The democratization of success

Americans, that most determinedly meritocratic of people, are currently searching for the holy grail of an explanation for individual talent and success. On Amazon, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success is #6 while Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else is #46.  Both books attempt to demystify and democratize genius by explaining why some people are successful and some aren't.

In today's economic gloom, both books are sobering reading. In an American which embraces the youthful genius of sports stars, tabloid celebrities and Internet entrepreneurs, Gladwell and Colvin tell us that what really separates world-class performers from everyone else is the self-discipline of practice. Their message is a remix of Weber's Protestant Ethic -- it's the idea of "deliberative practice", which as Colvin says, is "hard" and "it hurts". We aren't born with intrinsic talent, they argue; instead, it is earned by years and years of practicing one's skill.

Unsurprisingly, both Colvin and Gladwell square the American circle by trying to democratize talent and success. Having spent over 200 pages explaining how hard it is truly excel in a discipline, Colvin concludes by saying that the news is "liberating:

Great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.

Gladwell agrees. Having spun the story of success with his trademark wit, he tells that "the lesson is very simple." Success can be democratized, he says, by bringing the discipline of the "paddy field to the South Bronx." He wants all Americans to have the opportunity to become Chinese peasants and experience what he calls "the miracle of meaningful work." Rather than the story of success, Outliers is actually an attempt to reveal the political sociology of success.

I suspect, however, that Gladwell and Colvin are actually chasing another sort of miracle -- that of democratizing succcess and talent. The uncomfortable truth is that success and talent are, by definition, unfair and discriminatory. They are both prisoners of the Catch 22 of American democracy. By demythologizing success, they reveal the inner Puritanism of capitalism. Both want to do away with the zero-sum game of success in America. But in an increasingly competitive global economic environment, nothing appears more unrealistic than transforming American into a cornucopia of the successful.