Talent Alone May Not Be Enough
Reflecting on the scramble for elite networks
This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here:
Experimenting with a 1000-word limit to find a sweet spot 😬
As those on my close friends story on Instagram are already familiar with, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the abysmally low acceptance rates at elite schools and the smug most of such schools have whenever their acceptance rates fall to a ‘record low’.
It all started with an article from The Harvard Crimson I stumbled upon on Monday about the drop in acceptance rates across the top US universities. You see, for a school’s acceptance rate to fall, at least one of two things must happen: the school accepts fewer people, or the applicant pool gets larger.
In recent years, Stanford University has been widely recognised as the most selective university in the world with a lower acceptance rate than all the Ivies, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and Caltech. But that changed last year when Harvard’s acceptance rate fell to 4.9% and Stanford’s rose to 5.2%.
This year, Harvard’s acceptance rate fell even further to 3.4% as the university saw a sharp increase in the number of people who applied to join the undergrad Class of 2025. There’s currently no information yet on Stanford’s acceptance rate for its Class of 2025, but the school also experienced a “notable increase” in number of applications. So, we can expect its acceptance rate to also drop notably.
Why all this talk about universities and acceptance rates?
I recently watched the college admissions scandal documentary on Netflix and, since then, I’ve been thinking about why parents go to drastic lengths, using illegal methods and risking jail time, just to have their kids be a part of the 3-5% of students accepted at these top universities.
As the acceptance rates fell, the parents were more willing to shell out more cash to get their child into the school.
Why such persistence? What did the parents know that the children didn’t? That’s the question I’d been sitting with since I watched the documentary. The answer I settled on inspired the title of this piece: sometimes, talent just isn’t enough.
From the biographies I’ve read, I noticed a trend: most of the people who become influential or achieve great things in the capitalistic world we live in aren’t always the smartest or the most skilled. Rather, they’re always at least one of three kinds of people:
talented people who come from the right* class
talented people who go to the right schools
talented people who are plugged into the right circles;
* note that ‘right’, as used here, is subjective and open to interpretation.
Take Steve Jobs for example; he didn’t code or do any original designs. Yet, he built the world’s most valuable tech company. Part of that was due to his personality and intellect, but it was also because he was plugged into the right circle of people who could transform his ideas into real commercial products.
Another example, take Mark Zuckerberg. Would any school in the Ivy League or any investor in Silicon Valley have taken his collegiate social network idea seriously at the time if he had dropped out from a no-name university? I highly doubt it.
Yet another example, take the Kardashian-Jenner family. They currently have two billionaires in their family and are among the most famous people in the world, simply for being geniuses at marketing and sales. That’s their talent. But did they start from ground zero? No. Would they be as successful as they are today if their late patriarch wasn’t a millionaire attorney? Probably not.
We live in a society where your identity, your class, and/or your network will take you much further than your talent alone ever could.
That is what those parents who engaged in that college scandal understood—meritocracy is mostly a farce.
The reason they (and many others) try to shove their kids into the most elite schools is that they know that that’s one of the easiest ways to game the system. It’s a way to tick all the three boxes I mentioned earlier.
We may not able to dictate our identity or the social class we’re born into, but we can modify our network through our education, our profession, or our social life.
In a note I posted on my close friends story on Instagram, I wrote:
“…elite schools immerse you in the ‘right circles’ and bring you into close proximity with people from the ‘right class’. So, by association, you fling open all the doors to economic advancement that may otherwise have stayed shut.”
That’s obviously not a fact; just my opinion. But it’s not only about elite schools, it’s also about elite companies.
Why do you think people fight to work for the very top companies? High pay of course, but it’s also about the network. It’s about plugging into the ‘right circles’.
The calibre of people you meet while working at a top company could change your life forever. We know that. They could be your next cofounder, your future investor, or your lifelong mentor who’ll help you build your career.
Your network can open doors that your background or your talent may never allow you to even see. That’s a truth I’ve discovered over the past few years.
Growing up, my mother taught me to work hard and get really good at whatever it is that I do. She believed in a meritocratic world where talent is destiny. In her world, success was always directly proportional to effort.
But I’ve come to learn that the world doesn’t really work that way. The world is quasi-meritocratic at best. It’s thoroughly partial, and considers talent cheap.
I’ve also learnt that, most times, in spite of how grand our talents may be, we often go only as far as our networks can propel us.
In my case, most of the things I’ve achieved in the past few years have been just as much a result of my network as they’ve been a result of my talent.
Graduating at the top of my class would not have been possible without my friends who are mostly academics themselves. They helped review my work and point out glaring flaws and areas of improvement that I certainly would’ve missed without their guidance.
Getting into the business schools at Stanford and Harvard would not have been possible without my mentors, a good number of whom are Stanford MBAs and Harvard MBAs. They proofread my essays, conducted mock interviews for me, and provided me with constructive criticism that helped me put my best foot forward.
Basically, my talent alone would not have gotten me to where I am now. I also know that my talent alone won’t take me to where I’m trying to get to.
That’s why I focus just as much on building the quality and relevance of my network as I do on developing my skills and expanding my mind.
It is that understanding that inspires tweets like this:
For you reading this, I want to make something clear: you don’t need to risk jail time like those parents in the college scandal who were bending the rules in order to get their kids into top schools, which just keep getting more selective.
You don’t need a network from an elite school or a top job to belong to a circle that can take you places that your wallet or your talent may not be able to.
Instead, what you need are people who, through their words, actions, or personal achievements, push you to be better and to do more. You also need jobs or projects that challenge you and allow you to work on things that you care about, while bringing you closer to people who are committed to your growth.
That’s what’s important—a network of people who recognise, stretch, and multiply your talents. That’s often what makes all the difference in the journey towards success; whatever that means for you.
The rest is really just a cherry on top.
Currently reading 📖
Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius – Ryan Holiday & Stephen Hanselman
A song I’ve been playing on repeat this week 🎶
Go to Town – Doja Cat
An article that got me thinking 📜
China’s Tech Landscape: A Primer - Hermione Dace (Tony Blair Institute)
Wow! This is such an insightful read. Thank you Arinze!
There were too many gems today!!
You are actually by definition the gift that keeps on giving!