On Merit Alone

The Atlantic Wire recently featured a piece about successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. Calacanis, a hugely successful entrepreneur who's made his money from covering tech culture in the Silicon Valley Culture. Sites like his traffic in the kind of information swirled through the ether by websites like TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Engadget, and TEDTalks. These media groups trumpet innovation and embody a certain local spirit here in the Valley, one that believes fundamentally in Capitalism, a certain brand of social and cultural Libertarianism, and a kind of idealistic meritocracy for a post-racial, post-gender world. Calacanis sees himself as something of a guru now (his site, Weblogs, sold to AOL for tens of millions of dollars), a tech blogger's Peter Thiel cum Anthony Robbins.

That's all well and good, but Calacanis' faith in meritocracy is so absolute that a recent tweet of his sparked a minor twitter spat, inspiring the aforementioned Atlantic Wire story. Calacanis ruffles a few feathers by confidently stating a foolproof recipe for success in breaking in as a tech writer. He says, unambiguously:

1. start a blog, 2. Write daily for 2-3 hours for 1,000 days 3. Do that for 1 topic and you break in -- it is that "simple" #hardwork

This is Jason Calacanis' recipe for success - as simple as putting the hours in and never giving up. In this mode of thinking, anyone who does what he did has no reason to fail. Done. It's that simple. The deeper message - however unintentional it may be - is that if you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you blame circumstances other than your own merit, you risk paralyzing yourself and damning your own chances. So, Calacanis says, work harder. Put the hours in. Don't whine about it. End of story. Simple.

Let us not deny Jason Calacanis the self satisfaction and pride he clearly derives from his considerable accomplishments. What rankled me about his tweet - and his subsequent tweets doubling down on his point of view - is his refusal to consider factors for success other than hard work. Does hard work play a significant role in success? No doubt. Is it the only factor? Calacanis says yes, and that's madness because it quite simply isn't true.

Does race play a role at all? Does gender play a role? Does access play a role? Do life circumstances play any role? Does who you know play a role? Does one specific race or gender bring kinds of access to opportunity that another might not? Regardless of your opinion on this, I think it's clear that these are valid questions, yet Calacanis shuts them down before the conversation even starts, and it is this refusal to entertain anything other his origin story (one he feels applies to everyone who wants what he wants) that makes him wrong.

Meritocracy, of course, is defined as success derived from hard work. Meritocracy, to be fair, has a place at the table. In Calacanis's case, or in the case of the Silicon Valley tech scene, meritocracy is also seen as a post-culture phenomenon, one that does not discriminate or deny access to anyone who ponies up and puts in the hours. Anyone, therefore, regardless of race or gender or background or family, can find the kind of success that Jason enjoys if they just work hard enough. It's a beautiful, inspirational tone poem to dedication and passion, but it refuses to acknowledge the existence of institutional barriers. It would be almost sweet if it weren't so willfully obtuse. What Calacanis implies, perhaps without meaning to is this: I choose not to believe these barriers exist, since I have not encountered them. Therefore, they do not exist. That he typifies his ilk - a white male - adds fuel to the fire.

Every story that comes along about success in Silicon Valley invariably ushers in the same cast of meritocratic true believers, many of them bootstrap-yanking white males who 'came from nothing' (I think they need to travel a bit and amend their idea of 'nothing'). They don't consider themselves racist, or sexist, or inhibitors to access. They see themselves as forward-thinkers, as people who transcend 'old fashioned' notions of racism and sexism. They are post-post-thinkers whose deep faith in a meritocratic engine running the Valley can be frighteningly out of touch and self serving.

In many ways, I think Silicon Valley culture suffers from a deep cultural divide, one marked by two generalized groups. One one hand, well connected, socially progressive makers who see their work as truly life-altering. They refuse to believe in institutional barriers. These heroes plow forward, making their progressive visions a reality. On the other hand, there are the people who dedicate countless hours and never seem to make enough. These people aren't lazy, but they haven't found the sort of fulfillment and success that Calacanis implies they could achieve with the right amount of hard work. Some in this underclass have bloodied their skulls on walls of opportunity, time and again, to no avail. They have to work that much harder for opportunities and for access, and while you'd think that extra work makes them more qualified (you'd be right), it also makes them more exhausted, more quickly burned out. Two final questions to chew on about this second group: are they lazy? Do they feel more or less entitled to the kind of success Calacanis has?

"I built a nuclear reactor in my garage... okay, you can all applaud now. Thank you."
One theory I often hear when this 'too many privileged white males in tech' accusation comes up (it's a cyclical argument that happens in tech circles from time to time) is the idea that certain races and genders are simply more likely to have an interest in tech. What I rarely hear is a follow up question leading us to why that may be. Do you seriously think that some races have no inherent interest in tech? I would posit that barriers to entry are partially cultural and environmental. For instance, the tech world suffers from an insular, boys club approach to how it sees and promotes itself. Do you think, perhaps, that the reason that tech doesn't attract more women, or Hispanics, or African Americans, is because those groups feel stymied by the institutional barriers to access? Maybe some of these barriers are so inherent as to not be propagated by any single self serving individual, but merely passed down in a cultural genetic code over the last few decades. Maybe the institution itself is marketed in too narrow a way. This would not be the fault of any one individual - certainly not Jason Calacanis - but it's an institutional problem, one worth discussing at the very least.

