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What Makes People 'Highly Successful', and Can it Be Learned?

As parents, one of our greatest wishes for our children is that they become successful adults. Most of us have very high hopes for our children, believing wholeheartedly in their exceptionality and ability to do and become anything their precocious little minds can fathom. Perhaps your child is the next J.K. Rowling, LeBron James, Steve Jobs, Oprah, or President of the United States.

Wondering what you can do to help them get there? Obviously a good education and ample opportunities will help – but what about that je ne sais quoi, that special quality we see in people who are destined for greatness?

Are children born with success written into their DNA, or can traits that breed success be taught?

The New York Times recently published an article based on the book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. The book is about how at different times in history, certain racial, cultural, and religious groups have been among America’s most financially successful.

Read the full NYT article here.

What causes this success and how can we as parents learn from it?

The article provides:

The good news is that it’s not some magic gene generating these groups’ disproportionate success. Nor is it some 5,000-year-old ‘education culture’ that only they have access to. Instead, their success is significantly propelled by three simple qualities open to anyone.

In spite of all their diversity (and often generations of adversity), successful cultural groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel their success. But you had better sit down for this, because as a parent these traits might confound you.

Here they are, the three traits known as the Triple Package:

1. Superiority Complex

The NYT article defines ‘superiority complex’ as a deep-seated belief in one’s exceptionality. While the term may seem arrogant or offensive at first, each of the successful groups possesses a deep-seated belief that it is unique and special.

For example, the Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people, which has helped them to endure centuries of anti-Semitism. The strength of their faith helped the Jewish people to persevere and rebuild their culture after the atrocities of the Holocaust.

As a parent, rather than viewing superiority as a belief that your child is better than someone else, think of it as the level of pride he or she takes in his own strength of will.

2. Insecurity

Insecurity is the belief that you, or what you’ve accomplished, isn’t good enough. Obviously that’s another trait we Americans cringe at the thought of. In our desperate quest to create high self-esteem in ourselves and our children, teaching insecurity seems ridiculous!

Besides, how can you simultaneously possess insecurity AND a superiority complex? The article argues:

It is precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control – the ability to resist temptation – and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.

3. Impulse Control

Impulse control, as stated above, is the ability to resist temptation. Think of someone you consider successful, and you’ll likely identify a very strong work ethic. This requires superior self-discipline and impulse control. Whether it be with exercise, eating habits, waking up early, not watching television, avoiding time-wasting activities, or turning down social events to study or work – each is a different form of impulse control.

For parents, impulse control in children seems like an oxymoron. But as kids grow and mature, one of the things we hope to instill in them is the ability to take a step back and consider the risks and benefits of their decisions before diving in headfirst. It’s a daunting task, to be sure.

The article explains that each of these three qualities by themselves would not be enough to produce success:

In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone, a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism (extreme self-denial). Only in combination do these qualities generate drive…[what is called] the ‘longing to rise.’

The Stanford Marshmallow Test

Back in the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began a series of experiments on 4 and 5 year old children. The short version is this: Mischel brought a child into a private room and placed a marshmallow in front of him or her. The child had a choice: he/she could either eat the marshmallow now, or wait until the professor returned and receive a second marshmallow. The goal was to test the children’s impulse control and track the effects of delayed gratification as it relates to an individual’s success in life.

Read about the study in more detail in this article by James Clear.

Follow-up studies were conducted on the subjects over a period of 40 years, yielding some surprising results:

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.

A duplicate study was conducted at the University of Rochester, this time dividing the children into two groups. The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences: for example, the researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised that upon his return, he would bring a larger box, but never did. The second group was exposed to reliable experiences: this time the researcher promised the larger box of crayons, and delivered on his promise.

James Clear wrote:

You can imagine the impact these experiences had on the marshmallow test. The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one.

Meanwhile, the children in the second group were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it, and 2) I have the capability to wait. As a result, the second group waited an average of four times longer than the first group.

In other words, the child’s ability to delay gratification and display self-control was not a predetermined trait, but rather was impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded them. In fact, the effects of the environment were almost instantaneous. Just a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences were enough to push the actions of each child in one direction or another.

Can these qualities be learned?

What makes people 'highly successful' and can it be learned?Every parent knows that children come hardwired with their own personalities, and that when it comes to molding, instructing and disciplining, we have to work within the perimeters of who they are intrinsically. That being said, with a heavy dose of grit, determination, and positive thinking, we can at least improve upon these traits of highly successful people in our lives and the lives of our children.