Luck, Opportunity, and a “true”Meritocracy 

March 8, 2016: 

Peyton Manning’s career has so many things that are a microcosm of life – that so much of it is a lotto. Being born with talent is a lotto. But so is the NFL team you end up being drafted by – and that it can take almost two decades before you win a Superbowl, despite being amongst the best quarterbacks to have played in the NFL, ever.
That even talent, combined with preparation, and working harder than anybody else, doesn’t guarantee a result that lesser talented, less prepared, QBs might have accomplished before (Trent Dilfer, maybe?). 
This is true from the moment you are born – what country, what race, what gender, what economic class, in terms of the range of opportunities you’re likely exposed to. This is true where you work, the politics, the mentorship, whether the team you’ve been assigned to has the support of management, which can depend on your boss’s own relationship with the higher ups, whether, if you work for government, your organization’s mission is supported by Congress, and political sentiment at large (The SEC gets consistently underfunded due to Republican opposition, leading to a former boss, to tell the interns, as far as potential hiring, “you have to understand the waters you swim in”) . 

But it’s also worth reading Ben Bernanke’s Princeton 2013 speech, and Chad Pennington’s comments after being cut from the NY Jets years ago, when he then joined the Miami Dolphins.

3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.
4. Who is worthy of admiration? The admonition from Luke–which is shared by most ethical and philosophical traditions, by the way–helps with this question as well. Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities. I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect–and help, if necessary–than many people who are superficially more successful. They’re more fun to have a beer with, too. That’s all that I know about sociology.

Who is worthy of admiration?


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