Is your name your destiny? David Brooks not long ago pointed to research suggesting that Dennises became dentists and Lawrences became lawyers more often than mere chance would dictate. Some have even given the idea a sciencey term: "nominative determinism."
LinkedIn today offers new perspectives on this question, releasing lists of most popular names in certain professions and positions. Among the findings that first caught our eye are these, the top ten CEO names for both men and women:
Top 10 Male CEO Names (Globally)
1. Peter 2. Bob 3. Jack 4. Bruce 5. Fred 6. Bill 7. Ron 8. Christian 9. Alexander 10. Don
Top 10 Female CEO Names (Globally)
1. Deborah 2. Sally 3. Debra 4. Cynthia 5. Carolyn 6. Pamela 7. Ann 8. Cheryl 9. Linda 10. Janet
Frank Nuessel, a linguist and the editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics, notes the prevalence of shortened names, or nicknames, among men, while there is a tendency for women to use their full names. Since names are a form of self-presentation on LinkedIn, Nuessel speculates that men may be trying to project an aura of familiarity, now that they’re at the top. As for the women, Nuessel cautions that this is a speculation, but he thinks some may have chosen to "maintain a certain decorum," based on the fact that women routinely achieving CEO positions is a "relatively recent" phenomenon, historically.
Many a LinkedIn user has puzzled over the site’s ultimate utility. Not Nuessel. From his academic perch, he thinks LinkedIn actually offers a trove of data that might be useful to linguistics and even social science. "I think it's significant," he tells Fast Company. "On the one hand it gives you a snapshot 2011. And I think longitudinally it’s going to be important." In 10 years, he’d like to see if distinctive ethnic names—names associated with Blacks and Latinos, for instance—will start showing up on the leaderboards. "I think that would tell us a lot about success of different groups."
LinkedIn also crunched the numbers (it has a database of some 100 million names) looking through lenses other than CEO attainment. I asked Nuessel to weigh in on each one.
Top Names in Restaurant and Food Services (Globally)
1. Thierry 2. Philippe 3. Laurent 4. Christophe 5. Alain 6. Stephane 7. Pascal 8. Olivier 9. Guillaume 10. Pierre
Nuessel observed that all ten names were French, but declined to offer an explanation. I’ll offer one: while there are surely more cooks in China, say, than there are in France, the ambitious and competitive nature of French cuisine in particular might make LinkedIn highly popular among those in what the French call restauration. (Or perhaps it marks the high number of non-French people pretending to be French in the restaurant industry.)
Top Names of Female Engineers (U.S. only):
1. Kiran 2. Jun 3. Yi 4. Ming 5. Li 6. Priya 7. Irina 8. Olga 9. Marina 10. Elena
Nuessel offers: "Several are Asian, and as many as three appear to be Italian. It is, of course, not possible to determine more than that. It may suggest that some families are steering their children in a particular career path because this path (engineering) is desirable for its financial rewards and the social status that it bestows."
And so what of the specter of "nominative determinism"—the notion that names are destiny? Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. Having a certain name might reflect coming from a certain ethnic background, which in the U.S. or elsewhere might imply familiar pressures, and so on. In the case of the top CEO names, points out LinkedIn senior data scientist, they are largely already a reflection of demographics of society as a whole. (Unless you're Amish, you know a whole lot more Peters than Ezekiels; in that sense, it’s not surprising to find a superabundance of them in the top echelons of corporations.)
So if you’re not named Bob or Jack, or Deborah or Sally, do you need to worry? Far from it. Nuessel says he doesn’t believe in "nominative determinism."
"I think everybody can be successful," he says. "I think a lot of it has to do with individual desire to succeed and a lot of other factors—guidance, parental support, good education, and to a certain extent just luck."
[Image: Flickr user pgautier]