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Is there a science of success?

Lemann, N. (1994, February). "Is there a science of success?" The Atlantic Monthly. pp. 83-98.
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What is success and how can it be achieved? This article notes "rags to riches" theories and schemes from the ideas from Russell Conwell’s "Acres of Diamonds" motivational speech to discussions of success in Mark Twain’s (Huckleberry Finn) and Arthur Miller’s (Death of a Salesman) writings. The following is a good introduction for a discussion about success and motivation:

The all-time best-selling recording of spoken words is, according to its publisher, a motivational talk called ‘The Strangest Secret,’ by Earl Nightingale...the strangest secret is: ‘We become what we think about...’ where a person winds up in the social structure is the result of his or her state of mind.

Earl Nightingale...died in 1989, but pop motivation material retains its great appeal in American society. That appeal is one of the distinctive aspects of the national culture, demonstrating how much stronger a hold the idea of universal opportunity has here than it has in the rest of the world. Motivational books are always on the best-seller list.

The motivation industry, being a weed rather than a cultivated plant, doesn’t have strict boundaries. Some parts are concerned with business success, others with home-brewed psychotherapy, diet and exercise, medical mind-cures, real-estate investment, and pyramid schemes to sell franchises and distributorships. People are exhorted to develop an optimistic cast of mind and then to generate lists of specific goals.

This article traces David McClelland’s use of Henry Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) in his study of human motivation and success. Of the human needs listed by Murray, McClelland selected three: N Power, N Affiliation, and N Achievement as crucial. Power describes the despotism of politicians and business leaders; Affiliation "other-directed" conformism. Achievement is, for McClelland, the positive value, describing an inner-directed, mature drive in democratic, independent, and productive form.

Although he’s suffered many disappointments and cut-backs, McClelland has been able, among other things, to run training programs in India and to confirm by studies the increased entrepreneurial achievements gained by small business people who have taken the training course. Governmental and business systems, however, have not adopted such training for a variety of reasons. McClelland criticizes much of the motivational industry for promoting the wrong values (of money and power) and for not conducting critical research to evaluate their effectiveness.

This long article comes to the conclusion that those who find most success in the US are "people who are able to do very well in school between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five."

(Secondly) a small subgroup of the rest are able to play out their ambitions successfully in the more chaotic atmosphere of the marketplace—as entrepreneurs, entertainers, and...salesmen. These people are what McClelland calls ‘a second success ladder based on money.’ As a result they don’t present a pretty picture: by most people’s standards, they’re greedy. But they have made the American idea work for them.

(Finally) motivational psychology seems to hold the promise of another route through the American social structure. If motivation to succeed really were both measurable and teachable, it could help people for whom both high educational performance and bare-knuckles moneymaking are unattainable—people with different values, or inconvenient backgrounds, or unruly life trajectories.

This brief introduction begs further reflection and discussion. What is success? Is it a good or a bad thing? Should everyone expect and work for success? Are there, in most societies, special barriers that keep some from achieving success? Are we depriving some from the success they need? How can life’s playing field be made more level so all can reach their goals?



  1. Does the word (and idea of) success have positive or negative connotations for you?
  2. How do you define success? What ingredients make success possible?
  3. Could you accept descriptions of success such as "being all one is meant to be," "fulfilling one’s chosen dreams," "measuring up to expected standards," or "fulfilling one’s calling"? Which of these most appeals to you?
  4. How do you judge external or circumstantial aspects of success against internal or personal factors?
  5. To what extent can a person overcome external difficulties to accomplish personal dreams?
  6. Does a person need motivation in order to succeed? Can motivation be taught or encouraged? How?
  7. How important is it to transpose dreams into goals? Do you see good goals as crucial for success?



  1. Unfulfilled human potential should be a concern for any society. Hope of success needs to be given to those who have consider themselves unable to compete.
  2. Status sought for its own sake, the unfair domination of resources by the acquisitive, and exploitation of vulnerable members of society by the strong lessen the health and long-term strength of a community, organization, or culture.
  3. Definitions of success depend on holistic understandings of life which consider its physical, social, economic, and spiritual components. Certain aspects of motivation and motivational training can be researched, but such research measures only one aspect of life’s complexity.
  4. Success must be individually defined and motivation shaped by the culture and situation of the those who are to be trained.

Dean Borgman cCYS