The character hypothesis: necessary, but wholly insufficient

The much touted ‘character hypothesis’ (which has become a staple of a lot of modern intellectual discourse around success, often heard from writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Tough) is very useful, and speaks to an understanding of the greatly changed nature of success in the post-Industrial era. However, I think the qualities associated with that hypothesis should only be considered necessary, but not sufficient. To review, here is a list of qualities generally associated with it:

  • persistence
  • determination
  • self-control / the ability to delay gratification
  • abstention from substance use
  • curiosity
  • conscientiousness
  • self-confidence
  • (occasionally) emotional intelligence
  • good communication skills and a willingness to listen
  • grit

I’d personally add to the list ‘the willingness to always learn’ (i.e., be a dedicated autodidact for life.)

Based on what we’ve seen over the past ten years, especially with things like ‘the gig economy’ and our ‘free agent nation’, this hypothesis (perhaps model) holds up well. So what else is necessary? One or more of the following

  • a strong personal safety net (savings and/or relatives and friends to fall back on)
  • good credentials
  • a strong personal / professional network

These last three are exactly the ones that are generally not available to those who need them most, even if they have all the qualities of the first list (you could also substitute ‘incredible luck’ for these three.) The idea that “men of enterprise are practically assured of success” is the kind of beautiful, romantic notion that periodically gets revived in America; the reality is different. We should remind ourselves that character alone may not be enough for success in today’s world for the even the most determined, confident, and gritty of people.

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