This American Life: Personality Matters for Life Success


SuccessI recently listened to a “This American Life” podcast in which the host, Ira Glass, posed fundamental questions about what kids should learn in school and what really matters when it comes to success later in life.

During the show, James Heckman (a Nobel Prize winning economist) argued that qualities other than IQ (i.e., personality characteristics) are equally important in predicting who will be successful in life and who won’t. Heckman became a huge proponent of this viewpoint, bringing together neuroscientists, economists, educators, and psychologists each year to discuss these ideas, after conducting a study that convinced him IQ wasn’t all that mattered.

In this study, Heckman looked at three groups of students:
1. Those who graduated high school
2. Those who dropped out but obtained a GED
3. Those who dropped out and did not obtain a GED.
He followed these people into adulthood for many years to see how successful they were in life. Did they land and hold jobs? How much money did they make? Did they stay out of prison? Did they divorce?

He reasoned that since the GED was equivalent to a high school diploma, those with GEDs should be as smart as high school graduates. If IQ was all that mattered, he predicted the two groups would be equally successful in life. He wasn’t sure how the drop-outs would end up since their intelligence was unknown.

Heckman found that those who had earned their GED performed slightly better than drop-outs, which isn’t too surprising. However, what did surprise Heckman was that those with GEDs didn’t achieve anywhere close to the same success as the high school graduates (in terms of earnings, job performance, college success, etc.).

The study’s findings led Heckman to conclude that cognitive skills, (i.e., IQ) are only one piece of the puzzle. Scores on standardized tests like the GED and ACT that measure IQ can only explain a small fraction of whether or not someone is successful. Other “non-cognitive skills,” like personality characteristics, play a large part in predicting success both personally and professionally.

His conclusion makes sense when you think about it. How resilient or tenacious you are, how you relate to and communicate with others, or how goal-oriented and organized you are should influence how well you do in life. As Dr. Hogan once quoted in the blog, “Character is fate.”