DUCKWORTH: Does anybody ever say that?!
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: is meritocracy a fair system?
DUCKWORTH: What it shines a light on is how much all of life is a lottery!
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MAUGHAN: Angela, I’m super excited to talk to you today. We’ve got an amazing question from Patrick Gilmartin, which I almost want to just say in a British accent the whole time. Patrick Gilmartin. I don’t know why.
DUCKWORTH: It’s about the most British name that you could possibly have.
MAUGHAN: He doesn’t say where he’s from, but in my mind, Patrick, you are from the great British Isles. So, Patrick says, “I’m a big fan of the podcast. It would be insightful if the two of you could talk about the potential failures of a meritocracy, like the one discussed in The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits.” Are you familiar with this book?
DUCKWORTH: I haven’t read The Meritocracy Trap, but I’m pretty familiar with these arguments against meritocracy.
MAUGHAN: Okay, good. Well, look here’s the rest of Patrick’s question. He says, “Although a path toward a meritocracy seems like a fair and ethical goal, it seems like there could be some downsides. Wealth inequality has risen substantially in the U. S. and so have rates of diagnosed depression and suicide. It can be a blow to one’s self-esteem if they feel less successful than someone in the top one percent. It’s also incredibly frustrating to feel as if you’re working hard, but not being rewarded for your efforts.” So, Patrick sums this all up in this question: “Do you think it’s possible to develop a perfect meritocracy? And is it even a good system to aspire to?”
DUCKWORTH: I love this question. There is another book on this topic of merit and meritocracy. This one was written by one of the professors I took a course with at Harvard named Michael Sandel. It was called “Justice” and, at the time, it was the largest lecture class at Harvard. It had, I think, like over a thousand students. And so, this is, I think, his latest book. It came out in 2020, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
MAUGHAN: Let me just say that neither of these titles make it seem at all like they have a bias. I’m just kidding. Meritocracy Trap. The —.
DUCKWORTH: The Tyranny of Merit. You don’t have to guess, right? I mean, it is interesting to have one of the most eminent professors at one of the most eminent universities in the world talk about the “tyranny” of merit, because oftentimes merit has been the hero. It’s often been juxtaposed with privilege or nepotism. Like, merit used to be the good guy.
MAUGHAN: Right, this idea, for example, in that world of legacy admits. Like, oh, your parents went here, your grandparents went here? It almost feels like that sort of stuff closes the door to people getting into universities on merit.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, if you go back — I don’t know how many decades, but I think it was Nicholas Lemann’s book, The Big Test, which gives you a little history of these Ivy League admissions. Lemann, says, you know, there was a time in the history of these elite universities that the way you got in was what your last name was. They were really classist. There was also a strong antisemitic bias. So, like, there was a time where meritocracy and standardized testing in particular were the heroes of the story, because it was the introduction of standardized testing, including the SAT, into college admissions, which put people on a — it was said, right — like, a level playing ground, or a more level playing ground. So, it is interesting to now fast forward to the early 21st century, and then to wrestle with these questions. I mean, I think these are really interesting philosophical questions — and that’s what Sandel is, by the way. He’s not a psychologist. He’s a, a philosopher.
MAUGHAN: I’m interested to hear you say that, because this book, The Meritocracy Trap, is written by a lawyer, actually. So, Daniel Markovits is professor of law at Yale.
DUCKWORTH: Ah, another elite university.
MAUGHAN: Right, right. And so, when he talks about the “meritocracy trap,” he said it’s become exactly what it was conceived to resist: this “mechanism for the concentration of dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.” And so, there’s a, a guy named Roger Karma. He wrote an article called “The Meritocracy Trap Explained” for Vox Media, and it goes through sort of a progression of where meritocracy maybe went from the “hero,” as you described it, in solving previous societal issues to becoming maybe the issue itself. So, he says, “First, elite workers acquire super-skilled jobs, displacing middle-class labor from the center of economic production.” That then leads to these elite workers using their “massive incomes to monopolize elite education for their children, ensuring that their children are more qualified to dominate highly-skilled industries than their middle-class counterparts.” Markovits calls this “snowball inequality,” which is a compounding feedback loop that amplifies economic inequality. He continues that meritocracy harms the elite as well, because it creates this pernicious idea that life is an “endless competition.”
