Faking It, Making It, And The Lie of the Meritocracy

Today, Albert Burneko of Defector had an excellent piece about media startup fraud Ozy and the larger ecosystem of pontificators and their tolerance of fraud within their industry. One particularly upsetting quote he selects is from career pontificator, Scott Galloway:

As Galloway rightly observes, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could have met with ignominy and maybe even prison time, and their companies with doom, had their hype and shady accounting practices faced more critical media coverage earlier in their growth, before—well, before what, exactly? Galloway seems to think what happened to Musk’s companies and to Amazon is that they survived long enough to vindicate their leaders: “Sometimes the line between vision and alleged fraud,” he says, “is getting your next round of capital.” In this framing, what makes Elizabeth Holmes or WeWork’s Adam Neumann or Ozy’s Carlos Watson and Samir Rao frauds isn’t that they, you know, did fraud, but rather that they didn’t do it successfully enough to attain critical mass:

“Conversely, if Elizabeth Holmes had managed to raise another $500 million, and Theranos had shown some progress with the Edison [the company’s blood-testing machine], I wonder if she would’ve given the commencement address at Stanford last spring.”

He correctly adds that what undid Theranos was not, as Galloway puts it, faking it until you make it, but the fact that she made stuff up and lied. Burneko’s core problem with the FITYMI (I hate writing this so much) philosophy is the addition of “have to” along the way:

I want to know what “have to” means, in that paragraph. Visionaries “have to” have some sociopathic tendencies. They “have to” boast and lie and not lose sleep over it. They “have to” overpromise and underdeliver. Have to … for what? Because that’s the only way to get a bunch of VC money? That’s the threshold dividing frauds from visionaries—whether it works?

He also concludes that Tesla’s Musk and Ozy’s Watson are similar, in that they’re both “sleazy megalomaniacs” seeking power and wealth. However, I’d argue that the division is a little starker in that Musk has delivered cars that drive and do stuff, and Ozy was a publication that reported to have traffic that did not. Musk, however, continually misleads people about the state of autonomous driving in Teslas and literally had someone dress up like a robot to pretend like Tesla was building a robot.

The issue with both of them - and this entire situation that Burneko is discussing - is that they were both rewarded not for being great businessmen or working hard but by some combination of luck and deceit. Galloway’s ideas around “50,000 shades of grey when you’re talking about the differences between being a visionary or fraud” is accurate, but also remarkably forgiving of the elite - it intimates that there is the existence of innocent lies, framing the visionary as a dreamer that, through their naivety and capacity to hope, misleads investors and customers. This must be a nice way to look at the world - claiming that “it’s the SEC’s job with mandatory disclosures to bring the shades of grey into sharper focus” rather than it being the job of the person who is lying, for example - where the blame is taken away from the beautiful startup founders and put on the shoulders of those taking a chance on them, which is fair in the sense of venture capital but not fair on those taking jobs with them, writing about them or buying their services.

Take this quote from Galloway:

Visionaries have to have some — and I know this is a strong word — sociopathic tendencies. They have to be able to make statements that are so outlandish and then go to sleep at night and not worry that they’re basically committing fraud. They have to captivate the markets. It used to be that CEOs would underpromise and overdeliver. That has switched in the last 20 years. Now, you have to over-promise and under-deliver while you raise a ton of capital. The difference between a visionary and a fraud isn’t even a blurry line, it’s a blurry house of mirrors.

There is absolutely no reason in the known universe that Galloway should be so forgiving of these entities. This is whitewashing gruesome acts - it is saying that the only way things can progress is through lying, then lying again, and keeping lying until something you lied about comes true. It has worked - but not for long - and it is a genuinely offensive thing to claim is essential to raising VC.

Let me be completely clear: there is a very clean line between visionary and fraudster, and that’s telling the truth about things you know and suggesting other things might be possible up to the reasonable level you can, supporting said suggestions with evidence. This is how many companies have raised money, it is how people write proposals, it is how many people do business - and the critical difference is that it is pretty obvious when you are lying, and that lies do not have to be a binary “this can never happen” to be a lie.

For example, one of the classic things that happens in PR proposals is the overpromise - for example, saying that you think you could get a client into the New York Times in month 1. While there are scenarios where that’s possible, the likelihood is next to zero - unless they have some very specific things (say, a $500 million investment round). Telling a company at a seed-stage that you’re confident you can do it when they raised $2m for their dog measurement app, while there is a theoretical possibility that you could potentially email a reporter on a perfect day in the perfect way as they worked on a dog measurement story, there is no reasonable grounds on which you could say this was a possibility without lying. Saying “there’s a chance” is a lie of omission - you are omitting how remote that chance is, and thus you are lying. Ozy reporting numbers that didn’t exist is lying. Elon Musk saying that in 2020 there could be 500,000 robotaxis by the end of 2020 based on some nebulous measurements? Probably lying too, though defenders would likely say he was “estimating.”

The reason that there is so much attention and lust for stories about those who have misled and defrauded their way to the top is that it helps people feel like they’re not crazy about the distinct unfairness of the world. We are raised on the idea that the world is this big yet conquerable space, where everybody - especially Americans - is on an equal footing, and it’s simply a case of working hard to get to where we want to. Nevertheless, we all are consistently reminded that this is absolutely not the case. Many people still beat this drum about the supposedly fair world, then unfairly judge young people for not simply working hard to get where they are.

