What makes a person successful? How does he get that way? There are, of course, millions of different factors that contribute to success. However, we can safely cut their number down by quite a lot, and still retain a reasonably comprehensive explanation. In fact, there are just two things that probably account for a majority of success in today’s world: your parents, and your social skills. These two things alone can be used to predict success reasonably accurately.
To be more specific, first, let’s define “success”. Most people have a reasonably clear idea of what “success” means, but let us be clear that “success” does not mean “happiness”; indeed, many people who attain success are unhappy, and many more who do not attain success are happy. Instead, success simply means “high achievement” or “being at the top”. The measure of success, of high achievement, is difficult to pin down, because it varies quite a lot between fields. A successful scientist is one who gets a Nobel Prize, or a tenured professorship at MIT. A successful politician is one who gets elected President, or Senator. A successful businessman is one who starts with a small company and grows it into a publicly-held, billion-dollar firm. These things all require very different sets of skills. Nevertheless, we can recognize that these people, as different as they are, are all “successful” in some broader sense.
What do we mean by “parents”? Again, there are so many different ways of measuring people that, to be accurate, we must simply state that people with “good” parents are more likely to be successful, with the understanding that there are many different components of “good”. Intelligence matters- smarts are important in today’s world, and IQ has been shown to be 60-80% heritable. Wealth matters- a large fraction of the Fortune 500 either inherited their wealth, or used their parent’s wealth as capital to start and grow their businesses. Connections matter- it would have been extremely unlikely for George W. Bush to get elected Governor of Texas, if his father hadn’t been the President. National origin matters; there is still plenty of racism in today’s society. Culture matters. And so on.
Finally, what do we mean by “social skills”? “Social skills” will be defined here as “manipulating your body in very precise ways, to create positive emotions in others”. It is important to distinguish social skills from “niceness”; niceness, or the lack of it, is probably a factor in success, but it almost certainly isn’t as important as social skills are. Social skills includes the smooth, slick talk of the car salesman as he convinces you to pay a big premium on a Mercedes. Social skills also includes the facial expressions and body language of an actor, the muscle control of a dancer, and the fine-tuned voice of a singer.
Note that the composer, the person who writes the music that the singer sings, is *not* using social skills, but rather, artistic creativity. The decline of the composer is a useful case study of the increasing importance of social skills, relative to artistic creativity, in our society. Mozart and Beethoven didn’t perform their music themselves- indeed, they couldn’t have, since a symphony requires dozens of instruments. However, virtually all famous modern musicians, like Britney Spears, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, *do* perform their music themselves, utilizing their superb social skills to get a competitive edge.
Now that our terms are defined, let us discuss how these two factors can be used to predict a person’s success. It is not as simple as “people who have great parents and great social skills win”, because different people work in different fields, and different fields require different skills. What we can do is lay out all fields of human endeavour on a continuum, based on how much success matters relative to social skills. At one end of the continuum is the hard sciences, where social skills matter very little (indeed, many scientists are famously socially inept). And at the other end of the continuum is entertainment, where who your parents were is relatively unimportant. In between are business, which is more towards the science end, and politics, which is more towards the entertainment end.
Getting out there and looking at the data, most available references seem to confirm this hypothesis quite nicely. If one looks at the famous scientists, a great majority of them seem to have had famous, wealthy, or very intelligent parents. Albert Einstein’s father was a small business owner, child math prodigy and electrical engineer. Stephen Hawking’s father was a research biologist. Marie Curie’s father taught mathematics and physics, before becoming a high school principal (her mother also operated a prestigious boarding school). Galileo’s father was a famous musician, and helped to define the style of the Baroque musical period. And Charles Darwin’s father was a medical doctor from an influential family, whose father (Charles’ grandfather) was himself a biologist who made large contributions to the theory of evolution.
If one looks at the histories of famous, wealthy businessmen, one finds that a good majority had great parents. Bill Gates’s father was a name partner in the largest law firm in Seattle, Preston, Gates & Ellis. Warren Buffett’s father was a congressman. Michael Dell got half of a million dollars from his family to help start his computer company when he was still in college. Both of Larry Page’s parents were computer science professors. And Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch, was himself a very wealthy media magnate and newspaper owner.
What about the flip side of the coin- people who don’t have smart, successful, famous or wealthy parents? Most orphans would certainly qualify. And if one looks at a list of famous orphans, one finds mostly people in fields requiring great social skills- politics and entertainment. Alexander Hamilton, US founding father and first Secretary of the Treasury, was an orphan. Two US Presidents and one First Lady were orphans. Malcolm X was an orphan. On the entertainment side, so were Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles. However, very few businessmen, and even fewer scientists, were orphans; to my knowledge, not a single orphan has ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine or Economics.
People with “rags to riches” stories also fall into this pattern. The famous entertainers Dolly Parton, Jim Carrey, Cher, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, and Ozzy Osbourne have all been described as going from “rags to riches”. So have the politicians Bill Clinton and Benjamin Franklin. However, relatively few businessmen, and even fewer scientists, fall into this category.
What about the things that are “supposed” to make you successful, other than social skills or parents? As it turns out, many of them correlate strongly with social skills, or parents, or both. We have already mentioned how 60-80% of IQ is inherited. Going to a prestigious college is also an important factor, but the admissions systems of prestigious colleges are openly and heavily biased towards those with successful families (through legacy admissions and prep schools), and those with great social skills (through alumni interviews). Good internships are important, but many prestigious internships are unpaid, with the goal of shutting out the children of poor and middle-class parents, who can’t afford to pay living expenses out-of-pocket. So, it’s not that these things don’t matter, it’s just that the chance of getting them without great social skills and without great parents is low.