|Nicholas Lemann has a theory about
the paths to success in American society. He introduced this
theory back in the mid-90s with articles in The
Atlantic and Time
Magazine. I found his theory so interesting that I coded up a Talent, Lifer, Mandarin
The basic idea is that there are three typical paths to success in American society.
The Talent path is the one taken by entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, actors, musicians, writers, and anyone else who tries to succeed based on their individual abilities rather than by joining a large organization or obtaining formal credentials. Talents tend to be risk-takers and optimists and often they have big egos. Anyone who's gone to Hollywood to break into the film industry or quit a secure job to start their own company is likely a Talent. It's the most characteristically American of the three paths.
The Lifer path is the one created by large corporations and government agencies in the mid-20th century. Lifers join large organizations and are either content in their positions or try to rise through the ranks. Lifers tend to be risk-averse and place a high priority on things like job security and retirement plans. The civil service and the military are classic Lifer organizations, as are companies like IBM and General Motors.
The Mandarin path was created by the widespread adoption of the SAT for college admission. Lemann writes about the history of the SAT in detail in his book The Big Test. The Mandarin path is based on academic ability and formal credentials, such as college degrees, graduate degrees, medical degrees, and law degrees. Mandarins succeed based on their ability to get into good colleges (grad schools/med schools/law schools), get their degrees, and get hired for positions that require those degrees. Mandarins tend to dominate academia, think tanks, and management consulting as well as the medical and legal profesions.
Talents tend to value individuality and boldness. Lifers tend to value loyalty and caution. Mandarins tend to value intelligence and education.
This theory cuts across traditional boundaries of career fields. The rock star is a Talent, but so is the engineer who forms a startup company to market his invention. Soldiers can be Lifers but so can social workers. Mandarins may teach postmodernism in English departments or serve as highly-paid business consultants with MBAs.
It also cuts across political lines. The Talent path tends to attract people with extreme views. Michael Moore is a Talent, but so is Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken are both pure Talents in the sense that they have no formal training in politics, but are blessed with the ability to take an attitude and a microphone and turn those into a lucrative career.
Lifers tend to be conservative in the literal (not right-wing) sense. They tend to be averse to radical change in any direction. A couple generations ago, Lifers were more optimistic -- the Organization Men (typically) who believed, "Be loyal to your company, and your company will be loyal to you." In today's era of downsizing and offshoring, the Lifer mood seems much more cynical.
Today, academic Mandarins tend to be predominantly liberal, though conservative and libertarian Mandarins make a good living at places like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and a wide range of management consulting firms. The difference between Mandarin and Talent political figures is that Mandarins tend to focus on ideas and policies while Talents are as much media personalities as political thinkers. Noam Chomsky and Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve) are both famous and controversial Mandarins -- but if you passed them on the street you probably wouldn't know who they were. If Michael Moore and Ann Coulter walked by, you would notice. Camille Paglia is a good example of someone who, despite being an academic, is temperamentally pure Talent rather than Mandarin.
Like any theory, this oversimplies some things, and I wouldn't claim that these are the only three paths to success in America or anywhere else. However, there are aspects of his theory that ring very true in my experiences in academia, government, and the private sector.
My father is a university professor, and I grew up in a college town, so I was used to being immersed in Mandarin values -- intelligence, education, hard work, the importance of formal credentials. But when I reached graduate school and started working on my Ph.D., I became frustrated with the emphasis on theory and academic politics. I just wanted to build cool things and advance the state of the art in technology. I didn't want to worry about what my academic peers thought was intellectually fashionable research.
So I went to work at a government lab in Washington, DC, and I was suddenly surrounded by Lifers. I had never before met so many people in their 30s who were counting the years until retirement. Coming from Silicon Valley, where people throw themselves into their work without reservation, I was stuck by how many DC civil servants just didn't want to talk about their jobs. The Lifer attitude was that a job was just a job, and the civil service attitude was, "At least we aren't going to be fired in the next recession." The bureaucracy, fatalism, and general sense of professional futility drove me crazy.
So I moved to Boston to join a small MIT-spinoff company whose official mission statement was: "Build Cool Things, Make Money, Have Fun, Change the World". And suddenly I felt at home. Sure the offices were in a ratty strip mall (since moved to a nice suburban office park); people worked crazy hours to meet deadlines, and in the early days, the economic survival of the company constantly tottered on the edge of a cliff -- but it was fun and exciting, and I was free to be creative, invent cool things, and get things done without going through a huge bureaucracy.
It's a Talent company, and it's the first place I've worked where I didn't feel like clawing my way out after two months. I've worked at this Boston-based company for six years and that's the longest I've lived in the same city since 1984.