Thursday, February 13, 2014

The secret of their success

In her latest Financial Times column, Lucy Kellaway reports a casual but interesting observation on the apparently rather unspectacular careers of typical Etonians, and then – in gloriously unscientific and anecdotal terms – tries to explain this purported phenomenon.

A few weeks ago her husband attended an Eton College reunion for leavers of 1974.

"About 150 men crowded into the 15th-century chapel to belt out a quick 'Praise my Soul the King of Heaven' before settling down to eat, drink and reminiscence about schoolboy pranks while quietly trying to work out who had done best in the 40 years since then."

Kellaway's husband made two observations: one, how good they all looked; two, how relatively undistinguished their careers had turned out to be ("apart from one senior politician and one former newspaper editor"). They were all well-off but generally unremarkable, professionally speaking, which seemed surprising given their start in life.

But what about the inconvenient fact that the current UK Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all Etonians?

"I have never met David Cameron," writes Kellaway. "But I know Archbishop Justin Welby and Mayor Boris Johnson well enough to guess that neither is a stranger to insecurity. Both, too, have the capacity to work like dogs."

Kellaway references here The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld which purports to show why certain groups (specifically Jews, Mormons and Chinese) do so much better than other groups in the US. The secret of their success, apparently, is a combination of a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.

The trouble with most Etonians is that they lack a sense of insecurity, it seems.

For good measure, Kellaway dismisses the effectiveness of passion, optimism, networking, resilience and life-long learning, and remarks on the "surprising success" of bereaved dyslexics.

Comfortingly, however, she notes that successful people are rarely (as she puts it) good eggs.

"Superior people are alienating; insecure people are exhausting. People who are both are doubly unbearable, especially when you take into account all the dissembling they usually do to mask both traits."

This is getting complicated, but let me put in my own two pennies' worth, my own speculative hypothesis: that English men and woman who attended élite schools (like Boris Johnson and, presumably, Lucy Kellaway) are more likely to set a higher priority on masking their sense of superiority than on masking their sense of insecurity (if they have one).

Regarding successful Americans, I have no strong intuitions and will resist the temptation to make any generalizations.