We’re a nation obsessed with success and how it is achieved—with good reason, because the possibility of success is what fuels so many of us. So central is the notion of success to the way we operate and think of ourselves that it explains a lot about our society. The path to the top is a reflection of the nature of America, and in turn helps shape the country.

But like true love, success in America is hard to define in the abstract—it’s more that we know it when we see it. Whether it means wealth, or fame, or power, or just happiness can all be debated endlessly; it’s much easier to agree on who is successful and who is not. Right now a convenient group example of recently anointed success is Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet, whose members, taken together, provide a useful picture of the particulars of the way upward.

Several clear patterns emerge from the life stories of the Cabinet members, and the first is their relatively humble origins. Although some of their parents were comfortably middle-class, none were the well-established institutions of wealthy and several were genuinely poor. Ray Marshall was raised in a Baptist orphanage. Michael Blumenthal’s parents were refugees from the Nazis, and he grew up in wartime Shanghai and came to the United States penniless. Juanita Kreps grew up in a dirt-poor coal-mining town in Kentucky. Patricia Roberts Harris’ father was a dining-car waiter. Bob Bergland, even in his twenties, had to leave his farm in Minnesota during the winters to take construction work in Florida to make ends meet. None of the Cabinet members owe any of their success to positions passed on to them by their parents, and their stories are heartening proof that the dizzy pinnacles of our society really are open to the meritorious.

What first brought them up in the world was education. College, which all eleven Cabinet members attended, was not in itself the great determining step—only Vance and Brown spent their undergraduate years in the Ivy League, presumably because the others weren’t affluent or well-connected enough to be part of the world that goes there. Most of them went to state schools, and a few to more obscure places: Marshall to Millsaps in Mississippi and Kreps to Berea in Kentucky. What’s more striking is how many went on to get graduate degrees—nine of the eleven, four of whom have Ph.D.s. Good grades, and the degrees they brought, gave these people an important first push.

From there on it was a life of accumulating impressive positions in the well-established institutions of business, education, law or government—or, most often, some combination of them. Most of the members of the Cabinet were wunderkinds at some stage of their careers. Harold Brown was director at the Livermore Laboratory at 32, number-three man at the Pentagon at 33, and president of the California Institute of Technology at 42. Blumenthal was the youngest man of ambassadorial rank in the Kennedy administration. At 34 Joseph Califano became Lyndon Johnson’s most important aid.

They also were good at proteges to men who helped them along—Brown to Robert McNamara, Cyrus Vance to Lyndon Johnson, Califano to Vance and then Johnson himself. This kind of contact was especially important, and the Cabinet members have lived lives generally full of contacts, built up through varied service, through memberships on boards, through political work; through advising the government. They became the kind of people any new President would be aware of, and although they came from various locales and walks of life it’s hard to imagine that at the first Cabinet meeting many introductions had to be made.

The strongest impression that emerges from the group’s lives is that success in America is achieved by gathering those honors that are conferred by the nation’s established organizational structure. It’s those organizations that are the route to the top, rather than smaller or newer ones. Only one of the Cabinet members, Bob Bergland, ever started his own business early in life; the rest came to lead institutions others had founded years before. When Carter picked them, it was because of the titles and reputations institutional life has given them.

The Class of Leaders

At first glance, success in America may seem to have been ever thus, but that is not the case. The Establishment is so established in America that it appears eternal; in fact, it has changed markedly over the years. From the signing of the Declaration of Independence on, of course, there has always been a class of leaders in this country who knew each other and who functioned more or less as a group, but the way they attain their leadership positions now is different from what it once was.

It’s easy to see this from looking at an exactly comparable group of 75 years ago, the Cabinet of Theodore Roosevelt. The life stories of its members are strikingly different from those of their counterparts today.

By and large, Roosevelt’s Cabinet members succeeded in the same meritocratic way as Carter’s—through their own efforts rather than inherited advantage. But unlike today’s Cabinet members, their careers didn’t necessarily rest on an educational base. There was a Treasury Secretary who left school at 14, an Attorney General who hadn’t gone to law school, and nobody with anywhere near a Ph.D. Instead, the first big boost usually came with the founding of some sort of business at a relatively earlyage.

All three of Roosevelt’s Attorneys General started their own law firms, and so did four other members of his Cabinet; Carter’s lawyers joined well-established firms. The first Treasury Secretary Roosevelt appointed, Leslie M. Shaw, founded a successful bank and mortgage loan business in Iowa. His successor, George B. Cortelyou, set himself up in business as a stenographer, and worked his way up through a series of important clients. James Wilson, the Secretary of Agriculture, started his own farm. Ethan Hitchcock, the Interior Secretary, made a fortune in the commission business in China and then founded the first successful plate glass factory in America. It was through institutions of their own creation that the members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet rose to prominence.

