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The Psychology Behind Success in Life

Updated on May 25, 2020
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Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

Introduction

Modern society is torn between blaming everything on nature or nurture. Reality is a messy mix of both. At the same time, various pundits claim to find a new key to success. It may be a new concept like EQ or a rebranding of a classic term. This is then followed by an offer to teach it to you or enhance it via some program or push for some political program they’ve always supported. Let’s strip away the hype and look at the scientifically proven psychological concepts tied to greater odds of success. We’ll also discuss the solutions for making up for your own shortcomings so you can do better in life.

Intelligence

Intelligence is the most heavily studied and verified trait in psychology. If you deny it is real or delegitimize it, you can throw every other concept in psychology and sociology out the window. Intelligence as measured by IQ tests and exams like the SAT are correlated to nearly every positive life outcome. It has a direct correlation to one’s grades, though it isn’t perfect. It has a strong correlation to one’s educational and economic success. This doesn’t mean you can’t make bad choices or fail to get the same opportunities as others. For example, geniuses born into the working class are far less likely to go to college than a genius born to two college educated middle-class parents. And there’s nothing to prevent the person capable of becoming a doctor from becoming a starving artist instead.

We enjoy a meritocratic society by historic standards. It is very rare to find the undeserving poor, the brilliant child denied an education. Many programs and scholarships exist to help them do just that. Yet the educated elite finds itself with a difficult conundrum. If success is tied to innate characteristics like intelligence and the economic system no longer offers the less intelligent the ability to earn a good living on average, are we shifting to a caste system of sorts? The solution for some is to argue for the tabula rasa theory, suggesting everyone is capable of graduating from medical school. This is as much wishful thinking as saying everyone is a potentially great artist. There is a grain of truth to this. If you discourage creativity, you’ll kill that spark. But we need to be honest, or else we’re doing a disservice. Telling kids to waste years trying to get into professional sports, music or graduate school when they aren’t prevents them from finding career paths that are a match for their abilities.

On the flipside, highly educated elites argue that their education equals moral superiority and greater wisdom. Intelligence is not a measure of one’s moral wealth, and one can argue that graduate programs often strip away wisdom. This even leads to the insanely unfair situation where those with a doctorate in the liberal arts is held up as more qualified to hold positions of power than equally intelligent people with bachelor’s degrees in business and engineering, though the former has never worked outside of academia. It is irrational to argue that someone is magically more intelligent and capable of making decisions thanks to the award of an MBA. And the degrees mean nothing if you don’t do anything with it.

Dr. Jordan Peterson - IQ and The Job Market

Conscientiousness or Grit

Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits. It is at the same tier as openness, agreeableness, extroversion, and neuroticism. Grit is a rebranding of the personality trait conscientiousness. It is a measure of how detail-oriented someone is and their dedication to seeing things through.

Conscientiousness and grit is the second most important factor in determining someone’s odds for success. The classic example is the genius who does nothing with their abilities. What separates them from the successful person? Outside of the highly competitive arts where random connections and events propel one to fame, it is grit. It is grit that drives the person to send 500 manuscripts until one is accepted. Alternatively, the person who gives up playing the piano because they can’t play advanced pieces almost instantly proves that you will fail if you don’t invest the effort required to get good. Innate ability only speeds up that process.

More importantly, grit can make up for innate ability in many cases. For example, grit leads the B student to study long and hard and get a good grade on an important exam when the theoretically smarter student does worse because they didn’t put in the effort. Grit is what leads people to invest massive amounts of time and effort into a business. This is what led many B and C students to become millionaires next door, the working-class small business owners who have a higher net worth than many Ivy League graduates.

Grit and conscientiousness are personality traits, but there are steps you can take to improve your performance. For example, having an overarching vision that you’re emotionally invested in can drive the free spirit to live by a budget, save and invest. They won’t have the patience for creating highly detailed budgets. Yet the dream of being free of debt collectors and financially secure could motivate them to set up a 401K they contribute to every month. This is where “grit” makes a massive difference in life outcomes. It is the person who invests regularly every month for years who becomes a millionaire, not the person who picked a winning penny stock. And anyone with the “grit” to invest regularly over a lifetime can become a millionaire before retirement.

Nor are the benefits of “grit” limited to finances. It is the continual effort invested in exercise and proper diet that lead to good health is one’s later years. Investing in relationships can result in happy marriages and life-long friendships.

Source

Introversion

It is possible that the greater overall success rate for introverts is indirectly due to the impact their personality has on behavior. If you aren’t distracted by casual social interactions, you’re more likely to do the in-depth reading for class and study for that exam. Success is less likely to be measured by the number of people you met and metrics like performance at work. Thus the person puts in the effort to succeed. On the flipside, extroversion is unrelated to general success in life. Unfortunately, normal is defined by the majority, and introverts are in the minority. The bias in favor of extroversion is so strong that introverts are demonized as mentally ill and high-energy socializing is mistaken for leadership ability.

Introverts can’t change their personality, nor should they be expected to do so. However, they can take steps to succeed in social interactions and in life in general. Invest the time to become a subject matter expert. Then you can speak confidently as the expert, and you’ll be confident as the speaker at a conference or providing training to your work group. Choosing to risk rejection and embarrassment at mistakes as you improve your public speaking skills will eventually result in success. Persevering through the learning curve until you’re good can give you the confidence to engage with others. This is yet another case where grit and vision together offset one’s supposedly innate characteristics.

Summary

No one is born to success, though psychological traits we’re born with can increase the odds. The choices we make day after day can lead to success. And conscious effort and perseverance can make up for shortcomings in one's innate personality.

© 2020 Tamara Wilhite

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