DUCKWORTH: So, it’s bad for everyone. It’s lose-lose. I mean, it’s really lose for those who are on the bottom. So, okay, what I’m hearing is that the hidden harm of meritocracy is that it perpetuates — and maybe exacerbates — an unequal society, so that the rich get super rich and the poor get even more downtrodden, right? Like, that’s an idea that’s been actually around for a while. It’s sometimes referred to as the Matthew effect from, I guess, Matthew, but I think it’s actually in other books in the New Testament — this idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And I mean, I guess I can use myself as an example, right? Like, I really do feel like my kids grew up with such privilege. I remember, like, once feeding Amanda raspberries from a carton that I had bought at Whole Foods, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m hand-feeding my child raspberries from Whole Foods. Like, this is such an unequal playing field.” And then, I’m going to read to her, and I had time to read to her because we could afford to have someone helping us clean our house. We could afford childcare. We could afford a lot of things that, like, many, many other people couldn’t afford. And I think the idea of the Matthew effect is that if with each successive generation, a little bit of privilege leads to a lot of privilege, then you have this fan spread where society becomes grossly unequal —.
MAUGHAN: And you’ve probably heard the old axiom a thousand times that, “Talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not.”
DUCKWORTH: I have heard that. I do think talent is everywhere, and I do believe opportunity is not.
MAUGHAN: I just want to play this out. Obviously, I work with the N.B.A. and basketball teams. So, let me just use basketball as the example. People in the N.B.A. want to watch great competition, right?
DUCKWORTH: They want to watch the very best players.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, you might call that a great meritocracy. The best players break through from across the world and make it into the N.B.A. And we want to watch great competition. We want the best to be there. Now the challenge is that in some environments, even as early as grade school, kids can start receiving private coaching or more opportunities for play. Or if you’re from a wealthy environment, you can join a traveling team where suddenly you’re playing with other elite kids, which is helping develop and hone your skills more quickly. You have support from your family. So, one might argue that the subset of people who have the opportunity to compete to become the best, that was whittled down long before the time to try out ever came up. And so, that’s the challenge, I think, with meritocracy is, okay, sure you want the best to rise to the top, but because of the unequal structure and opportunity at the beginning, you can’t have a truly meritocratic society.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, the interesting parallel here is that you’re not the first one to say, “Let’s take basketball as an example.” There was this social scientist named James Flynn. And he discovered this thing called the Flynn effect, which, you know, we’ve talked about a little bit before on No Stupid Questions. It’s the rise in I.Q. Scores over the 20th century. But the basketball example is exactly the example he used to give about early inequality. And he was actually thinking about genes. It’s also not your merit — whatever merit is, it can’t be that you have “earned” you genes. He says: what if one kid is born, by pure luck, to be a little taller than the kid who lives next to them. The kid who’s just a little bit taller is going to just get a little bit more attention from the first coach. And all the other kids are going to, like, look at that kid and be like, “Oh, that kid probably is going to be really good at basketball.” And then, you know, this kid starts to develop a little more of an identity as the kind of kid who’s probably going to be pretty good at basketball. And then this snowballing, this multiplying, this fan spread over time becomes a big difference. The reason why Flynn was kind of obsessed with this is that he was trying to figure out where the increase in I.Q. came from, and he came to believe that this kind of snowballing was really at the heart of it. And that was a more complicated theory, because it was happening on a societal level, but the idea was that small differences could magnify into big ones. So, you know, when I hear about these: you know, “meritocracy’s a trap,” “meritocracy’s tyranny.” I mean, I won’t lie. My knee-jerk reaction is, “What? Merit’s awesome. I don’t like nepotism.” But when I — when I pause and think about this, I think one of the valid arguments in this perspective is that even the endowments that we have at the beginning of life, our genetic endowments, who our parents are in terms of what they’re able to give us, the school we go to, the quality of our basketball coach, like, if there’s a tremendous amount of luck — and even, you could argue, no merit at all, if you go all the way back to day zero — and then these advantages get multiplied, and the disadvantages get multiplied too, and then, you know, you’re admitting somebody to an M.B.A. class, and one person has great GMAT scores, and the other person doesn’t. And I think the perspective here that I have to really listen to, and I think has some validity, is, like, maybe it’s not that merit is a bad thing, but that we assume merit when it was really chance.
