“Henry Adams could see easy ways of making a hundred blunders,” wrote Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams. “He could see no likely way of making a legitimate success.” Poor Adams. It was his curse to be the first truly modern man of the American East Coast, in that he spent his entire life worrying miserably about how his career was going. The sentence quoted above describes him at age 28: still trying to decide what to do and obsessively comparing himself to his friends in every particular of advancement. At 54, without question an accomplished man on the way to greatness, he had made exactly no progress on this score: “Thus, in 1892, neither Hay, King, nor Adams knew whether they had attained success, or how to estimate it, or what to call it; and the American people seemed to have no clearer idea than they.”

In retrospect it seems that the American people knew perfectly well how to estimate success, namely financially. But Adams, being rich and upper-class, was in a position to deny even that. “Few Americans envied the very rich for anything… most of them got out of their money,” he wrote. “New York might occasionally fear them, but more often laughed or sneered at them, and never showed them respect. Scarcely one of the very rich men held any position in society by virtue of his wealth, or could have been elected to an office, or even into a good club.”

In a way these sentiments are very modern—who hasn’t heard impeccably educated young people today whining about there being nothing for them to do?—but at their core they are completely out of date. Adams was writing about an age of unfettered industrial capitalism that was completely repellent to him, not least because it valued a man of his talents and training very little. It seemed to him that the country was in a state of chaos, that virtue was not rewarded, that there was no widely held notion of how to measure people’s worth and accomplishments except by the size of their bank accounts, which was merely the product of luck and vulgarity. And specifically there was not much for him to do. Though it was only a hundred years ago, this was a time when there were no great Wall Street law firms, no huge, politically active universities, no federal regulatory agencies, no professionalized civil service to speak of; when the professions of law, medicine, and teaching were half-populated by charlatans thence held in low esteem by the public; when, as Adams often mournfully pointed out, his adopted hometown of Washington was considered the sticks; when, in other words, all of the many prestigious and well-paying careers now available to those with roughly Adams’s education and inclinations didn’t exist.

What has happened between then and now is that the notion of merit—something separate from money, and designed to answer almost exactly all of Henry Adams’s longings—has come into being. It has become so powerful a notion that the United States is now routinely described as a meritocracy, which means a society run by the talented (and therefore the virtuous). An elaborate bureaucratic system has come into being to discover the meritorious and groom them for leadership. The meritocracy has developed to the point where nobody can possibly complain that Americans have no way but money of measuring success. They can now measure it by test scores and academic degrees and job titles. And by looking at these measurements—that is, by looking at someone’s resume—it’s possible to tell precisely how successful he is. Merit, is one of the most powerful ideas in American life in this century. And, as it’s currently defined, it’s a wrongheaded, outmoded idea, too—a bad idea.

The Pro Bowl

The meritocracy came into being roughly this way: First, men of Adams’s generation voiced their closely intertwined dissatisfactions with the state of the country and the state of their own lives. “The America they knew,” Richard Hofstadter wrote, “did not lack opportunities, but it did seem to lack opportunities of the highest sort for men of the highest standards.” This generation’s children and proteges became Progressives, and in a couple of decades, acting again out of a subtle combination of sincere political belief and a keen sense of what would be best for them, invented a series of institutions that would henceforth be their berths in American society.

In 1900 the American Medical Association had 8,400 members, and the medical profession was low-paying and full of quacks. In 1910 the AMA had 70,000 members, and a series of sweeping reforms of medical education led to dramatic improvements in the quality of medical care, dramatic reductions in the number of doctors, and dramatic increases in doctors’ incomes. The American Bar Association was founded in 1878 and in 1880 had only 16 state and local affiliates. Lawyers were widely despised. By 1916 the ABA had 48 state and 623 local affiliates, admission to the bar was much tougher to obtain, and lawyers were far better off. In the public schools, state compulsory attendance laws were passed in the late 1900s, and between 1890 and 1910 the number of teachers increased by 400 percent. States began to require professionalized teacher training. In 1910 the National Education Association elected its first schoolteacher president and began to do for teachers what the AMA and ABA were doing for doctors and lawyers.

So it went in every field—in response to genuinely anarchic conditions, “professional” organizations were founded, standards and educational requirements promulgated, and salaries raised. The social workers formed the National Federation of Settlements in 1911. The American Political Science Association began in 1903. Journalists have never succeeded in professionalizing themselves the way doctors and lawyers did, but they did begin to put forth the idea that objectivity was the highest ideal of their field, which gave it the sort of technical, disinterested flavor favored by the times. The huge, immediate success of The New York Times after Adolph Ochs bought it in 1896 and gave it a sober, impartial personality was probably the watershed for professional journalism.

