No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious

This is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, and a scientist. It is in The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, two Yale law academics. It is an interesting book. Although it focuses mainly on a specific case, immigrants to the USA, it is kind of an argument for what you need to succeed. Where success is defined in material terms: a good job and lots of money. By this criterion I guess I am moderately successful. Being an academic is a professional job, and I am paid more than most, though sadly not as much as Yale law academics who write best-selling books.

So, what do they think you need to succeed? Well, as the title suggests there are 3 ingredients. The first is what they call a superiority complex, which is basically confidence in your abilities, together with a bit of a feeling that you can do better than the people around you. The second is insecurity. Feeling insecure drives you on to achieve, to work hard, and prevents complacency. The third is impulse control: The ability to defer a reward, to work hard at something that maybe boring now (e.g., learning differential equations) but will equip you to succeed in the future.

Their arguments seem pretty reasonable. I guess you do need confidence, something to drive you on, and the ability not to be distracted, in order to succeed. Knowing that these are the ingredients does not of course automatically mean you can acquire them and then succeed. But it is interesting to think that if Chu and Rubenfeld are close to the truth then presumably most famous people have these three traits. You don’t normally think of successful people being insecure, but something has to drive them on to work hard enough to succeed.

In terms of my teaching, it is the remark on impulse control that resonates. In my weekly maths class tutorial a few of the students are lacking a bit of impulse control and spend more time doing fun stuff on mobile phones than on working on the maths skills that will help them succeed in the future. I should probably help their impulse control a bit more, by being stronger at telling them to put the phones down and do some maths.

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