At the risk of the unpardonable sin of political incorrectness, in What Drives Success? two Yale Law School Professors have said the unsayable: “Certain ethnic, religious, and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.” For example:

  • Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000).
  • Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners.
  • Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies.
  • Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

Risky Facts
Aware that they are risking a firestorm by even publishing such facts, the researchers are at pains to emphasize that the statistics cannot be explained by class privilege, educational background, or racial stereotypes:

  • There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups.
  • Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder.
  • Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry.
  • Over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.
  • By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year.

The researchers warn that all groups rise and fall over time, puncturing the idea that groups succeed because of innate biological differences. Instead, the differences are mainly cultural, with the most successful groups in America “sharing three traits that, together, propel success.

  1. A superiority complex: a deep-seated belief in your exceptionality.
  2. Insecurity: a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough.
  3. Impulse control: ability to delay self-gratification

Read What Drives Success?, for further explanation of these three qualities, how #1 and #2 work together, how all three are required for success, how each trait on its own can become pathological, and, worryingly, how “each element of the Triple Package violates a core tenet of contemporary American thinking.” Current cultural forces are working directly against each of these three drivers of success. There’s also a brief but helpful discussion about how many African Americans face an especially challenging task to succeed.

Christian Success?
Of course, for Christians, this all begs the questions, “What is success?” and, “Is success even an appropriate aim for a Christian?”

We’ve all heard, and even preached: “God doesn’t say, ‘Well done good and successful servant’ but “Well done, good and faithful servant.’” But we mustn’t let that truth make us suspicious of all success, excellence, and achievement. Remember, that commendation is given to businessmen who are so skilled with their investments that they enjoy a 100% return! Note, God doesn’t turn round and say, “Right, Joe, now we’ve got to spread the wealth a bit.” No, horror of horrors, He gives them even more to invest. Sure sounds like divinely approved income inequality to me!

Measuring Success
Having said that, although the parable teaches that in some cases money can be an appropriate measure of success, Christians must never measure success by the size of investment portfolio alone. To measure success biblically, we must also ask, “How did he get the money?” and “How does he use, spend, or give that money?” But there are other important questions as well:

  • What are his/her relationships like? (e.g. with husband, wife, parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues).
  • How much does he/she serve others? (i.e. sacrificing for the good of others for no payment)
  • How useful is he/she in the local church and community?
  • What fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5) or characteristics of blessedness (Matt. 5) are present?
  • What is his/her commitment to the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life?

It can all be summed up with one simple yet profound question: How Christlike is he/she?

That’s God’s ultimate criteria for success, and there’s only one driver for that: the Gospel.

  • Gordon Matheson

    Hi David. Maybe I’m not so common in this, but I fear we’re (the Church generally) in danger of forgetting what God wants in us. He doesn’t call for success, but faithfulness. If we become driven by success, what’s to stop us becoming like the prosperity pedlars of mainstream Christian TV?

    • David Murray

      Hi Gordon. I think we’re actually in agreement, especially about not being driven by success and all the terrible consequences of that. I try towards the end of the post to turn towards better (or wider) criteria for measuring our lives than the world’s usual standards of success. Maybe we could say that the five questions I pose are a way of measuring faithfulness? And we must also leave open the possibility that for wealthy Christians their use and multiplication of money may indeed the way God will measure their faithfulness.

      • Gordon Matheson

        I agree. The question of Christlike-ness is paramount. I’m not at all critical of your post, just sounding a note of caution about using the language of success at all. One thread of this we’re struggling with in Scotland is how to treat faithful, but seemingly unsuccessful ministries. Outcomes seem to be the key criteria we judge by, but I think we need the balance of your final two questions to get this right.

        Anyway, thanks. Helpful to highlight these things. :-)

  • Marcia

    Having spent my high school years in an honors program with many Jewish students, I can easily identify what makes them successful: a culture of achievement. I suspect the same would hold for the other ethnic groups studied.
    While it is true that success cannot be measured in dollars and cents, I find the recent attitude developing that higher education is at best unnecessary, and perhaps even pernicious, questionable. My first-generation immigrant bricklayer father saw to it that there was a education savings account for each of his children, and wanted to see it used.
    Reminds me of something Rev. Maurice Roberts quoted from the pulpit awhile ago: “clogs to clogs in four generations.”

  • JerryH

    Christian successfulness, in my mind, is one of those areas I haven’t yet come to a conclusion about. First of all, I always thought the parable of the talents, which is couched in the teaching of end times, deals not with the accumulation of wealth but with being always faithful in anticipation of the Lord’s return. Second, the New Testament everywhere points to being Christ-like In its teaching Christ-likeness is seen in giving up everything (Phil. 3:10). So I wrestle with the question of what is Christian “success” looks like, for the individual and Christian ministry. Is it building bigger and fancier churches, individually becoming the CEO and wealthier than my neighbors? Or does it mean having a church where faithfulness is more important than size, even if that means the church dies out? Does it mean individually living faithfully even if I only barely have just enough to be comfortable and no one ever knows my name?