MAUGHAN: Interesting. You know, and Patrick asked this in his question, he asked the role of luck. So much of this is luck and also time and circumstance. I do think one idea behind all of this that is really interesting comes from Warren Buffett. So, his business partner, Charlie Munger, died recently.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, Charlie Munger died? When did Charlie Munger die?
MAUGHAN: I think in December of 2023.
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know that. Actually, I have read Charlie Munger’s books. He was such a great psychologist. I have to tell you — I mean, I know he was an investor, but wow, what a great student of human nature he was.
MAUGHAN: Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It is bad news.
MAUGHAN: But, both of them, as you know, these longtime business partners, great investors, they’re at this conference — and Buffett talked about this in a number of different places, but he talks about what he calls the “ovarian lottery,” that so many people on earth got a major head start because they won the ovarian lottery.
DUCKWORTH: And by that he means, genes?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, by time, by place of birth, by parentage, by all those things.
DUCKWORTH: Like, we happened — I happened to be born in Philadelphia and not in Chengdu, China, you know, where my mom was born, for example.
MAUGHAN: Right. I mean, I often think when I’m in very resource-limited settings, how many Nobel Prize winners am I walking past but just who never had the opportunity? So, he talks about winning the ovarian lottery, and this is how Buffett kind of says he would structure society.
DUCKWORTH: If he were in charge.
MAUGHAN: This is how he kind of lays out the scenario. He says, “It’s 24 hours before you’re born. You’ve been granted the ability to decide all of the economic rules for the society you’re able to enter. The catch is, you don’t know any details about what your place in the world will be. You don’t know your gender, race, nationality, health, intelligence level, or any of the other defining characteristics. They’re all left up to chance. With your own circumstances unknown, what kind of a society are you going to construct?”
DUCKWORTH: Well, Warren Buffett may or may not — I assume he did — know that he’s essentially giving the argument of John Rawls, right? Like the “veil of ignorance” — which I learned in Michael Sandel’s class, Justice, — in which I, by the way, earned my second-lowest grade in college. So, it’s not like I have any authority here.
MAUGHAN: I’m so sorry about your second A-minus.
DUCKWORTH: Ha, it was not an A-minus. I wish it were. Nope. Um, but I do remember the veil of ignorance from John Rawls. So, it’s exactly what Warren Buffett describes. This is the way to come up with the right laws for society. And then, the question would be: what you would do with merit. I think, in some ways, it’s important to be practical about it. Like, college admissions, you know, hiring, what should we do with the N.B.A.? But I’m not sure it leaves me with the solution of — and I think this has been proposed by a lot of people who are questioning the idea of merit — a more, like, random system. Kind of like, if life is a lot about luck, then why don’t we just embrace that, own it, acknowledge it, and have, like, a lottery system for college? First of all, practically speaking, it’s just not going to work. You’re not going to be able to, like, knock on the door of the president of any elite institution, and say, like, “Hey, I have a great idea. Lottery.
MAUGHAN: I’m going to jump right to agreement here. No one’s going to do that.
DUCKWORTH Right. I think the psychology of incentives, like, you mentioned Charlie Munger. One of the things that I read that he wrote was — I think it’s called, like, “36 Mistakes.” I could get the number wrong, but it was basically, “Here are all the mistakes that people make that are basically psychological in nature.” That’s why I say he was a great investor, but he was an even better psychologist. And, if I recall correctly, the first one was to forget about the power of incentives. Charlie Munger said that people respond to reward and punishment. And so, the point of this is that I think if you have a truly random system where you fully lean into the luck narrative and you say, like, “Since life is so arbitrary, since really none of our endowments or our accomplishments truly can be owned by ourselves and not ascribed in some way to luck and opportunity” — if you lean all the way into that, you’re like, “I’m not going to give you a report card grades, we’re going to let everyone in randomly, performance bonuses this year will be random, salaries this year will be random.”
