False Merit, Appearing Real

On the race to get picked

In 1942, US had a problem. There wasn’t enough metal for airplanes to be made. So Howard made biggest airplane out of birchwood.

But it flew only once. You know the reason – it is a bad idea to make plane out of wood. Metal is better because of its merit.

Who Gets To Play Basketball at Stanford

Average NBA salary is 11 million dollars per year if you went to Illinois college while if you went to Stanford, it is 6 million dollars.

So if you are player seeking to maximize your earnings – it isn’t surprising that you will go to Illinois college.

The same is true for height and weight of NBA players. It is going up. So you might want to work early on your height and weight to match the successful NBA players.

Lesson From Billy Bean

Billy understood that people’s thought of key metric of success was flawed. By seeing what was really true – rather than guessing, he was able to beat the system.

Chosen was written by Jerome about who was going to get in high accredited college. Where you go to college will decide where you go in life.

Why is that so? Is it fair?

What happens there that it makes you more likely to contribute. Is it simply because external parties hire more from such colleges and therefore this illusion keeps on perpetuating.

Who gets to key to door first is a fascinating thing to learn about merit.


In 1900s, you need to have gone to school like Exeter – people of certain geographical, region. These schools were about perpetuating certain behaviors.

Then in 1920, waves of immigrants applied, particularly Jews. The schools had positioned themselves as someone who would admit when applicants who are intellectually better. And it turned out, new wave of applicant were better.

From 1900 to 1930 1200 jews entered Yales. But the soft skills inside the institution stayed the same.Because no Jews were elected to senior societies. Which were at the heart of the application of college.

The Change

Harvard started accepting applicants based on SAT scores which were some measure of success they wanted.

Some institutions admitted people of high SAT scores. The most elite institutions didn’t do that. They were seeking all rounded men. So they looked for sports.

50 percent of people in Harvard got admitted based on sports contribution they are going to make.

It was a search by elite institution to redefine merit.

In NBA, merit can be height or weight. But in baseball, merit can be base percentage. And in such elite institutions, definition of merit keeps changing.

What we know for sure is, it is extremely likely that you grew up in literate home, and you have a bunch of soft skills which aren’t tested by SAT.

Current Events

It is clear once an institution that can award merit, chooses an access of performance that can be gamed, people will cheat.

Now let’s compare to other badges of merit where gatekeeper isn’t obvious.

Consider top 25 TED talks of all time. One is done by Brit, ten from women, people of color, people who are professor and there is a kid.

Of course, there is a gatekeeper. There is still a bias. How were you raised, did you had breakfast everyday, what language did you spoke, did you had a place to sleep, did your community believed you.

Are people judging you? All of these happen long before you are given a chance to do TED talk.

Where is merit?

It might be in your head. Who brainwashed you that you could achieve something or you couldn’t.

The guardian reports. the blind auditions for orchestra so that judges can’t see who are performing increases the job to women by 50 percent.

But wait, they don’t.

A recent paper showed that by even elementary analysis that paper being quoted is wrong in six different ways.

In 1960, Kingman Brewster shifted the very definition of what merit was in YALE.

Another Sports Reference

Tour de france is apparently a race where your background doesn’t matter. Only time matters.It is little like SAT scores but there are problems. SAT doesn’t really measure your aptitude for anything. SAT is a measure on where did you grew up, how much your parents spent to prepare you.

And as we have seen with doping at Tour de france, winning is more about how close you can get with breaking the rules without getting caught.

Helicopter parenting about cheating, about pushing kids to famous college. It is rampant with country with biggest income inequality.

The sense that every decision is fraught, people aren’t going to judged on merit pushed parents to overdo it. Because the stakes are high so they think their act is justified.

So doping your kids might help them get better time. But it doesn’t open the door to true merit. The merit of actually making a contribution. There is long history of us misjudging what merit is.

Mostly trying to measure things so that your and your kids gets ahead. That institution has long history of making choices so it helps them and people like them.

A New Time

Now culture is shifting rapidly. It turns out how well did you do on SAT is less important.

What’s more important?

  1. The story we tell ourselves of possibility The story of grit and resilience, when to speak up.
  2. The idea of many many circles where you can contribute. There isn’t one line to get ahead. So many places to contribute. Earning merit by helping others. Rather than stealing merit. At any given time, system can be gamed because you have resources and others don’t.
  3. Picking Yourself. If you are going to seek merit from a corrupt system, you will become corrupt. Instead you can challenge yourself, showing up, solving interesting problem and leading.


  • Are there culturally rules, when companies lose focus. How to manage shareholders and manage customer expectations?

Working for public company is a choice. Mailchimp isn’t public company. Different choices get made.

It is easy to please people in the short run.

Apple earn billions of dollar every quarter. Amazon doesn’t make it every quarter. Each of them had a choice.

So you need to be clear on what’s on the offer. When things change, did you bargain for short run.

For example, Sears could have caught up and change things. But their internal culture didn’t allowed them to change. So you have to choose the culture which you want to be part of.