An Emblematic Change

In short, we’ve gone from a Cabinet of entrepreneurs to aCabinet of bureaucrats. The change in Cabinets is emblematic of a change in the nature of success in America. In Roosevelt’s day the entrepreneur was widely lionized; every schoolchild was made familiar with the stories of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, and other men’ who had raised themselves from obscurity by working hard and inventing, or discovering, or founding something new.

In the intervening 75 years, the great organizations that were founded in Roosevelt’s day have grown, prospered, and come to dominate our national life, so that now the energies of ambitious people are channeled through them. Also, as the economy has shifted its weight increasingly away from production and towards services, it has come to reward expertise and interpersonal skills more than innovation. As a result, the enterprise-starter has given way as a national model of success to the riser through the ranks, like the members of today’s Cabinet.

When those organization men rise to the top, they shape the society according to their own conditioning. Because they owe their own success to getting good grades, amassing titles, and impressing university boards, foundation directors, corporate managers, and Presidents, they are likely to continue to focus on these things, and to encourage them in their employees. Having risen in large and stable institutions, they’ve acquired a vested interest in the way things are, and major change can never seem sensible. Playing life to an audience of potential employers, with all that implies, is seen today as an absolute precondition of success.

Writ large, all these qualities produce a sluggish, change-avoiding nation. Because our leaders have been conditioned to focus on rising within the company, rather than on what the company does, they’re often beaten by their foreign counterparts on matters of technological and other kinds of innovation. When our corporations can’t build the best small cars or televisions, when our government can’t deal directly and efficiently with welfare or crime, it’s become standard to blame it on bureaucracy. But bureaucratic behavior can in turn be blamed on how people now define their aspirations, on what they want to do with their lives.

The Explicit Tie

A couple of examples, one from business and one from the government, show how explicit is the tie between the way to success and our larger social ills.

In America’s top business schools, which produce the shepherds of the economy, there’s an informal hierarchy of prestige that the students apply to the various parts of the business world that they might enter upon graduation. The closer a student can hew to the top of the hierarchy, the more successful he and his peers consider himself. Talking to business students yields the news that the most prestigious career is in management or financial consulting; at the bottom is basic industry; and starting a business is considered too impossibly risky even to consider. Within a big, diversified corporation, the prestige ranking of the four major divisions goes like this: corporate finance is best, then internal management, then sales; production, considered the province of sweaty engineers, brings up the rear. A ranking according to national need might be precisely the reverse, but because of what currently constitutes success, the ablest young businessmen will troop off to juggle investments instead of concentrating on improving their products.

The government example comes from Dean Rusk, a poor Georgia boy who made his way up through a series of ever more prestigious university, foundation and government jobs. A few weeks ago Rusk gave the newspapers a rare interview on foreign policy, a subject on which he usually prefers to be discreet. He was asked to comment on Andrew Young’s alarming habit of actually saying forthrightly what is true about foreign affairs, rather than concentrating on getting along with everyone. It isn’t that Young is a bad man, Rusk said; one has to understand that he is laboring under a sever handicap in life: “Never having worked for a box before.” In other words, learning to please employers produces the kinds of results Rusk gave America during his Vietnam-era stewardship of the State Department—exactly what we don’t need. Clearly, national problems and the nature of personal ambition go hand-in-hand.

A case in point is energy. It’s striking how many of today’s institutions date from the Theodore Roosevelt era, and how central energy was to the system created then. The greatests paradigms of success then had something to do with energy-digging up its raw materials, refining and shipping it, inventing ways to use it to light and heat and transport America. However unattractive John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford may have been, they did create a corporate structure, based on new technology, that came to dominate America.

Since their time, the energy establishment and its spinoffs have grown large and prosperous and a little fat, to the point where it’s clear that the oil companies, the car manufacturers, and the utilities, along with the law firms they spawned, the universities they funded, and the government agencies that sprang up largely in response to their excesses, cannot solve the problems of the world they control. More disturbing, the government’s response has been to work out elaborate regulatory compromises and to create agencies filled with people who have great resumes—in other words, to assume bureaucratic solutions will work when entrepreneurial ones are clearly needed. The energy world was invented in a short period around the turn of the century, and having lived out its natural life in its present form, it needs to be reinvented today. The trouble is, our natural inclination is to entrust this grave problem to our most successful people—who by the nature of their success are uniquely unsuited to deal with it. Thinking about the nature of success may seem like an exercise in abstraction, but a change in that thinking can meet our most concrete needs.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.