MAUGHAN: There’d be mad revolt against that.
DUCKWORTH: I think the psychology doesn’t work. I think Charlie Munger would say the incentives would be misaligned. If you take away the idea that people will be rewarded according to their efforts, according to their skill, according to their achievement, I do think there is a problem with the incentives there. Like, I don’t know if that would be good individual psychology to say, like, hey, you know, this year we’re going to pick the basketball team in the high school, like, who gets on varsity is a raffle.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think all of that would be a terrible idea. I think incentives are really important. And you know, in my memory from somewhere back — and you may know where this came from — I remember reading that your long-term salary is best predicted, not by the college that you went to, but the average of the five schools you applied to. Or something like that.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, it sounds plausible.
MAUGHAN: But the idea behind it, as I remember, was basically kids are going to apply to these five schools where they roughly think they are going to be able to get in. It’s less about, okay, did you make it into Harvard, or Yale, or Brown, or Columbia? And more about, okay, you see yourself in that quote-unquote “tier,” because that’s where you’re applying. I remember talking to the admissions director of one of the top M.B.A. programs in the world, and he was saying how he gets double the number of total admissions slots. So, if there are — let’s just say — 500 spots, he gets a thousand that get put on his desk as finalists, and he picks those last 500 and curates it. And I said, “Well, is that really hard for you? I mean, you’re holding all these people’s lives in your hands kind of, da da da.” And he said, “No, because, you know, of the thousand I get on my table, the other 500 who don’t get in are still going to have great lives and do really well, because they already got to the point where they’re here.” And so, that almost is random at that point.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, and I so wish that applicants who got that like, “We regret to inform you” — like, I think the false precision of kind of, like, “I got in here. I didn’t get in there.” The assumption is that I wasn’t good enough to get in to A, but I was good enough to get into B. This, like, overweighting of merit and, like, the underweighting of luck and opportunity. There’s just so much noise in the system that you’re very likely good enough for A or B, but, like, luck of the draw, right? I really wish people knew. And I try to remember it myself, right? Because I get rejected from, oh my gosh, so many things. And it feels so black and white when you get these rejections.
MAUGHAN: Because it is binary. It is “yes” or “no.”
DUCKWORTH: And it is. Exactly. And it would be maybe even, like, more inhumane to be like, “Well, you almost got in. We just wanted to let you know.”
MAUGHAN: Or, “There was virtually no difference between you and the other applicants.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah! “And we just decided to go with the other fellow.”
MAUGHAN: You’re like, “What?”
DUCKWORTH: And I, I agree with you, like, the five schools you apply to, you know, there’s not a lot of difference between those five schools. People shouldn’t take it too seriously. But I think they have a real problem with just the stratification of schools in the first place. The biggest problem is that, like, the kids who are even applying to those five schools are not at all the kids who are applying to, like, five schools that are in a very different you know, part of the spectrum in terms of selectivity.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s true. Are you familiar with the documentary, The Lottery?
DUCKWORTH: No, I’m not familiar with that.
MAUGHAN: It follows four young children in New York City who are literally going through a lottery to try to get into some charter schools. The idea is, the kids who get into this charter school end up performing so much better in school because of the investment into the kids, are much more likely to go on to go to college, da da da. But literally getting in is just a lottery. And you pin all these families, their hopes, their dreams — if my kid gets in, their future is bright. If my kid does not get in, we’re stuck in our cycle of the Matthew effect, where we’re just going to get poorer.
DUCKWORTH: I know that, in general, the high-performing charter schools have this feature. You know, some would be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible that it’s a lottery.” But then again, like, should we not have a lottery? In many localities, my understanding is that it’s the most equitable thing to do, is to make it a lottery, right? Because, like, any other system is worse. But maybe what it shines a light on is how much all of life is a lottery.
