Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

The Tenacity Test

Summary
Given two people in the exact same job with similar skill levels, the one who came from a less privileged background probably has more tenacity.

In my mind, tenacity – the ability to keep trying and improving even in the face of demoralizing opposition – is one of the most important predictors of long-term professional success. It's not just me. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted tenacity, along with grit and perseverance, as critical factors for success in the 21st century.

How can you assess someone's tenacity when you first meet them, or even before you meet them? Here's a quick and simple test:

Given two people in the exact same job with similar skill levels, the one who came from a less privileged background probably has more tenacity.

The reason is shockingly simple: The person from a less privileged background had fewer opportunities to get this job, or even to meet the prerequisites for this job such as obtaining the proper education, professional networks, and interview preparation. Moreover, the less privileged person faced more obstacles throughout their lifetime that could have discouraged them from even pursuing this career path in the first place. Thus, they not only had fewer opportunities, but had to overcome more obstacles to get where they are now. Read Silent Technical Privilege for detailed anecdotes about the compounding effects of privilege.

Note that I'm strictly controlling for skill level, so it's not the case that the less privileged person got hired even despite their inferior technical qualifications. Also, the more privileged person might still be plenty tenacious and a great all-around person, but I'd bet that they're not as tenacious as their less privileged counterpart who wouldn't even be there if not for extreme tenacity.

Finally, my definition of “privilege” is purposely broad. It can include any of these traits (and more) that are mostly outside of one's individual control as a child, as Warren Buffett eloquently described in the ovarian lottery:

  • gender
  • race
  • ethnicity
  • sexual orientation
  • place of birth
  • family income level
  • parental education level
  • home conditions
  • local opportunities in one's place of upbringing (rural vs. suburban vs. urban)
  • prestige of educational institutions
  • physical and mental handicaps
Created: 2015-02-28
Last modified: 2015-02-28
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