All told, the number of professional and technical workers in the United States more than doubled between 1900 and 1920. The response of the arts to the force and complexity of the times was modernism, a loosening of structure; the response of the middle class was an immense strengthening of structure, an organizing of the life of the country.

In most cases the key to the establishment of a profession was an educational requirement, which guaranteed both that a certain body of knowledge would be conferred and that the number of professionals would be limited. This had the effect of placing schools—and especially universities, which were then first becoming important in this country—in the position of tollbooths athwart the road to professional life. As the professional became more respected, more powerful and richer, access to universities became more important, and so it happened that the decision about whether someone would become a professional was transferred to the schools. Thus the Progressive ideals of system and fairness had to be applied to school admissions, and the science of determination of merit was born. The first Scholastic Aptitude Tests were administered in 1926.

In the old days before Progressivism people entered the professions mainly through apprenticeship, a system that had no uniform standards and so, to the Progressive mind, left the way open to favoritism, quackism, and other horrors. But apprenticeship had the great advantage of putting in young people’s minds that access to their chosen fields depended entirely on how well they could do the work. The end of apprenticeship meant that the marriage between training and doing was ended forever (except in the case of medical residents, who, when their apprenticeships began, were already 26 or 27 years old, and thoroughly brainwashed in the ways of the meritocracy). Today access to a profession has nothing to do with the ability to do the work. It has to do with the ability to take college courses and standardized tests—with a measurement of potential rather than performance.

It took 25 years from the construction of the basic machinery of merit to the beginning of its psychological dominance of American life. The reason was that through the early forties, the meritocracy had a slightly theoretical air about it. Relatively few Americans could afford any education past high school. So getting into college and graduate school was not a gut-wrenching experience requiring the totality of one’s attention. Those with the money to go to college could explore their interests in fairly relaxed fashion.

After World War II that began to change. The passage of the GI Bill forcefully planted in the public’s mind the idea that college was henceforth to be a part of the American dream—a newly attainable way to get out of the working class and into the middle class. The subsequent huge increases in federal spending on education, along with the prosperity of the postwar years, meant that for most people college was at last a real prospect. In 1940, 9.1 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 24 was enrolled in institutions of higher education. By 1958 it was up to 21.2 percent, and by 1970, 32.1 percent.

Meanwhile, as the children of the baby boom came of school age, getting into school for the first time became extremely difficult, and admissions committees became extremely powerful. College and graduate-school admissions were getting to be the crucial early moments in life, the times when one’s fate was determined. So they naturally took on a central importance in people’s lives. They became, in fact, more important than deciding what to do in life, as anyone who has been through the process knows. The meritocratic machinery became an end in itself rather than a means to the end of competent people in the professions. Many competent people were in fact being turned away from the professions.

Now, it might be asked, why should there be so much mania about the professions? Couldn’t people just do something else instead and ignore the meritocratic machinery? The answer is that the Progressives had done their work so well, the professions had become a no-lose proposition. Once you got into school there was no risk whatsoever, since hardly anyone flunks out of professional school or gets kicked off the job once properly credentialed. You also were making more money than most, and you were respected because, unlike that of entrepreneurial businessmen, your success was not just lucky but “deserved”—the product of praiseworthy personality traits such as scholarliness rather than mere greed. The meritocracy had so cornered the market on prestige that business began to turn itself into a meritocracy, too, run by members of a profession called management who had been taught in graduate schools and who wanted very badly never to have to run a production line. By the middle sixties, meritocracy had become a Florida Land Boom. Nobody wanted to be the one fool who didn’t buy in.

Professional Wrestling

What we really mean by merit—the quality that makes admissions committees want to let you in—has almost nothing to do with productivity, economic or otherwise. So with the country in a crisis of non-inventiveness and nondelivery of the goods, all our machinery for picking leaders is set up to look for “A” students, and to encourage everyone with talent to become an “A” student—exactly the wrong approach. If you got 800s on your SATs, won a Rhodes scholarship, or were first in your class at Yale, you are, by the standards of the meritocracy, a demigod, but it’s completely unproven whether you can actually do anything except academic work. In fact, amassing those credentials arguably makes you less likely to do anything in the future, since having won them you probably secretly think of the rest of your life as Miller Time.

That a system designed to weed out hacks in the professions has taken on such a vigorous life of its own might be amusing if it weren’t that its rise and America’s fall seem so intimately connected. The moment (probably in the mid-sixties) when it began to seem that the quest for credentials of merit was the central obsession and organizing principal of our society was also are moment when it began to seem that our large organizations had stopped working. Since then the notion of merit has badly hurt the country.

