Daniel Markovits on the meritocracy myth

This week, I attended a very illuminating talk, by Daniel Markovits, Professor of Law at the Yale Law School. In his new book ‘The Meritocracy Trap’, he delivers a fierce indictment of a system he grew up in and is still part of. A system which, he says, prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. He argues that this is undermining democracy.

Ever since I’ve known about the concept of meritocracy, I thought about it very positively. Reading Principles from Ray Dalio reinforced this.

Ray Dalio speaks of idea meritocracy as a decision-making system in business where the best ideas win out. It’s a a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way. He argues that this will outperform any other decision-making system.

Dalio believes in building a culture where everyone weighs in – but also where everyone knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so you know how to best weigh opinions.

Sounds good to me.

Markovits looks at meritocracy from an economical, philosophical and sociological point of view. One of his key arguments is that today’s wealthy, unlike the aristocracy of old, overwhelmingly work for a living, often in soul-crushing “extreme jobs” that demand 60, 80, even 100 hours a week.

By his calculation, about 75 percent of the top 1 percent’s increase in the share of national income from roughly 1970 to the present came from returns on labor, not capital.


He gives examples where hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.

He argues that upward mobility has become a fantasy, and that the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.

His book says meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.



Let the music play

I recently attended a Vivaldi concert that made me think about different styles of leadership and teamwork.

In a classical concert, the orchestra is led by the conductor, the musicians are following  ‘the script’, reading and playing the scores, abiding all the rules. There’s little room for spontaneity and improvisation … though the conductor’s interpretation of the piece may create something different, something unique.



In a jazz act, there’s room for improvisation, a player can jump in or quit at some point. This sense of freedom may create something totally unexpected and unique – for both the musicians and the audience.

One is not better than the other, though the latter is certainly closer to my liking when it comes to music – and business.


1 + 1 = 3?

Working alone, there’s only so much we can accomplish. Working in a team, the results can be exponentially increased.

Cooperation is key to effective teamwork.

1 + 1 = 3 when two people realise that they can complement each others’ skills when working together. That’s when creative ideas start to flow and become implemented, that’s when real development starts to kick in.

When it comes to artificial intelligence, 1 + 1 will only ever equal 2. Only the productive collaboration of two humans can produce something that exceeds expectations.

My grandfather said this once, and only now I come to realise how true it is:

1 plus 1 can equal 3.