Success: The Rest of the Story

In his fascinating new book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case that people owe their success to a lot more than IQ.  He reviews data and offers convincing cases to show that above an IQ in the neighborhood of 110-115, IQ fails as a predictor of success in a career.  In other words, you need to be smart enough to handle the cognitive complexity of the information you need for a given role or job, be it engineering, law, medicine, or business. That’s the IQ around 115. But after reaching that threshold of “smart enough,” your intellect makes little difference.That explains why, when Harvard’s Howard Gardner reviewed longitudinal data that follows people from their early years into their career, he concluded that IQ alone predicts just 6 to 10 percent of career success. That leaves lots of room for other factors, like luck and circumstance. Gladwell makes the case for these very factors, arguing that one’s cultural and family background offer habits and outlooks that, given fortunate historical circumstances, can make some people highly successful.But there’s more to the story.

Gladwell illustrates the case for circumstance and luck with fascinating tidbits about success, like the fact that Bill Gates and Bill Joy, two titans of the computing industry, just happened to be lucky in getting access to some of the earliest computers around in a day when almost no one had even seen one – and then were able to practice thousands of hours writing computer code starting in their teen years, and so get a jump on the fledgling software industry.

Or the fact that an entire generation of Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century was able to bring business and craftsmen’s skills they had mastered in Europe into entrepreneurial success in America. Their industrious and enterprising habits then became a model that benefited their children, some of who were to become lawyers. Those who happened to be born around 1930 and had easy access to good schooling because their generation had relatively few children; on entering a career in law, many were turned down by the most prestigious law firms of their day, but then went on to become enormously successful because they were the first to get involved in litigation for corporate takeovers – a business those other, more haughty law firms disdained.

There’s little doubt that the mix of such lucky circumstance and personal backgrounds matter for success. But there’s more to the story. A maxim of social science tells us that in some respects, every person is like every other person, like some other people, and like no other person.  Gladwell has unpacked the middle range of factors, the ways certain groups or cohorts experience unique circumstances that can, with a bit of circumstantial luck, make them hugely successful.

But here’s where the rest of the story starts. Gladwell says nothing about individual differences within those groups or cohorts – why only some in that fortunate group go on to great success. He does not raise the next set of questions like: Why didn’t all the members of the school club that gave the young Bill Gates that early access to a computer become billionaires like him? Or why didn’t all the Jewish lawyers born in 1930 become huge successes like the handful of cases Gladwell focuses on?

Here a good part of the answer no doubt can be found in which individuals among those groups has a higher level of competencies like adaptability and initiative, the drive to continually improve performance, and empathy skills like sensing how another person thinks or feels. Such abilities give a person the drive to achieve, the initiative and the interpersonal effectiveness that success in a field like software (drive and initiative) and law (add in interpersonal effectiveness) require.

A massive amount of data collected by companies on their own people suggests that such personal abilities are the secret ingredient in success over and above those Gladwell describes so ably. The data I’m referring to derives from “competence modeling,” in which companies systematically analyze the abilities found in their stars (those in the top ten percent of performance by whatever metric makes sense for that specific job or role) but not found in counterparts who are mediocre.  A goodly amount of these abilities – like initiative, the drive to achieve, and empathy — are in the emotional intelligence domain. Competence studies show that the higher a person goes up the organizational ladder, the more prominent the role these personal abilities play in performance. In other words, the more successful someone is, the greater the contribution of this skill set to his or her triumph.

This is good news for anyone who would like to see success in life shared widely, rather than given to a lucky few who happen to be born into a fortunate, charmed set of circumstances. One way to give every child a greater chance for career success – and a good life in general – would be to have curricula in social and emotional learning (see a standard part of schooling. Data shows that children who are systematically taught social and emotional skills like how to manage their distressing emotions better, empathize and collaborate do better: have fewer problems like substance abuse and violence, like school more and pay more attention in class – and score significantly better (11%, on average) on academic achievement test scores.

The best news: the benefits are greatest in those schools where children need this boost the most, like those from the poorest families. That’s the rest of the story of success.



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