Listen, those in our first group - the successful post-race, post-gender Valley heroes - are rightfully proud of their hard work and innovation. They put in crazy hours and don't like being accused of being insular. They see themselves as inclusive and forward thinking, and any suggestion that they somehow dominate an industry for reasons other than hard work is offensive to them. Their defensiveness is something we should not discount. For one, are these institutional barriers even real? Is there such a thing as institutional racism and sexism, or are these just constructs invented by people who want to excuse their failures or give certain groups an unfair advantage? The answer might seem simple to you, but this is a discussion that's not had often enough.

I've taken numerous college courses with  multicultural, feminist slants where I was accused of participating in unintentional suppression of womens' rights simply for being male and not calling more attention to the problem. I certainly didn't feel this was fair, especially at the time. I felt ganged up on and picked on for something I didn't choose. I felt like my very presence in the class should have been evidence that I wasn't trying to suppress anyone, but here I was - the unintentional oppressor, feverishly denying any complaisance in something I found fundamentally abhorrent. That said, it was my unwillingness to engage those with points of view other than my own that initially halted the conversation and caused more division. This is, in a way, what successful people like Calacanis do by shutting down the notion that there is privilege inherent in his position. Certainly, despite his great experience, there are points of view he hasn't considered, but by suggesting that evidence of his own success is enough, and that everything else is ridiculous, is a bit condescending. It's arrogant. I wish I could say it's atypical in his specific industry, in this specific area. But it's not. It's all too common, and I'm sick to death of it.

So who's right? The answer, as with any issue with multiple points of view, is multi-pronged. When it comes to understanding institutional barriers to people who aren't you, you have a right to feel defensive, but you must also consider that you might be an unwitting part of the problem. People who feel like they've been excluded from access, people who feel that your success is not easily obtainable, people who feel that luck plays a factor, however small, in great success - shutting them down is counterproductive. It makes their point for them, as in: this guy is only willing to consider his point of view.

This is an important issue to me, because for years I've observed that people with financial success born from hard work often refuse to accept that it can't easily happen to anyone else who tries hard enough. They're either defensive about their money or almost astonishingly arrogant (like Calacanis) about how easy success is, if one would just hunker down and do it. Someone confronted with unique success that doesn't credit the numerous variables - other than hard work, of course - that coalesce onto that success

What do you think are the chances of someone putting 10,000 hours of writing about something they feel passionate about, then turning around and making tens of millions of dollars from it? Statistically, it's what you call an outlier. Very slim. This is not to say that Calacanis's product isn't worth anything, or that he didn't truly 'work hard' (it's obvious he did). What I'm trying to say is that in any scenario, absolutist thinking - in this case, the refusal to accept factors outside of hard work as variables for success - ultimately degrades the conversation. It oversimplifies the facts, some of which include but are not limited to hard work and gumption.

Having this on a resume opens up all sorts of opportunities
What if I told you that access to an Ivy League School isn't just about hard work? Would you accept that premise, or can anyone who wants to simply get in if they work hard enough? If you've studied the facts, and spoken to people enmeshed in the process, you should know that luck - among many other things - plays a role.

What about getting that job as the prestigious Valley tech company? What do you think are the factors in getting in? What if I told you that access this company isn't just about hard work? Would you accept that premise, or can anyone capable of handling the work get in on merit alone? If you've been there firsthand, and watched the process firsthand, and spoken with people on both sides of the table as I have, you should know that merit is not the only factor. If you haven't attended an Ivy League school, forget it. If you interview with the wrong person, forget it. There are factors other than merit - or perhaps I should say merit, in the instance of this famous company, is not defined as one's capacity and willingness to excel. Merit, as defined by the ruling hegemony there, is defined as the access you have, and you earn that access through factors other than hard work. That's the real world, not the meritocratic paradise as envisioned by the Valley elite.

This access, the one that gets us into tech blogging, or writing full time, or being involved with a prestigious company - does anything other than skill, ability, and hard work factor into the access we obtain in our lives? Are there institutional elements like race, gender, socio-economic background, personality, or geographic location? Anyone who denies these elements outright, as Calacanis does, is living in a bubble so insulated from the outside world that it's impossible to see his absolutism for anything other than what it is: ignorance and denial.

I'm not on the fence about this. I believe that success comes from a variety of factors, not the least of which is hard work. Those who work hard are more likely to find it, in fact I'd wager the odds of doing the bare minimum and finding the kinds of success that people like Jason Pargin and Jason Calacanis have found is slim to none. However -- success is not determined solely by merit. The access you have - family, environment, race, gender, opportunities - play a huge role. Yes, no matter where you live, you can reach out for the opportunities that others have, but my point is just that. You have to reach out for them.

Some people go through lives fulfilling and succeeding at their goals and never make a dime from it. Others gain wide notoriety and material acquisition and yet don't ever feel personally connected with that success. This idea of questioning conventional definitions of success dovetails nicely into my critique on Jason Pargin's now famous ode to ambition and self flagellation. There is no one factor that determines success and achievement and living a purposeful, satisfied life, as poetic, inspiring and pretty as it may sound. Life, like I've said before, is a messy place. Some of us will bust our asses and never see more than a few dimes from the effort. Others will work just as hard and find a break. Let's not condemn them for success, just as they shouldn't lecture us for not finding it. There should be a way for all of us to get along so long as we insist on continuing the conversation, keeping it open, and not shutting each other down.

After all, I expect more from our Silicon overlords, those progressive trailblazers crouched on the obelisks to achievement all over this Valley. They're celebrated for thinking different, but I've begun to wonder just how many of them do.


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