It’s time to ditch the American obsession with meritocracy

Americans have an unwavering belief in economic mobility. Most people in the U.S. think they can work hard to get ahead, even though economic mobility is lower in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries.

Americans underestimate the importance of luck and believe that people who are ahead got there from hard work and intelligence. Even something like a good photo is statistically just luck based on how many photos we take. But when we get a good photo we feel skilled.

Economists have found that the bigger a gap there is between rich and poor, the more important luck is in determining wealth, and the more important going to the right college is so you can meet the right people to have the right luck.

Public schools in the U.S. are a study of our increasingly delusional obsession with meritocracy. Kids in wealthy zip codes perform higher than kids in lower-income zip codes. Putting a poor kid in a rich-kid school won’t improve the outcome for that kid. Putting a rich kid in a poor-kid school won’t hurt the outcome for that kid. And charter schools change nothing. Which means the school has no impact on outcomes. (Parents who put their kids in school choose to ignore all this data.)

There is one exception: sports. In the past, kids in poorly funded school districts have had success in sports that provided social mobility. But not anymore.

Today the gap is so wide between well-funded schools and poorly funded schools that coaches say it’s unfair to pit the rich kids against the poor kids just because their geography puts them in the same athletic conference. The proposed solution is to segregate kids into poor athletic conferences and rich athletic conferences.

That sounds familiar. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Colleges recruit for sports that do not typically exist in public schools, like squash, lacrosse, field hockey, and swimming. The average family income for these recruited athletes is $500,000. If we segregate low-income athletic teams from more well-funded athletic teams, then the median family income for public school sports like basketball, football, and soccer will skyrocket as well.

But what about using language similar to that in Title IX? Why do girls need equal access to athletic opportunities but poor kids do not? Presently we interpret the Equal Protection Clause to ban only racially motivated segregation. Which means middle-class parents can make sure their kids don’t go to school with lower-income kids.

The one percent do not send their kids to public school. In fact, most super-rich families are trying some version of homeschooling. The middle class is desperately trying to hold onto their status by endorsing unequal school funding. The segregation of middle-class schools and poor schools in athletics is one more way to make the middle class feel like they won’t slip any lower.

Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke, just published scathing data about Ivy League admissions. The admission rate for Harvard overall is around 4%. But the admission rate for athletes is 87%. Once we decide lower-income kids can have unequal coaching, unequal equipment, and an unequal level of opponents, then we close off one of the last paths to social mobility.

In a society with a wide gap between rich and poor, where you go to college matters even more. But the stacked deck isn’t only about college admissions—it’s about wellbeing. Playing competitive sports makes men and women more confident, more clear thinking, and more successful throughout life.

This TED video tells girls how to monitor their school to make sure the girls receive fair treatment in sports. Where are the videos to tell low-income kids how to monitor their school to ensure fair treatment? Maybe we don’t have those videos because we don’t know where to start. Unequal opportunities for low-income kids start so early that public schools cannot bridge the gap.

So what can we do?

Stop talking about school as inherently good. School has been a way to segregate since its inception. Our school system keeps poor people poor. And the ranked college system keeps middle-class people from moving up: 40% of Ivy League students come from the top .002%.

Stop conflating education and democracy. The idea of education as a (maybe misogynist) precursor to good government is from the 1700s, before there was a mandatory public school. We don’t need public school for good government. And we definitely don’t need to imply that we are making another test people have to pass in order to vote. The only way to revolutionize who learns is to revolutionize who votes. You don’t need to be good at school to be good at voting.

Stop talking about all your hard work like you’ve somehow earned what you have. Our natural bias is to remember events that lead to disadvantage rather than an advantage. So we don’t remember having luck as much as overcoming hardship. Telling yourself everything you have is from hard work makes you scared to slow down.

The myth of meritocracy makes parents put their kids in competitive preschools and middle schools with too much homework. After college, those kids choose a competitive career that does not interest them. Because life is about showing you have merit.

If we accept that luck has big impact, then we don’t see everything we do as a judgment on our merit. We can relax and just be ourselves. Also, if you see your personal story from that perspective you are more likely to be kind, generous, and understanding.

S0 I’ve been trying to notice moments each day when I’m lucky. And there’s an extra benefit to doing that: noticing one’s luck promotes feelings of gratitude, and people who have gratitude are happier. But that’s for a whole other blog post.

28 replies
  1. Jakro
    Jakro says:

    Of course there is aspect of luck when it comes to success, but luck does not put in 80-hour work weeks.

