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Americans have a nuanced definition of success—but think everyone else only cares about money

A new study finds that while most people in the U.S. still think society cares most about money and status, they’re wrong. Most people personally value relationships and character more.

Americans have a nuanced definition of success—but think everyone else only cares about money
[Source Image: Gal_Istvan/iStock]

Public perception of success in the U.S. is totally misguided. While 92% of people believe others care most about fame and fortune, fewer than 10% factor those qualities into their own success.

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This is according to the newly released Success Index, a study carried out by analytics company Gallup and individuality-focused think tank, Populace, cofounded by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Todd Rose. Rose says he was bothered by how past studies on success in the U.S. “assumed what people will care about,” he says. In this study, he says his team “went the opposite direction” by spending years carrying out individual interviews and group surveys to see what people really talk about when they talk about success.

The results of the 5,242-person study surprised Rose and team so much, “we ran it multiple times,” he says.

The first big surprise was the gap between what people think others care about and what actually matters to them personally. Most of those surveyed believe everyone else around them wants money, status, and power, while what they personally want is stronger relationships, a better character, and to be a part of a community.

The second concerned how personal people’s views of success are. The most common area that people said they thought it was important to be successful was only shared by 17% of the population. (The top three were education, at 17.1%; relationships, at 15.6%; and character, at 15.4%.)  “As a scientist, I literally study individuality for a living, and even I was surprised,” Rose says.

[Source Image: Gal_Istvan/iStock]

There were, however, some common trends. For instance, younger respondents cared more about “having a purpose in life,” says Rose. Those between the ages of 18 and 34 prioritized it the most, and that prioritization dropped off linearly as respondents’ ages went up. Perhaps, Rose posits, this is because older people had fewer options when they were young and starting their careers, at a time when values focused more on stable incomes than fulfilling personalized missions.

Other trends included an emphasis on the importance of parenting. Being a parent ranked very high across the priorities of all study participants, but those 65 and older found it to be more crucial than those 18 to 35. Self-identified “very conservative” people thought being a parent was twice as important as “very liberal” ones, who tended to place more value on enjoying their work.

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To ensure participants were providing truthful answers, the Success Index used a methodology often employed by Gallup. It had participants, who ranged from 18 to in their 70s, make trade-offs between various characteristics. Instead of asking, “Is fame important to you?” for instance, the study asked respondents to choose the most important characteristic from a list of six at a time, providing a series of different combinations for them to choose from.

Ultimately, Rose hopes the results of the Success Index will open people’s eyes to the fact that they’re not alone in eschewing money and fame for personal fulfillment and relationships. And he hopes institutions will take note of these insights, and change their ways accordingly.

“Right now, we think we’re in a minority, so we don’t speak up or expect things from our institutions,” says Rose. Higher education institutions, for instance, tend to tout exclusivity and their ability to prepare students for high-paying jobs—neither of which reflect the way this study found people to think about their success. For such institutions, from universities to workplaces, to better accommodate people in the U.S., they’ll need to understand “what the American public deeply prioritizes,” Rose says.

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About the author

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose stories about everything from cryptocurrency to Renaissance Faire kink have appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, BBC, Vice, and The Outline. She is the coauthor of Abetting Batterers: What Police, Prosecutors, and Courts Aren’t Doing to Protect America’s Women, which chronicles the criminal justice response to intimate partner violence in the U.S.

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