MAUGHAN: Exactly. Look, Angela and I would love to hear your thoughts on whether meritocracy is a fair or even desirable system. So, record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela perform a “luck audit” of their lives.
DUCKWORTH: What if my mom had not been sitting next to these two incredibly generous and childless humans who decided to adopt this barely-speaking-English Chinese immigrant?
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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about meritocracy
DUCKWORTH: So, Mike, there’s an economist named Robert Frank and he wrote a book called Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. And I would say the through line in a lot of these arguments, including Sandel’s, is that when you get into Harvard, you think you earned it. You get a promotion, and you think you earned it. And I think their point is that you underestimate factors that are not your own doing, that you can’t take credit for. I totally agree with that, actually. I think I fall into this trap, too. Like, I don’t wake up in the morning and think, like, “Wow, I, you know, wrote that paper and got it in because of luck.” I always think about what I did. And that’s hubris, right?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, but also in fairness, I will say, like, everybody that I know who has succeeded or gone on to accomplish great things — there is so much luck, but also, they’ve spent a lot of late nights. They spent a lot of early mornings. They study really, really hard. They put in a ton of effort. Both can be true at the same time. You can’t take anything away from what merit requires, right? There are people who wake up earlier, and who put in more effort. But all of these principles that help you become great: grit — you study passion and perseverance and people who work really, really hard. So, in the eternal nature of everything we ever talk about, I think it’s a big “both-and,” and I think it’s crazy to say it’s all merit, it’s all luck. I actually love when people ask the question, “How much was luck, and how much was you?” Because I think it says a lot about the individual answering. So Guy Raz, I think, asks that at the end of every podcast on How I Built This.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, so interesting. And what does he find?
MAUGHAN: Well, I’ve never done a systematic review of all of them, so I can only speak anecdotally. But I always am interested in people’s responses. And I, I really dislike when people are like, “Oh, it was all me.”
DUCKWORTH: Does anybody ever say that?
MAUGHAN: Yes, I remember one distinctly where I was like, “Oh, boo.” Like, who are you? One thing I love about my boss, Ryan Smith, founder of Qualtrics, built that into a multi-billion dollar company, now owner of the Utah Jazz. When people ask him, he is always willing to acknowledge how much luck was involved.
DUCKWORTH: And he’s incredibly gritty.
MAUGHAN: And he goes through all of these things that tell you like, yeah we did it well, but so many things had to go right. And I think it’s interesting. The hubris for me comes in where some people who built, like, an amazing tech company and they think, “Oh, it’s me. I can run any company.” Just because you did it well once doesn’t mean you can do it well again, because no matter how good you are at business, a lot of factors had to go right.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s all true. Can we end with a luck audit, though?
MAUGHAN: Yes, that was what I was just going to ask you!
MAUGHAN: I’m going to think of all — I really do think this is a good reminder to just shine a light on luck and to not think about everything as kind of like, “Yeah, I deserved it.” So, here are the things I didn’t deserve that I think were really influential. My mom met somebody on an airplane who ended up, like, adopting her and helping her stay in this country, and paid for her wedding, and walked her down the aisle. Their names were Arthur and Annette, and my mother named her first two children after them. Totally random. Like, what if my mom had not been sitting next to these two incredibly generous and childless humans who decided to adopt this barely-speaking-English Chinese immigrant? I happened to meet Jason because he happened to decide it would be a good idea to have a dinner of people who were going to go to New York and work for this consulting firm. Like, I married him! Like, oh my God, I spent the rest of my life with this person, we had two children together. I also happened to be looking through, very late at night — I was, like, nursing Amanda, so she was still a baby — and I was looking through the psychology department website, and I went down in alphabetical order because when you’re nursing and you only have one hand, you know, there’s only so much you can type, and so I was just like, pressing the down button, and I got to “S” for Seligman, and I met Marty Seligman, my PhD adviser, and he changed my life.
MAUGHAN: Wait, that’s how you met Marty?