In the personal sense, the effect of merit on people’s lives is mostly negative. At an early age, a large share of the population is shut out of any chance for significant economic advancement or potential for power. The situation here isn’t quite so bad as in England, where flunking the O-level exam at puberty dooms you to a life of hard labor, but we’re getting there. It is virtually impossible for somebody who, say, gets a 400 on his SATs to become a general, a lawyer, a doctor, an investment banker, or an important government official. Today, newspapers seldom hire anyone who’s not a college graduate. We have effectively robbed ourselves of the leadership and creative and managerial skills of two important groups of people: those who simply don’t catch fire until adolescence is over and done with, and those who do poorly on standardized tests (which, by the way, predict performance in school quite accurately but performance on the job not well at all).

The lot of those who are judged to have merit is too cushy to evoke much sympathy, but nonetheless merit does take its toll on the meritorious. From the moment of the first delicious meritocratic frisson—the moment when you find out you did well on your SATs, say—you will always believe in some deep way that the world owes you a living and that you are better than other people. Because it is so systematic and “fair,” the meritocracy tends to obscure the role of luck in real life and so creates an upper class that believes it has earned its station.

Because it has set forth such a precisely defined version of success, it traps people early on into suppressing their yearnings and talents in other directions. Hang around a suburban neighborhood long enough these days and you’ll see the smart kid who’s a little offbeat—catches insects, takes apart watches—and not a good student pronounced to have a “learning disability” and packed off to lessons in reading comprehension, which is what the SATs test.

These days an “underachiever” is someone who does well on SATs but poorly with grades (you know he should be doing better); an “overachiever” is someone who fares poorly on SATs but excels in school (you know he doesn’t deserve those grades, he must be working for them).

The meritocracy also confuses its members about the way the world really works. As even meritocrats usually realize one day, people are valuable to society according to their output. What makes a surgeon good is how well his patients do after the operation; a running back, his yardage; a salesman, his sales; a writer, the quality of his writing. But in the more “professional” fields, because entree is determined by input (test scores, grades, and so on) rather than output, people’s training confuses them about whether the point of life is to accumulate credentials or actually do some specific thing well. A wonderful example is the pecking order of law reviews, which are of course among the great credentials in our society while also being tangible enterprises requiring output. There are two ways for a law student to get on the law review: through grades and through a writing competition. The writing competition tests exactly what law review editors need most—the ability to write notes for a law review. Grades test merit. Of course, getting on the law review through grades is vastly more prestigious, and those who do so will in unguarded moments sniff about their colleagues who, losers that they are, had to “write their way on.”

If it seems to you that merit is mostly a fraud and that we ought to be thinking instead of ways to reward the simple ability to deliver the goods, then you will feel lonely, even slightly crazy, in America today. Hardly anybody seriously questions merit.

People do address the subjects of inequality, success, ambition, upward mobility, and distribution of resources all the time, but always in a way that buys the fallacy that the meritocracy—standardized tests, applications, degrees, credentials—is the only possible means of slicing up the pie in America. Just as the conventional debate over defense is carried on in terms of more versus less spending and ignores the quality of what the money buys, the terms of the debate over meritocracy concentrate on the fairness of its selection mechanism and totally ignore the question of its productivity.

Social critics, for example, have been carrying on a war in recent years over whether or not people should be ambitious. First flower-power professors like Charles Reich gave voice to the widespread feeling that ambition is bad and that people should mellow out. Reich was a law professor and lifelong super-meritocrat; the issue for him was law versus sitting on the beach at Big Sur. Then the neoconservatives struck back by defending ambition; most recently Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, wrote a book called Ambition, the point of which is that ambition is good. But Epstein and Reich really think exactly the same way—for both of them, the question is the law professorship versus sitting on the beach, though they come down on different sides. The notion that there is productive ambition and unproductive ambition— that there is a difference in value to society between writing regulatory impact statements for Arthur D. Little and opening a steel mill, and that the meritocratic version of ambition will lead you to choose the less productive of those two jobs is not addressed.

Similarly, there is a long-running and much more substantial debate over biological determinism and intelligence testing. The determinists say that most human traits—and in particular intelligence—have a genetic origin, and that intelligence can be accurately measured. Their opponents (represented best lately by Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man) say intelligence is not measurable by the standard tests and is largely a product of environment anyway. What both sides implicitly agree on is that intelligence test scores (whatever they reflect) represent success in life, and that if they are discredited, hierarchical society itself will have been dealt a crippling blow.

In education, all arguments assume that the credentials won in school are the most important facets of life—that’s why busing is an important issue. The debate over SATs has to do with whether they’re culturally biased, not whether they should exist at all. Social philosophers argue over equality of opportunity versus equality of result, but “opportunity” always turns out to mean attending some school, rather than, say, making sales calls.

