Success (Part 2)

This second blog on success address the question why everyone is not successful in life. Is it due to individual effort (or lack thereof) or systems that are designed to favor only a few?  Dr. Thomas Sowell, economics professor and Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explained this in his book Discrimination and Disparities.  Sowell noted that success is not evenly distributed among individuals, groups, or nations.  As multiple studies have shown this (from Duke’s Donald Horowitz and MIT’s Myron Weiner), the explanation for this “disparity” is clear.  There are multiple variables/factors at work to determine success.  In his book, Sowell lists these:

Parental education

Parental attention

Socioeconomic level


Birth order




Let’s examine the last four factors of success in Sowell’s book: birth order, intelligence, priorities, and resiliency.  The variable of birth order is one indicator of success.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, first-born children have a higher intelligence quotient (IQ) compared to their siblings.  In addition, there are more National Merit Scholarships given to first-born children than others.  This makes sense when we consider that the first-born has the sole attention of parents, enabling them greater interaction and development.

            However, IQ alone is not a sole indicator of success.  Dr. Lewis Terman of Stanford University discovered this clearly in a study that spanned 50 years.  He tracked 1,470 individuals with an IQ of over 140 points.  (An IQ of 140+ would put a person in the top 1%.)  After 50 years, Terman found that 20% of the participants were “disappointments.”  Success had eluded them, and their intelligence did not spare them this result.  Terman also saw the biggest factor was family background.  According to his study the highest achievers came from middle and upper-class families.   

Another factor in success is the priority people place on certain activities to advance their status in life.  According to the US Census Bureau, Asian Americans have the highest percentage of people with college degrees and the highest average income level.  This is no surprise when one considers the emphasis placed on grades and studying while in school.  The New York Times (2/26/12) reported that Asian Americans spent more hours in studying than either white or black students.

Finally, the concept of resiliency is a major factor in success.  Being determined to finish a project or achieve a goal despite obstacles is key to success.  Such resiliency or grit comes from a Growth Mindset.  Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University found that a Growth Mindset is opposite that of a Fixed Mindset.  When a challenge, obstacle of failure occurs, a person with a Fixed Mindset will think, “I cannot do this.”  On the other hand, one with a Growth Mindset will say, “I cannot do this—yet.”  The difference is the power of persevering despite setbacks and difficulties.  Dr. Angela Duckworth noted the same thing in Grit: The Power & Passion of Perseverance.  She found it did not matter if she studied West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee participants, or sales people.  Duckworth discovered those with resiliency were most likely to succeed, regardless of IQ or socio-economic level.

Sowell’s book Discrimination and Disparities covers much more than these eight factors in success.  But these are important to know and share, especially in today’s culture.  When failure is attributed to one variable, such as a system that is designed to keep people down, the research says something else.

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