    I mean, isn’t it funny that luck seems to come to those that embrace the grind and work hard? No amount of luck will compensate for lack of effort either, or completely misdirected effort. Luck only becomes a factor at the top end, once you work hard and do the right things already.

    Most people who say they work hard of course also aren’t in actuality working all that hard…

    • Graham
      Graham says:

      You’re right. Luck doesn’t put in 80 hr work weeks because luck isn’t that stupid. We damage ourselves and our children when we equate achievement with value. They are both important but they are not connected. We have been sold the idea that a strong work ethic is what makes us worth something but its bullshit. Only when we realise we are valuable right off the bat do we free ourselves to be successful and achieve what we want to achieve.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Robert Fank — the economist who did the seminal research about luck — says that people who work hard have more luck than people who do not work hard. That makes sense because the more you do the more opportunities you have for luck. And people who do not do very much don’t open themselves up to as much luck.

        But there is no evidence that the people working insane numbers of hours are happier, or more successful, or luckier. It’s clear to me that hard work is obsessive — it stems from fear of being judged for not having merit.

        Ask yourself why parents send their kids to school when there is no meritocracy and hard work is not something we need to teach. I think parents pin their obsessive fears about hard work and merit onto their kids and therefore send them to school so they make sure their kids work as hard as other kids do.

        The most difficult thing for me as a homeschooler is to leave my kids alone. Homeschoolers need about two months of studying to keep up academically with kids in regular school. So they have extra time. And every day I let my kids do what they want with their time I had to temper my knee-jerk obsession with meritocracy and the need for my kids to be the hardest workers.

        It’s hard to unteach ourselves meritocracy. I like reading what Graham wrote as a constant reminder of the importance of continuing to try to reprogram myself.


        • CdrJameson
          CdrJameson says:

          I think of it like rolling two dice.
          Get 12 for success!

          Add 1 to what you roll if you put in a lot of hard work
          Add 1 if your parents are rich

          Still involves luck, but you can (to an extent) make being lucky more likely

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      I have seen a number of people that received rapid promotions by being at the right place at the right time. Or they have ridden the coat-tails of someone else into success.

      Bad luck happens too. I have seen people’s careers get hammered by acquisitions, legal changes, recessions, natural disasters, personal injury or illness.

      Hard work is important but good luck and bad luck can really change outcomes

  2. Carol of Kensington
    Carol of Kensington says:

    Good morning! Glenn Reynolds says in the future, parents who sent their child to public school will be thought to have committed child abuse.

    He can be as provocative as you, Penelope!

    Children need to be shielded from the toxic soup that is the media. Across the spectrum they are being tortured by the rubbish that is running as a banner, or spewing out from a speaker, or terrorizing from a monitor.

    Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book is an interesting take on Gavin de Becker’s over 20 year old book. That’s a whole ‘nother area for discussion. But interestingly, there might be something to teaching kids in acting classes, so they can learn how easy it is to fake a mental state and present it on their face.

    In terms of “luck” – I’ve definitely gotten at least three top tier jobs because of my unusual outfit.

    I think kids are lucky when they are born to powerhouse mamas. Your kids won the lottery.

  3. KCG
    KCG says:

    Homeschooling data is extreme. Albeit really old, here is data that homeschooling households tend to be the poorer than households with other choices.

    Even without comparison, about half of the homeschooling household don’t earn more than 200% above poverty. Kind of hard pressed to say homeschooling is as highly associated with the super rich, unless something changed drastically within the last 16 years.

    More conclusions about homeschooling and association with families earning less than median income, and families around average parental education level.

    Exploring the evidence of why homeschooling is a good choice…is a fine topic of its own. But associating it with family wealth doesn’t seem to make homeschooling a stronger choice. If for some more recent data proves that homeschooling is indeed widely practiced by poorer families, would that help prove that homeschooling to be better than schools? Because as this article stated that economic mobility in the US is indeed lower than many people think…then where are the homeschooling parents that are successful in moving upwards? Just a few or in large droves?

    The super rich will succeed in any school choice, as stated in this article that putting a rich kid in a poor-kid school won’t hurt the outcome for that kid. Let alone allowing the rich kid to stay at home and tap into the more widely available resources at home for learning. It’s not surprising that homeschooling rich families do well – it’s because they do well, not because of homeschooling.

    • Jenn
      Jenn says:

      I agree parent involvement is important but that article does not respond to your statement “rich or poor, these kids fare better than average” the article just states that “most significant type of involvement is what parents do at home” and :”Students with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores, have better social skills, and show improved behavior” now if it stated that kids in economically challenged school districts who have involved parents tend to be well educated and socially well adjusted more than non involved parents of better funded school districts then well you might have a good argument.

