Q &A

Rotman Management Magazine - - QUESTIONS FOR - In­ter­view by Karen Christensen

A psy­chol­o­gist and hu­man cap­i­tal ex­pert de­scribes what it takes to be­come a mem­ber of the global elite.

Your blog for Psy­chol­ogy To­day is called Find­ing the Next Ein­stein. De­scribe your quest.

I wanted to ex­plore the idea that the quest for another Ein­stein — some­one who would for­ever al­ter our so­ci­ety in the way that he did — is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant, be­cause of the po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions. Through my blog, I con­nect the latest find­ings in the fields of Psy­chol­ogy and Ed­u­ca­tion to what is go­ing on in the world. I also ad­vo­cate for gifted kids — es­pe­cially fi­nan­cially-dis­ad­van­taged ones — who, to a large de­gree, are ig­nored in the Amer­i­can school sys­tem.

I’m con­tin­u­ally amazed at how the study of tal­ent crosses so many bound­aries. For ex­am­ple, my re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with David Ep­stein, au­thor of The Sports Gene, high­lights the amaz­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween tal­ent de­vel­op­ment in sports and in the realms of ed­u­ca­tion and work. I credit my blog­ging and writ­ing with help­ing me con­nect and learn from groups well out­side of academia, es­pe­cially from the busi­ness world. So much in­cred­i­ble think­ing and in­no­va­tion oc­curs out­side of each nar­row dis­ci­pline.

In your re­search you re­cently in­ves­ti­gated, ‘Who be­comes a mem­ber of the global elite?’ What were your key find­ings?

I fo­cused on three groups of peo­ple: bil­lion­aires, the most pow­er­ful peo­ple ac­cord­ing to Forbes mag­a­zine, and World

Eco­nomic Fo­rum at­ten­dees. This most re­cent pa­per built on my pre­vi­ous work on the U.S. elite, which looked at bil­lion­aires, For­tune 500 CEOS, fed­eral judges, sen­a­tors, and House mem­bers, and ex­panded the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to global elite groups. My sam­ple in­cluded over 4,000 peo­ple, and my goal was to de­ter­mine the de­gree to which ed­u­ca­tional selec­tiv­ity and brain­power fac­tored in the back­grounds of peo­ple who have at­tained po­si­tions of lead­er­ship in so­ci­ety.

One key find­ing was that the peo­ple who con­trol our so­ci­ety are ex­tremely smart, and many of them went to elite schools all over the world. Within the U.S., for ex­am­ple, in­di­vid­u­als in the top 1% with re­spect to abil­ity were highly over-rep­re­sented at 45 times base-rate ex­pec­ta­tions among bil­lion­aires, 56 times among pow­er­ful fe­males, 85 times among pow­er­ful males, and 65 times among Davos par­tic­i­pants. And over­all, even within self-made bil­lion­aires and For­tune 500 CEOS, higher ed­u­ca­tion and brain­power was con­nected to higher wealth and com­pen­sa­tion.

These find­ings in­di­cate many things, but I’ll just high­light a cou­ple of them here. We still see news sto­ries glam­our­iz­ing col­lege dropouts who end up highly suc­cess­ful—with stand­outs like Bill Gates and Mark Zucker­berg. But what these ar­ti­cles tend to leave out is that Gates and Zucker­berg had al­ready been ac­cepted to and at­tended Har­vard, so they had ac­cess to those net­works. In ad­di­tion, it’s not clear whether per­sonal traits such as their phe­nom­e­nal brain­power and per­sonal drive — which ex­isted well be­fore they started col­lege — were the key rea­son they be­came so suc­cess­ful. So, on the one hand, you have peo­ple like Peter Thiel say­ing ‘col­lege is not that im­por­tant’, but on the other hand, it turns out that Thiel him­self — who has more than one Stan­ford de­gree — as well as the ma­jor­ity of the global elite at­tended highly se­lec­tive schools. At least for the peo­ple who cur­rently con­trol and lead the world, an elite col­lege ed­u­ca­tion seems very likely to have been a part of their tra­jec­to­ries. Maybe this will change in the fu­ture, but this data should give pause to any­one who wants to join the global elite who thinks not go­ing to col­lege is a good idea.

When a tiny hand­ful of se­lect peo­ple con­trol a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the world’s money and power, that is some­thing worth deeply think­ing about. For ex­am­ple, Gates has a grand plan to im­prove our world, Zucker­berg wants to con­nect the en­tire globe to the In­ter­net, Elon Musk wants to cre­ate a Mar­tian colony of 80,000 peo­ple, Larry Page has huge am­bi­tions for Google that will likely dic­tate our fu­ture, and Jeff Be­zos bought The Washington Post, owns the store that sells ev­ery­thing, wants to ex­plore space, and has dreams of sav­ing hu­man­ity. The de­ci­sions these peo­ple are mak­ing will in­flu­ence all of us, for bet­ter or for worse.

Were there dif­fer­ences be­tween the men and women you stud­ied?

