Finding the next Einstein

Jonathan Wai, a psychologist and talent-identification expert describes what it takes to become a member of the global elite

Published: Sep 28, 2015
Jonathan Wai, Psychologist
Jonathan Wai, Psychologist

Q. Your blog for Psychology Today is called Finding the Next Einstein.  Describe your quest.
I wanted to explore the idea that the quest for another Einstein—someone who would forever alter our society in the way that he did— is incredibly important, because of the potential implications.  Through my blog, I connect the latest findings in the fields of Psychology and Education to what is going on in the world. I also  advocate for gifted kids—especially financially-disadvantaged ones—who, to a large degree, are currently ignored in the American school system.  

I’m continually amazed at how the study of talent crosses so many boundaries.  For example, my conversation with David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, highlights the amazing similarities between talent development in sports and in the realms of education and work.  I credit my blogging and writing with helping me connect and learn from groups well outside of academia, especially from the business world.  So much incredible thinking and  innovation occurs outside of each narrow discipline.  

Q. In your research you recently investigated, ‘Who becomes a member of the global elite?’ What were your key findings?
I focused on three groups of people: billionaires, the most powerful people according to Forbes magazine, and World Economic Forum attendees. This most recent paper built on my previous work on the U.S. elite, which looked at billionaires, Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, senators, and House members, and expanded the investigation to global elite groups.  My sample included over 4,000 people, and my goal was to determine the degree to which educational selectivity and brainpower factored in the backgrounds of people who have attained positions of leadership in society.  

One key finding was that the people who control our society are extremely smart, and many of them went to elite schools all over the world. Within the U.S., for example, individuals in the top 1% with respect to ability were highly overrepresented at 45 times base-rate expectations among billionaires, 56 times among powerful females, 85 times among powerful males, and 65 times among Davos participants.  And overall, even within self-made billionaires and Fortune 500 CEOs, higher education and brainpower was connected to higher wealth and compensation.  

These findings indicate many things, but I’ll just highlight a couple of them here. We still see news stories glamourizing college dropouts who end up highly successful—with standouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.  But what these articles tend to leave out is that Gates and Zuckerberg had already been accepted to and attended Harvard, so they had access to those networks.  

In addition, it’s not clear whether personal traits such as their phenomenal brainpower and personal drive—which existed well before they started college—were the key reason they became so successful.  So, on the one hand, you have people like Peter Thiel saying ‘college is not that important’, but on the other hand, it turns out that Thiel himself—who has more than one Stanford degree—as well as the majority of the global elite attended highly selective schools.  

At least for the people who currently control and lead the world, an elite college education seems very likely to have been a part of their trajectories. Maybe this will change in the future, but this data should give pause to anyone who wants to join the global elite who thinks not going to college is a good idea.

More generally, in today’s society there is a clustering of brains, wealth and power.  And as [Rotman Professor] Richard Florida has pointed out, this ‘creative class’ is clustering geographically.  So, the people who influence our society are largely drawn from the academically gifted, have remarkable brainpower, and are probably outliers on a lot of other traits, as well.  Consider Stanford graduate Marissa Mayer, a busy mom who has noted she doesn’t need much sleep yet has no problem running a major company.  She’s an extraordinary person, and most of us probably aren’t going to be like her, no matter how hard we try.  

When a tiny handful of select people control a disproportionate share of the world’s money and power, that is something worth deeply thinking about.  For example, Gates has a grand plan to improve our world, Zuckerberg wants to connect the entire globe to the Internet, Elon Musk wants to create a Martian colony of 80,000 people, Larry Page has huge ambitions for Google that will likely dictate our future, and Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, owns the store that sells everything, wants to explore space, and has dreams of saving humanity. The decisions these people make are going to influence all of us, for better or worse.

Q. Were there differences between the men and women you studied?
Your readers won’t be surprised to hear that females were underrepresented among the global elite groups: the Davos ratio of males to females was 5.4 to 1; for billionaires it was 9.4 to 1; for CEOs it was 9.6 to 1; for powerful people it ranged from 7.2 and 13.2 to 1; and for self-made billionaires it was 47.7 to 1.  In my earlier study of Fortune 500 CEOs, females had higher educational selectivity and brainpower than their male counterparts, which I found fascinating, because it suggests that female CEOs have to be even more outstanding to reach the top of a Fortune 500 company.

Q. Amongst billionaires and Davos participants, what were the most popular college majors?
Overall, the most popular major was business, including Economics, Accounting and attending an MBA program.  For the billionaires and Davos group, over half of the individuals majored in business.  However, 29.9 per cent of the billionaires and 23.8 per cent of Davos attendees majored in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  In her book Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland discusses what she calls ‘the rise of the alpha geeks’, or those who have a facility with numbers and a STEM background increasingly joining the ranks of the super rich. This appears to be confirmed by my data.  It also shows that if you want to be rich and powerful, majoring in either STEM or business will not hurt your chances.