  4. Jack
    Jack says:

    I think that college admissions scandal generated so much outrage because it shined a bright light on something everyone already knew. It was an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, and we hate being told that emperor is naked.

    The process from moving from college to career is rigged. Larger employers all have different internship programs. Many of them will have a program that recruits from Ivy league and other “elite” private colleges. Everyone use HR software and applicant tracking systems (ATS). All positions including internships are assigned grade levels. Different internship programs can have different grade levels. The elite college program usually has a higher grade level than the standard program.

    The ATS are usually programmed with control rules such as anyone applying to a job 3 grade levels higher will automatically be moved into a rejection queue. They can have rule exceptions such as engineering intern can apply to an entry level engineering position without an automatic rejection. The two interns could be doing the exact same thing at the same employer, but the one with the higher grade level will have an edge.

    Also these rules apply to regular employees. Accepting a ground level position so you can work your way up does not work anymore for many companies due to these HR processes. It can be better to learn an industry and role, and then get the promotion from a competitor.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a really interesting tidbit about ATS and higher-level jobs. Fascinating. And so smart. Because anyone mid-career who doesn’t know how to get their resume to a hiring manager without using an ATS is in trouble.


  5. Cheryl Morris
    Cheryl Morris says:

    Hi Penelope,

    After reading your blog, I remembered this book:
    Book Overview
    In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful.
    He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?
    His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing.

  6. Bob in LCF
    Bob in LCF says:

    Thanks for posting a bit more these days! This essay could spark conversations in dozens of directions. I believe the hardest (and most creative) work is often done as the result of a passionate interest in the subject/project. That’s why giving your kids the chance to explore their muse in an unpressured space is so important. As to the issue of luck, Iet me just say: My father used to say it was better to be lucky than smart, my grandfather said he’d rather have friends than money, but I’m hoping to get lucky and get three out of the four!

  7. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    The cultural idea of meritocracy has lagged behind reality. I was just last night reading an easy pop culture level essay by millionaires and successful blogger Mark Manson called The American Dream is Killing Us. He uses a metaphor of lemonade stands rewarding hard work at first, but only until….

    The US economy changed partly because of some decisions made during the Reagan years, including replacing a balance of interests (community, customers, workers, managers, etc.) with a sole focus on stockholders.

    I have no idea how a manager can say with a straight face to the rest of the office, “Guys, let’s get enthusiastic and proud of our company, we are here to serve the stockholders!” The dire effect of Reagan’s choice for more productivity yet less national money is explained in Growing Pains by Gwynne Dyer. (An easy book, with no equations, big print, only 200 pages)

    While Americans are a can-do spirited people, I have no faith that they could change to Canada model where zip code doesn’t count because taxes are collected city-wide and distributed back to schools city-wide.

    I wonder if that model is partly why visionary Jane Jacobs, best known for her best selling (and Readers Digest condensed book) Death and Life of American Cities, moved her family to Canada. (Another reason would be to avoid US conscription) Jacobs said (in Dark Ages Ahead) that a degree, for our society, is actually a screening device for Human Resources departments. (Personnel) In other words, a degree is for signalling ability (including ability not to quit or flake out) not knowledge, so don’t worry that you will be asked your GPA. Your major (unless for an occupation specialty) is a mere formality.

    As best I can recall, Canadians don’t put the adjective “good” in front of university because up there it is assumed that all universities are good.

    • Cheryl Morris
      Cheryl Morris says:

      “I was just last night reading an easy pop culture level essay by millionaires and successful blogger Mark Manson called The American Dream is Killing Us. He uses a metaphor of lemonade stands rewarding hard work at first, but only until….

      Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Geoffrey Hoffman
    Geoffrey Hoffman says:

    Minor bit about college athlete acceptance: one aspect of the athlete acceptance rate being so high is the pool is pre-filtered. College coaches have some influence over X athletes that apply. So, they will go to bat for some number of athletes, but they only go to bat for kids who can get in; they can’t influence ALL the athletic applications. They develop a sense for who who could make the cut (with assistance of the admissions office letting the coach know how they would feel about certain candidates). They won’t waste any of their “bullets” on a kid that has no chance of getting in. A coach can’t just pull ANY athlete in (at least not the Ivy’s).
    Correspondingly, high level recruited athletes only apply when they know they will get support. They don’t want to waste time on a college where the coach won’t go to bat. Additionally, a lot of them do early decision now, so it’s almost 1-to-1: coach gets a guy who wants to go, and can get in, and supports, and he gets in. They don’t even deal with their second choice or beyond.
    Sometimes, coaches won’t support someone who is a slam dunk, to save their bullets for border cases (like X-time legacy, etc), but those guys are getting in anyway.
    It’s also possible, his stat is only looking at the candidates the coaches are supporting. It’s possible that the athletes that the coach is less excited about he doesn’t support, so they go into the general pool, and therefore aren’t part of the 87% rate you quoted.
    In short, that 87% number doesn’t actually sound that strange.