When we see furious, endless takedowns of people like Ozy’s Carlos Watson, it’s equal parts gossip and catharsis. We love to hear about people messing up, but we also love to see these people get their just desserts, not because we think that this is an act of universal balance but because all of us knew, deep down, that the rich and successful didn’t get there on hard work, and many of them got there through lying. We are gaslit for years of our life by our peers, teachers, bosses and the media that our failures are simply related to not wanting it bad enough or working hard enough, but seeing these people having conned their way to the top is satisfying, if not a little depressing. It’s a chance to not feel as alone - that we’re not crazy, that the world isn’t actually a meritocracy, and that perhaps it isn’t our fault.

And sure, there may be times we haven’t worked hard enough, but what divides Elon Musk from someone else isn’t a lack of grit or moxie but not having pulled the right levers in the right places at the right time, though (as I’ve said) some combination of privilege or luck. To become Elon Musk - or someone like Elon Musk - likely requires you to be born at a different time, in a different way, and then get lucky, and yes, likely requires you to bulldoze people along the way.

The Big Lie Of Work

One of the (many) frustrations people have with Musk is not simply that he hasn’t “earned” what he has, but as Burneko intimates, but that one earning a billion dollars is a ridiculous metric - and that hundreds of millions (billions?) of people who worked (and work) harder than Musk can barely make ends meet. At the same time, we’re fed stories that the world works a certain heteronormative capitalist way and as a result will have a non-specific amount of success, as long as we do well at school, then go to college, then go to work, then we can buy a house and get married and have children.

This story is told because it is difficult to give anyone a clear-set description of what actually makes you successful that doesn’t make those telling you it uncomfortable about their success or depressed about their failures. Those who are successful - myself included! - have got there through some work, but also through a combination of privileges (paid-for college, loving parents that fostered my interests, good upbringing, an internet connection at home, a computer) and luck (family connection for internship in journalism that I was able to work for free because I lived at home, happened to meet the right people at the right time).

Though the truly loathsome hustle culture people will say that success comes from “opportunistic luck,” one still has to be put in the situations that luck appears in and have the means to take advantage of it. Their argument is that “everybody has some sort of luck,” and my argument is that even if that is the case, not everybody has the means to take advantage of said luck, or said luck is not something that is advantageous for success.

Nevertheless, we are fed a comfortable lie from those who are unaffected by it, or those who want to continue to believe that the world is simply made up of those who work harder and those who don’t. This is either done disingenuously or ignorantly, with the intent of telling people what they want to hear (that they are simply several bits of hard work from success) or simply misinforming people because facing the reality of “luck plus opportunity plus privilege” is just so painful.

Seriously, I believe that so much lies behind the pain of the truth that there is a very real possibility you will work until you’re in your 80s and still not have experienced happiness or “success” by the judgment of society. Those that succeed do so by knowing enough about certain things to get in the right room at the right time and say just about the right thing to get ahead, and those that do really well often do so because they were able to engineer enough scenarios to get a job, or make money, or what have you. While success may be possible through hard work, and there are those that have succeeded through hard work, the very nature of hard work is insufficient to be rich, wealthy, or shit, even upper-middle class.

The reason that so many people don’t see this is that there are enough myths of uncles or fathers or sisters or mothers who have worked hard and then come out on top, and plenty more of people who have just had stuff happen to them and don’t realize how much of that was luck, or privilege, or both. One can simply have lucky things happen to them and perceive it as only hard work, and thus perceive those who don’t “work hard” as lazy, because it isn’t obvious to them how many chances they were given and how their ability to take advantage of said chances was a chance in and of itself.

The result of all of this complaining on my side is that I think, slowly, young people are coming to the realization that this is the case. They know that just going to college is not enough, and that the masters of industry are not simply hard workers, but opportunists - which doesn’t always mean that they’ve had to take advantage of someone to do so (though in many cases they have, especially with billionaires). I’m also not being a techno-libertarian and suggesting the end of college, simply the end of the meritocracy and informing people that college isn’t really about preparing you for the working world.

I’ve rounded the bases on this before - in my discussion of remote work and management on the Atlantic as well as on this newsletter. Managers are the ultimate proof that the meritocracy doesn’t exist - an alarming chunk of society that doesn’t do much but continues to rise on the backs of those who do work.  Remote work is troubling for some managers and executives because it isn’t possible to pretend you’re working hard, which erodes your ability to enjoy the little lie you tell yourself about all the hard work you’ve done to get there. People are quitting their jobs because they realize that the thing they’ve been doing isn’t working, and the people they’re enriching aren’t enriching them.

This isn’t meant to be depressing, and I think there’s a lot to learn once you get out of the headspace that the world of business isn’t just working. The sad thing is that some people take that to mean that you now need to screw people over, and see every opportunity that you can succeed and make someone else fail as some sort of Darwinian economy - and they’re assholes. What it really means is that you have to be aware of the unfairnesses that people take advantage of that you don’t know about, and the ways in which your success has materialized - even if said success is “because I was able to write an email to someone based on reading their Twitter profile and they liked me because I knew about the sport they liked.”