DUCKWORTH: That’s how I met Marty Seligman! I was, like, sitting there and because I was nursing — when you really only have one hand, you end up reading more on what the screen is, because you really can’t type. I clicked on what he had written about optimism, and I was like, “Wow, that sounds pretty good. And, like, wow, he can write” — I mean, totally random. And also, like, there was a day in Hong Kong that I was traveling there, and I stepped off the curb, and I forgot that they drive on the left side of the road, and then I forgot something. I was just like, “Oh, wait, I forgot something in the store,” and I stepped back on the curb and a double decker bus, like, flew past, and I was like, “Oh, I, like, literally could have died.” Okay, that’s just a short list of lucky events that I take zero credit for. Changed my life. Saved my life. So, what about you?
MAUGHAN: Okay. I’ve got to admit when you said, let’s do a “luck audit,” I wasn’t exactly sure what a luck audit is.
DUCKWORTH: I just made that up.
MAUGHAN: But I love the idea. It’s almost like going through a gratitude exercise in a different format. As you were talking — first of all, I love that, and I didn’t know most of those things. But I, I think as I would go through it, you know, one, I feel so lucky to have been born into the family that I was. I think that birth order, you know, people will debate forever whether it matters, but having four older siblings who prepared a path for me, and I grew up and lived in the same home my whole life, and so it was very clear what it meant to be a Maughan, and there was a reputation for what it meant to be a Maughan. And I did nothing to earn that, but I was incredibly blessed.
DUCKWORTH: You really are lucky to be born into that family — so far as I can tell.
MAUGHAN: And I showed up in any of these classrooms, or any of my sports teams, or any of these places, and the reputation that my siblings had established as hardworking, as honest, and all these things — I was incredibly lucky to have that. I was incredibly lucky to come from a home where my parents did not care about or watch TV and cared and loved reading. I think that was one of the greatest gifts they could have ever given me. I think about an incredibly random event. I’m at Harvard, going to the Kennedy School. And they decide to have a charity auction. So, my friend, Jen Porter, and I we put into this charity auction that we were going to make dinner for someone and we’d bring it over to their apartment. And it was bought by by some fellow classmates of ours — Kyle and Laura Welch. And so, Jen and I make dinner and we take it over to the Welches. And we’re sitting there having dinner and Kyle asks me what I want to do when I graduate, and I tell him. And he said, “You want to work at Qualtrics.” And I said, “I don’t think I want to move to Utah, and I don’t think I want to work for a survey company.” And Kyle said, “Trust me, you want to move to Utah. This is a perfect fit for you. In fact, I knew one of the co-founders in college. Can I introduce you?” And so, Kyle introduces me. And the rest is all history. But it’s because Jen Porter and I put into this system we were going to make dinner for some — whoever happened to buy it. And of course, it ended up being the Welches, and of course Kyle ends up being friends with this person. I did nothing for that. And then the other thing I thought of is, you know, at Qualtrics, we do this big event called X4. Over the years, we’ve brought in so many people from Barack Obama, to Oprah Winfrey. to Adam Silver, to Ashton Kutcher, on and on down the line. And I think about the incredible luck I had when we brought in this one speaker named Angela Duckworth. And through some random chance of all the speakers over all the years, not only did we meet there, but we connected in such a way that we became friends for life. And that was, in many ways, random chance. And I’m incredibly grateful.
DUCKWORTH: Mike, thank you. I think it’s been more luck for me than for you, but yeah, I think it’s good to do a luck audit and to count your blessings and to recognize that some of our greatest blessings, honestly, we had nothing to do with, but we can be grateful for nevertheless.
And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Mike and Angela joke that Patrick Gilmartin is, quote, “the most British name you could possibly have.” Unfortunately, we were unable to get in contact with listener Patrick to learn where he’s from, but according to ancestry.com, the name Gilmartin isn’t necessarily British, it’s of Scottish and Irish origin — a shortened Anglicized form of a Gaelic clan name meaning “the servant of Saint Martin.” The given name Patrick is common throughout the English-speaking world, but it has a particular association with Ireland — the country’s primary patron saint is Saint Patrick. Although the island of Ireland is part of the British Isles, and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland separated from Britain at the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. So, then what is the most “British-sounding” name? According to the subreddit AskUK, some of the “most British names ever” include Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter, a British army officer in the Second World War, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning actor. Our team at No Stupid Questions would also like to nominate the English journalist and broadcaster Sir Peregrine Worsthorne.