  9. Amy D. Kovach
    Amy D. Kovach says:

    If the parents make the difference of the kids’ success, beyond school choice or any other variable, could we say that kids’ success is about a meritocracy of the parents?

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      We could. I’m right there with ya. I think in any group, if you took all wealth and distributed it evenly, you’d still have some people who were stuck with crappy parents and others who got good parents. In another generation or two, you’d be right back where you started due to this disparity. If you ask me, people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do a better job of choosing their parents! :-)

  10. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    I just finished Chris Arnade’s new book “Dignity” where he makes the same point about meritocracy being a myth. We owe more to luck than we think, it’s quite humbling.

    Many homeschoolers downplay the importance of overpriced college degrees, but it seems that the necessity of a credential is increasing even as its value is decreasing. (Most degrees even PhDs are worthless in terms of indicating an individual’s intellect. There is SO much ghostwriting and fraud, it is disheartening).

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      There are fringe groups in the blockchain (and other) spaces that are trying to create programs that reevaluate and rescore how we are credentialed as a society. This may or may not change the need for a typical college or university, but it could change things in the future.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “And charter schools change nothing.” references The Hechinger Report article which states “Evidence largely shows that more advantaged students disproportionately benefit from school-choice options. This occurs, at least partially, due to their families’ ability and willingness to behave in (perfectly legal) ways that allow them to “get ahead” in the intensely competitive game of school choice.”
    There’s a study ( ) recently released by Fordham Institute titled ‘Rising Tide: Charter School Market Share and Student Achievement’ that contradicts the notion that charter schools aren’t positively impacting education. The link gives a summary of the results and provides a link to a pdf download of the report. The conclusion of the summary is “In short, the report is consistent with prior research that suggests black and Hispanic students learn more in charter schools, and that competition from charter schools has a positive, or at worst neutral, effect on traditional public schools. In other words, a rising tide of charters really does lift all boats.” There are examples of mismanaged and under performing charter schools that replicate public schools. The question is to what degree and how is choice and competition in the education marketplace not desirable when its the parents and students making the choice.

  12. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    “Colleges recruit for sports that do not typically exist in public schools, like squash, lacrosse, field hockey, and swimming.”
    Gee, why would they do that? Obviously it’s to select for the kids who went to the tony prep schools.
    It’s a well-known and generally true axiom that the rich don’t want company. Old Money families want their kids to mix with their own kind.
    People sometimes say that college athletics is a way for poor kids to advance by going into pro sports. That may apply to 1% or fewer of the boys who go on to play college football, basketball, ice hockey, or baseball, and to an even smaller percentage of soccer players (of either sex) or of girls playing basketball, softball, or volleyball. But no one makes money playing pro squash, lacrosse, or those other upper-class sports. There is no Field Hockey Sunday Ticket on TV the way there is for the NFL. The audience for those sports is smaller and less lucrative than the one for Roller Derby.

  13. Stuart Harrison
    Stuart Harrison says:

    Working harder not smarter is driven by fear – of not being enough, of missing out, of – as Penelope puts it – not having merit. I agree with Graham and think or feel (as a ENFP ;)) we have been sold this by the major beneficiaries of all those poor obsessives doing extreme hours, the super elite. Its taught to us in early childhood and a continued doctrine through adult life.
    Only when we step back and ask ourselves, what is the real benefit for ourselves and our community, can we see a clearer picture. What do we really want and why? Great reflective questions, if we are actually honest with ourselves.
    Now, I am not saying that hard work does not have it’s place, just not obsessively every day (I have seen too many people destroyed and ruined relationships), for every year of our working lives expecting some precious reward. It is healthy to ‘lean’ into hard work (as it is to ‘lean’ in to relaxing) as long as it is meaningful – to us and those who we love.
    I have really enjoyed this blog and the intelligent POV’s from everyone. Thank you

Comments are closed.