a learning moment. Mentorship can provide insight and help others reframe their opportunities. But what worked for me or didn't work for me may not be the same for the next person.
Mentorship could have helped me, but sponsorship holds so much more promise.
Sponsorship is the active and intentional pursuit of putting the right person in the right place at the right time with an expectation of their persistence. Being the key to open a door someone else could not have opened on their own is the essence of this mindset. You've heard of the "Good ol' Boys' Club". It's a thing. What needs to become a thing is a "Good ol' Girls' Club". Men have been historically much better about placing someone in the right place at the right time with a "pssst...just hire Bob." Good on them. Time to start playing along, ladies.
If there is indeed a limit to meritocracy, this sponsorship thing is truly more important than others let on or perceive. Men long have enjoyed networks of intense sponsorship over mentorship. I don’t want to take away from the great model that is. I would just like to see more women understand and participate in this model.
Thoughts on My Own Success
I often audibly joke that “if I keep this hard work up for another 10 years I’ll be an overnight success.” I have some ideas of what created a foundation for my success:
- Being the 5th of 5 girls gave me a deep sense of belonging and confidence.
- Spending key years of adolescence in Europe gave me a bigger worldview.
- Knowing multiple languages contributed to deeper social intuition.
- Having parents who are still together gave me a sense of familial stability.
I am not responsible for any of these conditions, yet I feel all have contributed to how I operate and have gotten me to where I am. There are others I feel I was heavily responsible for and I was able to contribute to my own success. As my husband says, “luck favors the organized.” I totally agree.
This is why I was never "lucky" with getting into grad school. I wanted to get my PhD. in Cultural Anthropology. I had a lot of opportunities, but I never met them with organization or persistence. I could have experienced success in that world, but I made nothing of the chances when they presented themselves.
MY BEST PROFESSIONAL MOVE
Hiring Brett Baker as a business coach. He taught me how to provide real value, speak from truth, and never put my dignity at risk in business.
MY WORST FINANCIAL MOVE
Canceling a contract for brokering credit card services with a pretty slimy company because it was the "right thing to do." It may have been, but I broke a contract and paid mightily for it. This naiveté found a quick cure. I almost went bankrupt making good on verbal promises I gave my clients.
MY BIGGEST STROKE OF LUCK
Getting a call from MCMS and getting hired by Roger O'Malley as a Private Client Manager. You know who you are. This was a game-changer in terms of being able to use my unique talents and feel the joy of not being micromanaged.
MY BIGGEST BULLET DODGE
Saying "no" to a Branch Management position Wells Fargo offered me in a gang-infested neighborhood near Wilmington, CA. I wasn't worth promotion until I was offered a much more senior position elsewhere, then they "noticed" my potential. The bullet-dodging was probably literal in this case.
- There is no 7-step program for business success.
- No matter how you slice it you can't recreate someone else's journey.
- You don't really ever know why you are successful - really. You're guessing.
...AND IN CONCLUSION
I don’t need to understand all forces that have played into my success to be grateful for them. Luck, wins, and losses are all part of everyone's story. My hope is that you reflect on your own successes and failures alike and see them from a different perspective. My desire is that successful people stop trying to boil down their success either to one or two things, or more importantly to things within their control only. I would love a deeper appreciation for the latent foundations for success that we cannot see, nor can we create on our own. I guess it would follow also that I wish people would stop asking successful people to "boil it down" too.
My most sincere hope is this new perspective helps you move through the world in a more expansive way today and indeed, tomorrow. That is when we get back up and do it all over again. This next time, help someone rise with you.
Interested in learning more about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur in this crazy world? I'd love to share more of experiences and insights on business leadership at your next event!