Your read­ers won’t be sur­prised to hear that fe­males were un­der-rep­re­sented among the global elite groups: the Davos ra­tio of males to fe­males was 5.4 to 1; for bil­lion­aires it was 9.4 to 1; for CEOS it was 9.6 to 1; for pow­er­ful peo­ple it ranged from 7.2 and 13.2 to 1; and for self-made bil­lion­aires it was 47.7 to 1. In my ear­lier study of For­tune 500 CEOS, fe­males had higher ed­u­ca­tional selec­tiv­ity and brain­power than their male coun­ter­parts, which I found fas­ci­nat­ing, be­cause it sug­gests that fe­male CEOS have to be even more out­stand­ing to reach the top of a For­tune 500 com­pany.

Amongst bil­lion­aires and Davos par­tic­i­pants, what were the most pop­u­lar col­lege ma­jors?

Over­all, the most pop­u­lar ma­jor was busi­ness, in­clud­ing Eco­nom­ics, Ac­count­ing and at­tend­ing an MBA pro­gram. For the bil­lion­aires and Davos group, over half of the in­di­vid­u­als ma­jored in busi­ness. How­ever, 29.9 per cent of the

bil­lion­aires and 23.8 per cent of Davos at­ten­dees ma­jored in Science, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics (STEM). In her book Plu­to­crats, Chrys­tia Free­land dis­cusses what she calls ‘the rise of the al­pha geeks’, or those who have a fa­cil­ity with num­bers and a STEM back­ground in­creas­ingly join­ing the ranks of the su­per rich. This ap­pears to be con­firmed by my data. It also shows that if you want to be rich and pow­er­ful, ma­jor­ing in ei­ther STEM or busi­ness will not hurt your chances.

You also looked at whether ed­u­ca­tion and cog­ni­tive abil­ity vary by coun­try and sec­tor. What did you find?

For coun­try dif­fer­ences, within bil­lion­aires, Canada, the U.S., and In­dia had a high per­cent­age of peo­ple who went to elite schools, whereas the op­po­site was true for Tai­wan, Rus­sia and China. Within Davos at­ten­dees, Mexico, Korea and the U.S. had the high­est per­cent­age of elite school grad­u­ates, with Rus­sia, France and the U.A.E. hav­ing the least, and Canada was also above av­er­age. Ed­u­ca­tional selec­tiv­ity and brain­power re­ally seems to mat­ter in the U.S. and Canada.

For sec­tor dif­fer­ences, within bil­lion­aires, the realms of tech­nol­ogy and in­vest­ing had the high­est per­cent­age of elite school grad­u­ates, whereas fash­ion and re­tail, media and real es­tate had the low­est. Within Davos at­ten­dees, academia had the high­est ed­u­ca­tion and brain­power, fol­lowed by in­vest­ing and re­search in­sti­tutes, whereas in­sur­ance, fash­ion and re­tail, and trans­porta­tion had the low­est. In gen­eral, the tech­nol­ogy, in­vest­ing and aca­demic sec­tors tend to se­lect very heav­ily based on where you went to school and how smart you are.

What is an ‘in­tel­lec­tual out­lier’, and what role do they play in or­ga­ni­za­tions (and so­ci­ety)?

Mal­colm Glad­well pop­u­lar­ized the term ‘out­liers’ in his book of the same name, in which he down­played the role of in­tel­lec­tual tal­ent in the story of suc­cess. My work — along with that of my col­leagues — has doc­u­mented the op­po­site. Not only do in­tel­lec­tu­ally-tal­ented kids end up as very suc­cess­ful adults, as doc­u­mented by David Lu­bin­ski and Camilla Ben­bow in their lon­gi­tu­di­nal “Study of Math­e­mat­i­cally Pre­co­cious Youth”, but those adults who make up the global elite of our so­ci­ety are, to a large de­gree, quite in­tel- lec­tu­ally tal­ented, as my re­search in­di­cates.

For ex­am­ple, Jeff Be­zos scored highly on a cog­ni­tive abil­ity test at age 8, Mark Zucker­berg and Sergey Brin both scored highly on the SAT at age 12, and Bill Gates aced the SAT in high school. Elon Musk taught him­self cod­ing and sold his first pro­gram at age 12, Jack Dorsey wrote open source soft­ware at age 14 that is still used by taxi com­pa­nies to­day, and Michael Dell learned to code in ju­nior high and at age 8, ap­plied to take the high school equiv­a­lency exam. Then there’s Sean Parker, who was crunch­ing code on com­put­ers by age 7.

These ex­am­ples are not just lim­ited to the tech sec­tor. My re­search shows that the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the world — Davos at­ten­dees, bil­lion­aires, CEOS, judges, aca­demics, media, mem­bers of gov­ern­ment, and other in­flu­en­tial elite groups — are, to a large de­gree, in­tel­lec­tual out­liers. Fur­ther­more, with the in­creas­ing in­flu­ence of tech­nol­ogy on so­ci­ety, the power of in­tel­lec­tual tal­ent is be­ing am­pli­fied. Just con­sider the reach of Ama­zon, Google, Face­book, Twit­ter, Mi­crosoft, Tesla, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, and so many other or­ga­ni­za­tions. In part, my re­search is aimed at study­ing these in­tel­lec­tual out­liers and their im­pact on so­ci­ety. In­flu­en­tial in­ven­tions and ideas come from the minds of ex­tremely smart peo­ple, and that’s why in­vest­ing in tal­ented young stu­dents is crit­i­cal to our fu­ture.

Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg might have dropped out of Har­vard, but he had ac­cess to its valu­able net­works.

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