Q. You also looked at whether education and cognitive ability vary by country and sector. What did you find?
For country differences, within billionaires, Canada, the U.S., and India had a high percentage of people who went to elite schools, whereas the opposite was true for Taiwan, Russia and China.  Within Davos attendees, Mexico, Korea and the U.S. had the highest percentage of elite school graduates, with Russia, France and the U.A.E. having the least, and Canada was also above average.  Educational selectivity and brainpower really seems to matter in the U.S. and Canada.

For sector differences, within billionaires, the realms of technology and investing had the highest percentage of elite school graduates, whereas fashion and retail, media and real estate had the lowest.  Within Davos attendees, academia had the highest education and brainpower, followed by investing and research institutes, whereas insurance, fashion and retail, and transportation had the lowest.  In general, the technology, investing and academic sectors tend to select very heavily based on where you went to school and how smart you are.

Q. What is an ‘intellectual outlier’, and what role do they play in organizations (and society)?
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term ‘outliers’ in his book of the same name, in which he downplayed the role of intellectual talent in the story of success.  My work—along with that of my colleagues—has documented the opposite.  Not only do intellectually-talented kids end up as very successful adults, as documented by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow in their longitudinal “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth”, but those adults who make up the global elite of our society are, to a large degree, quite intellectually talented, as my research indicates.

For example, Jeff Bezos scored highly on a cognitive ability test at age 8, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin both scored highly on the SAT at age 12, and Bill Gates aced the SAT in high school.  Elon Musk taught himself coding and sold his first program at age 12, Jack Dorsey wrote open source software at age 14 that is still used by taxi companies today, and Michael Dell learned to code in junior high and at age 8, applied to take the high school equivalency exam.  Then there’s Sean Parker, who was crunching code on computers by age 7.

These examples are not just limited to the tech sector.  My research shows that the most powerful people in the world—Davos attendees, billionaires, CEOs, judges, academics, media, members of government, and other influential elite groups—are, to a large degree, intellectual outliers. Furthermore, with the increasing influence of technology on society, the power of intellectual talent is being amplified. Just consider the reach of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Tesla, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and so many other organizations.  In part, my research is aimed at studying these intellectual outliers and their impact on society.  Influential inventions and ideas come from the minds of extremely smart people, and that’s why investing in talented young students is critical to our future.

Q. What is your view on standardized testing in schools?
Standardized tests are one important tool among many that should definitely be used.  In science, what is critical are reliable and valid measurement tools, and most standardized tests are such measurement tools in education.  They are imperfect, certainly, but probably more objective than many other options.  There seems to be a focus on measurement in education due to international comparisons like the Program for International Student Assessment (or PISA), where you can see how countries measure up. Research has shown that PISA scores are even related to a country’s GDP.

I definitely think that an obsession with standardized testing and ‘teaching to the test’ can detract from teaching and learning in schools, so too much of it is not a good thing.  At the same time, I think the unhappiness surrounding standardized tests stems from a more general ‘evaluation anxiety’. Whenever we are being evaluated, we don’t like it because feedback is painful, and oftentimes standardized tests have given us some truths about ourselves that can be unflattering.  Standardized testing should not be overemphasized, but neither should it be thrown out.

Beyond the school context, standardized tests—especially those that measure general cognitive ability—are also used in hiring, because there has been decades of research supporting the link between job performance and general cognitive ability.  In their recent book, How Google Works, even Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg point out that general cognitive ability is one of the key qualities they look for in candidates.  Christopher Chabris and I wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times discussing how tech companies, including Google, primarily select people who are extremely gifted and have extraordinary cognitive talent—whether that means taking candidates from elite universities or using coding competitions to find the best and brightest worldwide.  Tests are useful, whether they come in the form of multiple choice or a coding or puzzle competition.

Q. How does Big Data play into all of this?
I recently talked with Christian Rudder, author of Dataclysm, and we discussed how a lot of psychological research is ‘self-reported’, whereby we tend to present ourselves in the best light.  Whereas what we do with our time and choose to purchase online may be a more accurate indicator of our true selves.  Now that Big Data is everywhere, a lot of Social Science theories can actually be confirmed or rejected based on actual aggregate human behaviour played out in millions upon millions of ‘data crumbs’ from Facebook likes, Tweets and so on.  

What’s fascinating is that researchers have shown that what you like on Facebook can accurately predict your personality, gender, ethnicity, and other things with fairly high accuracy.  It is possible that in the future, things like our cognitive abilities, personality, and even our employability might be predicted by the all the data collected from our digital device use.  

As time progresses and all this data becomes available on huge numbers of people over long stretches of time, it could revolutionize Social Science, Marketing and business, and more broadly, help us gain insight into societal trends.  Of course, it also raises a number of privacy concerns.  

Psychologist Jonathan Wai is a research scientist in the Duke University Talent Identification Program and a visiting researcher in the Department of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. His work has won multiple Mensa Awards for Research Excellence and has been featured in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and newspapers worldwide. His blog, Finding the Next Einstein, can be found at PsychologyToday.com. 


[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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