mr. r. s. braythwayt,

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What I've Learned From Failure
What I've Learned From Failure

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Quote Meritocracy Unquote

People misuse this word, “meritocracy.” Let’s be clear about what it means:

Meritocracy is a political philosophy that holds power should be vested in individuals according to merit. Advancement in such a system is based on perceived intellectual talent measured through examination and/or demonstrated achievement in the field where it is implemented.

Notice that by definition, “meritocracy” is a system based on empirical examination and demonstrated achievement. Sounds good, right?

Yes, it does sound good. It’s far better than picking leaders at random or having some dictator appoint his drinking buddies. But having said that, there is no requirement in the definition above for the system to guarantee that everyone has an opportunity to fulfill their potential for success.

Let’s take a simple example: Real Estate. We know that Donald Trump is successful investing in Real Estate. The reason we know that? His father Fred Trump gave him thirty million dollars to get started in the 1970s, so he has a forty year track record of (mostly) success. There are millions of other people who didn’t belong to the “lucky zygote club,” and we’ll simply never know whether they have any aptitude for Real Estate.

The same thing goes for “examination.” Sure we examine people and say, “That person knows their stuff.” But we don’t ask why they know their stuff. How did they get into a good university? Who were their buddies in high school? Did they (as I did) go to one of the few high schools to have its own computer in the 1970s?

Meritocracy gives us confidence that the people we appoint to lead are actually competent within the constraints of the system, but it says nothing about whether we have a system that identifies and supports all people equally from birth to reach these positions.

Meritocracy is about avoiding false positives (incompetent people rising or being appointed to the top). That’s not a bad thing per se, it’s just a bad thing if we presume that calling something a “meritocracy” means more than what it actually means.

talking past each other

Quite often, a discussion around this word is unsatisfying because you have one group of people saying that a certain thing is a meritocracy, meaning that none of the people in positions of authority are bozos.

For example, I could put on a conference and if all of the speakers are solid professionals with years of experience speaking at conferences, I can claim I have chosen them on merit.

Meaning, of course, there are no false positives.

Meanwhile, someone else points out that all of my speakers are old-school Lisp, SNOBOL, and Smalltalk folks with zero selections from the new schools of Haskell, Python, Node, or whatever.

Their point is that my selection process may not have false positives, but it demonstrates false negatives by passing over a large class of people who have something to contribute.

I retort that it’s unfair to send one of my Lispers home to make room for a Pythonista. What am I really saying? That I fear a “false positive” by putting a “less positive” person on stage.

And what are they really saying to me? That by excluding all Pythonistas, I am clearly waving a huge false negative flag over the Python community.

We both have good points, and we’d find it easier to discuss our concerns if we weren’t confusing each other by having two contrary views about the definition of “meritocracy.”


So let’s be careful when we use the word “meritocracy.” For many fields of endeavour, the incumbents can truthfully claim that their culture is a “meritocracy,” and that is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also equality of access issues worth discussion.

Broadly speaking:

Meritocracy optimizes for precision (minimizing false positives). It ignores recall (minimizing false negatives).1 2