Quite often the parents of young children are amazed by how soon the meritocratic round of testing, applying, and accumulating credentials begins and how forcefully it shapes their children’s lives and personalities. But much as they may not like it they assume that’s just the way life is and press on. As the children themselves grow older, they may complain, too. In a top-flight high school like Walt Whitman outside Washington or New Trier outside Chicago, the level of gut-wrenching emotion is far greater on April 15, when college acceptances arrive, than on the day of the homecoming game: on college day the whole course of your life is determined. So it continues. Twenty-six-year-olds who join Wall Street law firms today seldom think the work they’ll be doing will be productive or even interesting. They just accept it and to the greatest extent possible continue to focus on input, judging their progress by their salaries and perquisites. The drama of life becomes who gets the most-prized billets—the partnership, the assistant secretaryship—rather than what is accomplished. The sense of achievement is provided by one’s title and the name of one’s institution.

Even at IBM and Exxon, people below the very highest levels seldom are fired. The generalized incompetence that pervades our society is a direct product of the meritocracy’s focus on potential rather than performance. The meritocracy has put the cart before the horse. Invented to staff institutions that were invented to cure the excesses of the Gilded Age, it is now going through an excessively gilded age of its own.

Jean-Claude Killy’s Solution

These people at the upper reaches of the meritocracy are extremely hard-working and conscientious. Most of them are that way naturally, and if they’re not they’re well aware that the senior partner keeps close watch on who bills the most hours and works the most weekends. Often they invent work for themselves even when there’s nothing to do, furiously juggling the meetings, phone calls, and memoranda that anyone who has ever worked in an office knows can take up an infinite amount of time. What they don’t do is think about their performance and how it can be evaluated; in fact, they always fight like hell to keep their performance from being evaluated. It is much, much harder to get drummed out of a profession for incompetence than it is to get into the profession in the first place.

As a result, the people in the middle and lower levels of the meritocracy—high school teachers, say, or planning analysts—can also get away with being extremely lazy and incompetent if they’re so inclined. Like their counterparts throughout the meritocracy, they’re exempt from regular evaluation of performance.

In books on the subject of success and how it is defined, one great hero emerges. He is David McClelland, a psychology professor best known for his 1961 book, The Achieving Society. McClelland’s work comes at the subject exactly backwards. First, it assumes, a society needs to be productive and to grow economically. Second, entrepreneurs promote economic growth. Third, “a particular human motive, the need for Achievement, promotes entrepreneurship.” This need for achievement turns out not to be exactly what we think of as ambition. It has little to do with money and almost nothing to do with merit as we define it; it has more to do with a willingness to take risks and a desire to produce high-quality results. McClelland’s theory is that the need-for-achievement quotient in people’s ambitions has more influence on the course of society than larger economic or government forces.

In the 1960s McClelland devised a way to give people in slowly developing countries achievement lessons, and he went to India and Mexico to try it out. In these lessons (which, it turned out, dramatically boosted the economic productivity of the people who took them) teachers asked students questions like “What do you want to accomplish in the next two years? What specific steps do you plan to take to achieve that goal? How do you feel about the possibility of achieving that goal? How strongly do you want to achieve that goal?”

When I read those questions, I knew they sounded familiar. Where had I heard them before? What place had I been that had figured out the secret of channeling the desire for success in socially and economically useful ways? Was it high school? College? Did they ask those questions on the SATs? No, it wasn’t any of those.

Then I remembered. McClelland’s questions reminded me of a cassette tape I own called “The Power of Goal Setting” by Paul J. Meyer. Paul J. Meyer is president of Success Motivation International of Waco, Texas, a reedy-voiced secular Elmer Gantry who sells motivation tapes to down-at-the-heels aluminum-siding salesmen in Fordyce, Arkansas, and other people like that. I’d always thought of Meyer as a quack and a fraud. I dug out the cassette and played it.

“Jean-Claude Killy,” Paul whined. “I watched him on television here not long ago. He set a goal at the age of 14, that in ten years he would win three gold medals at the Olympics. And he did, and now Chevrolet sponsors him, and, I don’t know, what does he make? Two, three, four million dollars, as I understand it, in the sponsorship. He actually maybe doesn’t have as much natural talent and ability as others, if you think about it. The difference is, he wrote it down specifically and developed a plan that he was gonna achieve by the time he was 24.”

There it was—goals, just as in David McClelland’s studies. I don’t mean to make too much of it, but it does seem possible that even something so obviously dumb as Success Motivation International does a better job than Harvard Law School of infusing people with the sort of aspirations that the country most needs right now. People of talent should not be devoting their lives to credential-mongering, but the merit racket constantly encourages that. We need, instead, new machinery aimed at encouraging and rewarding results, not potential.

Does that sound far-fetched, as if I’m suggesting human nature can be changed? It’s not. Human nature dictates that people will always be ambitious and want to be successful. But the way success is defined—and therefore the way the ambitious behave, and by extension the nature of the whole society—is malleable. It can be changed. The Progressives did it once before and it can be done again—this time with a better effect on the country.

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.