Factors That Determine Success

Al Jacobs

In conferring financial success on we mortals, the Gods can appear capricious. Why do some persons rise to the pinnacle while others, who seem equally deserving, wallow in mediocrity?

Still vivid in my memory is a line from the 1969 movie, Goodbye, Columbus, featuring that venerable actor Jack Klugman, who portrayed a crude and overbearing, but wealthy, plumbing contractor. In one scene a disgruntled college teacher, referring to Klugman, blurted out: “I don’t understand; I’ve more brains in my little finger than he’s got in his whole body. Why is he at the top and I’m at the bottom?”

Perhaps it’s natural to equate intelligence with financial success and one of the more overused put-downs is the perennial question: “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” The fact is, however, affluence is not confined to the brilliant, nor are the brightest people necessarily the most prosperous. As a case in point, many members of the international high-IQ organization, Mensa, are of modest means.

This isn’t meant as an endorsement of stupidity, for most certainly dimwittedness does little to promote wealth accumulation. Nonetheless, high intelligence is not the answer either and Robert Heller in his 1974 book The Common Millionaire pointed out, down through the ages, a lot of untalented people manage to make a million dollars.

So, the question remains: Exactly what qualities are most helpful in acquiring and retaining wealth and where does intelligence fit into the equation? From my observations it appears the necessary ingredients include habits of thrift and moderation, the diligent pursuance of a plan of action and just plain good luck.

Admittedly the second of these requires some acumen, obviously working to eliminate the truly inept from the game. But on the whole, it’s the meld of character traits that seems to determine the outcome.

My belief is that of these characteristics, “diligence” is by far the most important. If this is the case, then high intelligence conceivably acts as a bar to financial prosperity. Unlike success in scientific endeavors, requiring profound skills to solve often complex problems, the continued application demanded in wealth accumulation is one often requiring little but a repetition of procedures, with no continual input of brainpower needed.

Quite likely a mind capable of absorbing and processing new and stimulating information finds the demands involved in money-making a monotonous exercise offering little satisfaction – except for the obvious benefits of having wealth. Perhaps the link between intelligence and financial success is not the direct correlation we sometimes believe.

Might it be, beyond some level, increased intellect is actually a deterrent in the wealth-generating process? In this connection, I suspect financial success is enhanced as the intelligence quotient reaches an optimum of about 115, thereafter declining as IQ increases. If this is an appropriate conclusion, we of questionable intellect may take heart; there’s surely a fortune waiting for us.

While on the subject of personal characteristics, another deserves consideration as to its effect on overall life performance. It’s the subject of honesty – a matter to be analyzed objectively rather than by the metaphor of the cherry tree reputedly chopped down by a young George Washington. The real question to be asked is whether honesty is always the best policy.

Some 80 years ago that versatile comedian Bob Hope starred in a situational comedy entitled Nothing but the Truth. In the picture Hope played the part of a man who entered into a wager requiring, for a period of 24 hours, he’d tell no lies. Imagine the effect on his business and social life.

At one point while at a dinner party, the hostess, a vain dowager, sought Hope’s reassurance she looked no older than 30. Hope attempted to sidestep the problem by answering in French, but his antagonist insisted the phrase be translated into English. The party ended abruptly with Hope’s translation that the hostess “… couldn’t pass for 30 with a bag over her head.”

The simple fact is the use of deceptive words and phrases – euphemisms, if you prefer – as well as outright lies is a time-honored tradition. The beginning of wisdom as well as the start in solving problems is to call things by their right names. Thus, if a mentally defective child is called exceptional, or a prison described as a correctional institution, despite the fact no real effort at correction is made, expect these verbal distortions to work against finding solutions.

Quite simply, lies and deception are used on a regular basis by the most reputable organizations for whatever purpose may be required at the time. If any of this is a surprise, you aren’t observant.

With this as a lead-in on public and institutional honesty, what must we demand of ourselves? It’s appropriate to re-ask the question whether honesty is in fact the best policy. This cannot be settled with the expected affirmative answer provided by your scout troop leader or parish deacon, nor should you accept the cynical negative response most certainly gotten from a carnival sideshow operator or district alderman.

Not until you come to terms with your own personal aspirations, family expectations and demands of society, can you fashion a realistic code by which to live. In the final analysis, honesty for most people is rarely an absolute. Instead, it’s relative and often selective. How relative and selective yours will be is an important life decision.

However, it’s my firm conviction a reputation for impeccable honesty is among the most valuable assets you can possess. There are no limits to the doors that open and the opportunities afforded a man or woman whose words and actions can be trusted. Whether you’re of truly high moral character, or possess the personal values of a professional pickpocket, is not the issue. From a purely pragmatic frame of reference, conduct your affairs in a way your reliability can never be criticized.

Note my stress is not on honesty per se, but on reputation for honesty, so if you cannot bring yourself to adhere to these standards, at least try to be discreet in your dishonesty. For those of you who fit into this category, take your cue from the late comedian George Burns who declared: “Sincerity is my strong point; I fake it masterfully.”

In short, never lose sight of the fact a sterling reputation is an irreplaceable commodity to be guarded carefully. And just as it’s advantageous to be believed, strive to deal with others who likewise are believable.

There’s another fundamental characteristic – discernment – not planted so firmly in the psyche, but which can be learned. This quality might be defined as the ability to distinguish illusion from reality. Thus, when on the 10 o’clock television news, a DEA official proclaims “Another major victory in the federal government’s War on Drugs,” while displaying agents posing beside a record cache of narcotics, do you instinctively question the sort of victory won? If so, you’re well on your way to shrewd discernment.

This, then, gets us back to the factors leading to success: intelligence, honesty and discernment. It’s time to take stock of where you fit in, for if you truly aspire to be among the successful people in this world, you must conduct your affairs accordingly. Simply stated, this means:

Don’t obsess over any perceived intellectual deficiencies.

Convey an image of honesty and reliability in all your dealings, regardless of whether it goes against the grain.

Approach life with the fundamental view of the skeptic, that 95% of everything is nonsense.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.


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