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1/27/14 at 11:50 AM 0 Comments

What Drives Success?

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Photo: Flickr/dailymotivation - Creative Commons

By David Murray

At the risk of the unpardonable sin of political incorrectness, in What Drives Success? two Yale Law School Professors have said the unsayable: “Certain ethnic, religious, and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.” For example:

  • Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000).
  • Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners.
  • Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies.
  • Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

Risky Facts
Aware that they are risking a firestorm by even publishing such facts, the researchers are at pains to emphasize that the statistics cannot be explained by class privilege, educational background, or racial stereotypes:

  • There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups.
  • Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder.
  • Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry.
  • Over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.
  • By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year.

The researchers warn that all groups rise and fall over time, puncturing the idea that groups succeed because of innate biological differences. Instead, the differences are mainly cultural, with the most successful groups in America “sharing three traits that, together, propel success.

  1. A superiority complex: a deep-seated belief in your exceptionality.
  2. Insecurity: a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough.
  3. Impulse control: ability to delay self-gratification

Read What Drives Success?, for further explanation of these three qualities, how #1 and #2 work together, how all three are required for success, how each trait on its own can become pathological, and, worryingly, how “each element of the Triple Package violates a core tenet of contemporary American thinking.” Current cultural forces are working directly against each of these three drivers of success. There’s also a brief but helpful discussion about how many African Americans face an especially challenging task to succeed.

Christian Success?
Of course, for Christians, this all begs the questions, “What is success?” and, “Is success even an appropriate aim for a Christian?”

We’ve all heard, and even preached: “God doesn’t say, ‘Well done good and successful servant’ but “Well done, good and faithful servant.’” But we mustn’t let that truth make us suspicious of all success, excellence, and achievement. Remember, that commendation is given to businessmen who are so skilled with their investments that they enjoy a 100% return! Note, God doesn’t turn round and say, “Right, Joe, now we’ve got to spread the wealth a bit.” No, horror of horrors, He gives them even more to invest. Sure sounds like divinely approved income inequality to me!

Measuring Success
Having said that, although the parable teaches that in some cases money can be an appropriate measure of success, Christians must never measure success by the size of investment portfolio alone. To measure success biblically, we must also ask, “How did he get the money?” and “How does he use, spend, or give that money?” But there are other important questions as well:

  • What are his/her relationships like? (e.g. with husband, wife, parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues).
  • How much does he/she serve others? (i.e. sacrificing for the good of others for no payment)
  • How useful is he/she in the local church and community?
  • What fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5) or characteristics of blessedness (Matt. 5) are present?
  • What is his/her commitment to the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life?

It can all be summed up with one simple yet profound question: How Christlike is he/she?

That’s God’s ultimate criteria for success, and there’s only one driver for that: the Gospel.


David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.

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