Later, Mike references a 2019 Vox article titled, “‘The Meritocracy Trap,’ Explained,” which he says was written by Roger Karma. The author’s name is actually Rogé Karma — who audiophiles many know as the former fill-in host on The Ezra Klein Show. Finally, Mike says that American businessman, investor, and philanthropist Charlie Munger died in December of 2023. The vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway actually passed away a month earlier, in November, at 99 years old. Angela references a list Munger wrote about 36 mistakes that people often make that are psychological in nature. She was thinking of a speech that Munger delivered at Harvard in 1995 titled “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement.” It breaks down what he refers to as “24 standard causes of human misjudgement,” which includes ideas like the power of incentives — as Angela mentioned — as well as concepts like psychological denial and and our tendency towards envy.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on sentimental objects.
Yvonne COUCH: Hi NSQ gang, this is Yvonne calling from the UK. I loved the episode about sentimental objects, because I’m definitely one for keeping things purely for sentimental reasons. The first thing that springs to mind is a pair of socks my partner David bought me very early in our relationship. They’ve got bunnies in bow ties all over them, and I love them, and I can’t bring myself to throw them away despite the fact that they have too many holes in them to actually be functional. The second thing is my bicycle, which I have cycled around Oxford every day since its purchase about 18 years ago. It’s rusty, and heavy, and breaks fairly regularly, but despite being able to afford a new one, I don’t want to part with it.
Leonard BROWN: Hello NSQ. I have a sentimental object story that I think Angela in particular might appreciate. In the summer of 2018, as I was writing my dissertation, part of the process was to seek out subject matter experts to give feedback on a research question. I emailed Danny Kahneman to see if he would serve as one of my subject matter experts. He quickly replied that he was retired from that type of work, but wished me luck. I kept that email in my inbox because, well, I got an email from Danny Kahneman.
That was, respectively Yvonne Couch and Leonard Brown. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on meritocracy. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is it good or bad to keep a secret?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody other than Jason about this.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help on this episode from Julie Kanfer and research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I sound a little more like Demi Moore than I would like.
MAUGHAN: I’m going to claim Patrick Swayze today, then.
- Warren Buffett, investor and philanthropist.
- James Flynn, political philosopher at the University of Otago.
- Robert Frank, professor emeritus of management at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.
- Rogé Karma, staff writer at The Atlantic.
- Nicholas Lemann, professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School.
- Daniel Markovits, professor of law at Yale Law School.
- Charles Munger, investor and philanthropist.
- John Rawls, 20th-century legal and political philosopher.
- Guy Raz, creator and host of How I Built This and Wisdom from the Top; founder and C.E.O. of Built-It Productions.
- Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University.
- Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Ryan Smith, founder and executive chairman of Qualtrics; owner of the Utah Jazz.
- The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel (2020).
- The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, by Daniel Markovits (2019).
- “‘The Meritocracy Trap,’ Explained,” by Rogé Karma (Vox, 2019).
- “Reflections About Intelligence Over 40 Years,” by James Flynn (Intelligence, 2018).
- “Here’s Why Warren Buffett Says That He and Charlie Munger Are Successful,” by Emmie Martin (CNBC, 2018).
- Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, by Robert Frank (2016).
- The Lottery, film by Madeleine Sackler (2010).
- The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann (1999).
- “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” speech by Charles Munger (1995).
- “What’s the Point of I.Q. Testing?” by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “What’s So Bad About Nepotism?” by No Stupid Questions (2022).
- “Are Humans Smarter or Stupider Than We Used to Be?” by No Stupid Questions (2021).
- “How Can You Identify Hidden Talent? With Eric Schmidt,” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- How I Built This Podcast with Guy Raz.