June 24, 2010


Do you know what meritocracy is? Think about it for a second. Then, think again.

We usually assume that meritocracy means being able to earn money, respect, responsibilities, by merit only. The opposite of meritocracy is nepotism: you are assigned that important role in the company because your uncle is the owner. Or, there are many “opposites” to meritocracy, where rewards are based on: - possession of wealth (plutocracy); - origin (aristocracy); - family connections (nepotism); - property; - friendship (cronyism); - technical expertise (technocracy); - seniority (gerontocracy); - popularity (representative democracy); or other historical determinants of social position and political power. Wow, quite a long list here.

Why do we assume that merit is fair? (typical anglo-saxon point of view)

You take two candidates for a job, interview them, and determine that candidate A would do a better job than candidate B. In a meritocratic system, you would hire A. However, why A is better than B? Why A has more merits than B?

I’ll give you another, more personal example: I grew up in a small country town in Italy, called Assisi; I studied there most of my life. I went to University in nearby Perugia, started with Electronic Engineering, but then moved to Computer Science in 1999. In 2001 I founded my little consulting company, Wedoit, together with my Brother Marco. I worked there for few years, doing other things at the same time (teaching at the University, working as a CTO in another University), until I finally landed my job at Amazon.com in 2008.

In 1998, Sergey Brin founded Google. Sergey: - Had a father who was a Mathematics professor, and gave him extra education; - Studied at a Montessori School; - Studied at Stanford University; - Lived in the highest density Venture Capital place in the world, California.

If you were to bet your money on Sergey (A) or Simone (B), or to decide which one you’d like to hire, you would certainly choose Sergey. Why? Because of merit. Sergey Brin has huge merits, no doubts. I am, for sure, not as smart or as entrepreneurial as he is. I am NOT suggesting that I would be able to create Google, and that I should be a successful billionaire. I am, in fact, suggesting that Sergey has many more merits than I do, and that he would always win over me at job interviews. (I know, he doesn’t need to interview anymore). So, here’s merit at work.

Right? Is that merit? Really?

Merit is when we start at the same level, and you work harder than I do, and you become more competent, more skilled for that job. And you win that job. That’s real merit. Or, else, call it workhardocracy, the place where you reward hard work. I didn’t start at the same level at which Sergey did. The more I meet people around the world, and the more successful they are, the more I think: Well, I never had the chance to study at Stanford. Or to study classes with Nobel Laureates. Or to spend time with other very smart guys, with a lot of resources to study. Or to found my company with Venture Capital all over the place. Or to use the latest and most innovative technologies, and learn from them. In fact, when I was student representative, in 2001, I started a protest (which led me to a national radio program and more than 6,000 visits to the website on that day!) because we had FEW computers for HUNDREDS of students. That was the COMPUTER SCIENCE department. Can you believe it? How could we learn Computer Science without touching computers for most of the time? In that same University, when I went back there to teach, in 2004, I was the FIRST professor to introduce: Creative Commons material; mailing list for students; and other things. Can you believe this? Yes, that was a very bad University to study. No, I didn’t have the same opportunities as many others. And yet, I feel grateful for what I was able to accomplish in life, despite it’s a much smaller thing than founding Google.

From this point of view, it means that there’s little meritocracy in the world. Yes, very little. And the next time you hear: “Oh, that’s merit!”, think again. That’s not merit at all. That’s something else.