Saturday, May 16, 2009


"Meritocracy" is one of those much bandied terms of the 90s. Pretty much the way "servant leadership" is today's buzzword, a favorite among cliche-loving speechsters. I didn't understand meritocracy much then, and it took Malcolm Gladwell's latest book for me to wrap my head around it. Ironically, the book illustrates it by underplaying it.

Gladwell asserts that merit alone is not the key to success. It it not what we do that enables us to get ahead. Which is not to say that hard work and diligence are not important. They are. In fact, Gladwell's magic number for somebody to achieve some kind of success in a chosen field is 10,000 hours. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. Look at Bill Gates. He's been hacking (literally, not in the security assault sense) at computers since he was a teenager. The Beatles spent thousands of hours in smoke filled pubs to be as good as they are as a band. They worked harder than their peers so they got farther.

But 10,000 hours of practice is just part of the formula. There are other extraneous factors that have made people succeed where others failed. Things like cultural legacies. And circumstantial opportunity. And where, when, and to which family you were born. These things may work to our advantage or disadvantage.

The case of Korean Air pilots would strike you as a compelling argument that culture can affect our ability to do our jobs. In this case, their high regard for authority created communication problems that proved fatal. Recognition of the problem enabled the Koreans to turn the situation around. They had to stop using what is called "mitigated speech" to prevent more plane crashes. They had to be taken out of their culture and be re-normed.

Interestingly, the Philippines was mentioned as one of those countries most enslaved by this respect for authority. When my sister in law (a doctor involved in child protection) and I were discussing the book, she mentioned that our traditional practice of calling adults, related to us or not, with respectful terms as Tito or Kuya is a double edged legacy. One one hand, it makes us a gracious and polite lot. On the other, it sets up a situation of familiarity, misplaced trust, and undue respect that abusers may take advantage of. Like the Korean pilots, maybe we need to "shed some part of our own cultural identity" to prevent tragic circumstances.

But let's go back to the story of success that the book Outliers tells.

This book says that it is not necessarily the brightest who succeeds. Our smarts can only get us so far. This has been proven empirically. A high IQ can arguably get you to good schools. But once you're in, you're in the same level playing field as those who also got in, whether their IQ is higher or lower than yours. Interesting, eh?

Don't believe anyone who boasts of his success, 'I did this, all by myself." According to Gladwell, they are "products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky -- but all critical to making them who they are."

As usual, Gladwell fills the pages of a book with fascinating information shared through fascinating stories. Reading Gladwell always makes me wonder if there's any practical use to the copious information he shares. At the verge of (gasp) middle age, I no longer have any control over the circumstances and legacies that have shaped my life to the way it is now. And 10,000 hours? With a sinking feeling, I ask myself if there is something in my life, other than breathing and eating, that I have done for 10,000 hours. Hmmm, I better stop playing YoVille and do more of whatever it is I want to do best. I don't have much time left.

I suppose this is useful to parents, teachers, and any one who can influence the very young. This is useful to the young, the generation just starting to invest the first of those 10,000 hours. Gladwell says, "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success... with a society that provides opportunities for all."

The book teaches us to look at the circumstances and the cultural aspects that can affect, positively or negatively, our chances of success. The first challenge is to recognize them. Then use or circumvent them. Then work hard, work smart, be open and alert to opportunities, and carry on.

Whether this book is useful or not, Gladwell, as he has done with The Tipping Point and Blink, entertains, engages, and encourages his readers to think.
Gladwell, I find him doing in all his 3 books, posits some brave, fantastic, maybe debatable, theories that may not necessarily be well grounded conclusions to his research, but he does make us think. Doesn't he?


Mel Avila Alarilla said...

Hi Gege,
May I invite you to please join Filipinos Unite!!!. You may do so by commenting on my blog containing your name, address, name of blog and its url or by sending an email to containing the same set of information. Thank you very much. God bless.

Ed Ebreo said...

I Love outliers more that Gladwell's two previous best sellers. I particularly like the part on "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes". It can be a very good teambuilding material. Great review Ge!