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The Inverted U

What is the Inverted U?

a picture of a straight road towards the light - what the inverted U can teach us about the story of success
The Path of Success Runs Through The Middle

The Inverted U

In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell explains “The inverted U”. It’s a two-dimensional graph where the ease of parenting is measured vertically, while inherited wealth is measured horizontally and is a representation of data on people with varying levels of wealth. The graph is represented as a U.

In other words, the sweet spot for parenting is found somewhere in the middle between poverty and wealth. The precise figure is somewhere around $75,000 per year. Incomes above that would not contribute to more happiness or easier parenting. Conventional wisdom would state that the wealthier a person is, the easier it is for them to raise children. But it is the middle-class who have it best. They don’t struggle to provide their children with necessities but do not spoil them either.

Their children grow up to be driven and hardworking, while earning the benefits of a quality education, valuable social connections, and a healthy lifestyle.

In The Prince, Machiavelli says that greatest people of the time had the most humble beginnings.

It appears… that all men, or the larger number of them, who have performed great deeds in the world, and excelled all others in their day, have had their birth and beginning in baseness and obscurity; or have been aggrieved by Fortune in some outrageous way. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

The Unsung Heroes

We are inspired by people- often by those who excel at a field that we have a passion in. We admire those who have surpassed the limits of our imaginations. However, there is much inspiration to be found in other, less explored, less popularized, less flashy areas in life.

We can learn a lot from immigrants who boldly move to a country where they don’t understand the language, traditions, or culture. They are badly educated and poor. But they are tireless, dedicated workers who find a way to successfully support their family. Their surplus income is sent back home, and they rarely have any money to spend on themselves. A lot of overachievers have only been able to achieve their success because their parents were one of those people.

Wealth Lost Across Generations

The first generation of immigrants chose to sacrifice the present for a better future for their children – who grew up witnessing what their parents had done for them. The children go on to work hard and build on the glimmer of hope offered to them by their parents, and lead secure, prosperous lives. Their children (the third generation), however, when raised in conditions that are too affluent – will fail to appreciate the value of money. They will not understand what their parents and grandparents had to sacrifice.

As the English say, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. The Italians say “Dalle stelle alle stalle” (from stars to stables). In Spain it’s Quien no lo tiene, lo hance; y quien lo tiene, lo deshance” (“he who doesn’t have it, does it, and he who has it, misuses it”). – David and Goliath, p.51

A recurring story of human beings. It is found across all cultures and historical periods. The story of wealth being preserved is not a new one. Perhaps a deeper axiomatic truth underlies it?

Aristotle’s Golden Mean

Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean. —Aristotle (trans. 1999, p. 22)

Too Much of a Good Thing

Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant wrote “Too much of a good thing”, a research paper that provides an excellent view of psychological findings that corroborates the Golden Mean hypothesis. The results showed that an excess of virtues can “undermine the outcomes they are intended to promote”.

For instance, recent metaanalytic evidence suggests that moderate levels of positive emotions enhance creativity, but high levels do not (Davis, 2008). Further, although happier people have greater longevity on average, intense positive affect has psychological costs (Diener, Colvin, Pavot, & Allman, 1991), extremely cheerful people engage in riskier behaviors (Martin et al., 2002) and live shorter lives (Friedman et al., 1993), and extremely happy people earn lower salaries (Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2007)

Other results showed that increased job complexity contributes to burnout. And increased proclivity to learning can lead experts to make bad decisions. The lesson we can learn from these findings is that there is no such thing as an “unmitigated good”. And that the inverted U is a representation of many of the virtues that we take for granted as good.

“Everything in moderation” is not a piece of antiquated folk wisdom. It is a psychological truth that is strongly intertwined with human identity.

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2 replies on “The Inverted U”

Consequences inspire me.

My grandfather was one of those immigrants during WWII. He took care of four kids, put them all through college, through working in a steel mill. He and my grandma that is. My dad is also an ironworker. Nothing I’ve done work wise compares to the amount of effort put into family as they’ve shown.

“No one feels inspired by someone who inherited money, or was sent to an excellent school.”

Do you mean the fact that they went to the school? I don’t think because you have money or were given something that you’re unable to be inspiring. Rich people have their own obstacles, even if it’s just the most belligerent and entitled that make the headlines most often.

People find motivation in any number of things. Wealth doesn’t necessarily negate that. It seems to me that regardless of whether you were born into something or had to work tirelessly to achieve just enough, it’s a kind of person and sense of responsibility that underlines whether or not they’ll engage in the types of things others will find inspiring. Maybe the hunter wouldn’t hunt, but he might become an expert artist or something. I think it would depend on the person.

I think the “overcoming” story is oversold. Find admiration in people’s admirable things. It seems to devole into a kind of pissing match about who had it worse when their sordid historical details are used to bolster a reputation or story.

I think Gladwell has a habit of taking way too long a walk with so-called “counter intunitive” assumptions or implications from psychology.

‘Consequences inspire me.’

I really like that line.

“My grandfather was one of those immigrants during WWII. He took care of four kids, put them all through college, through working in a steel mill. He and my grandma that is. My dad is also an ironworker. Nothing I’ve done work wise compares to the amount of effort put into family as they’ve shown.”

That’s amazing. I can relate to this quite a lot. My grandfather was a truck driver, and worked to put 4 children through college. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for people like our grandparents, not necessarily immigrants but people who put in the long hours day after day to make sure their kids don’t go through what they went through; it’s really humbling to think about how hard they had to work.

“Do you mean the fact that they went to the school? I don’t think because you have money or were given something that you’re unable to be inspiring. Rich people have their own obstacles, even if it’s just the most belligerent and entitled that make the headlines most often.”

I certainly don’t think rich people are unable to be inspiring, and I mention that they lose most of their ability to inspire, not all of it. Kids who go to the most expensive schools and then grow up to be educated aren’t really seen as inspiring.

“People find motivation in any number of things. Wealth doesn’t necessarily negate that. It seems to me that regardless of whether you were born into something or had to work tirelessly to achieve just enough, it’s a kind of person and sense of responsibility that underlines whether or not they’ll engage in the types of things others will find inspiring. Maybe the hunter wouldn’t hunt, but he might become an expert artist or something. I think it would depend on the person.”

Wealthy doesn’t necessarily negate it but it does effectively reduce hunger and ambition. If it’s true that most of our motivation comes from hunger then it’s not really a stretch in my opinion to say that wealthy decreases motivation.

“I think the “overcoming” story is oversold. Find admiration in people’s admirable things. It seems to devole into a kind of pissing match about who had it worse when their sordid historical details are used to bolster a reputation or story.

I think Gladwell has a habit of taking way too long a walk with so-called “counter intunitive” assumptions or implications from psychology.”

It’s funny you mention that. Gladwell actually makes the point that many underdogs who succeeded didn’t really succeed in spite of the obstacles, but because of them. In other words, living in dire circumstances propels people to work much harder. I think I generally would agree with that. Any circumstance is a contributor to why you became successful, even the bad ones, perhaps especially the bad ones.

Gladwell does have that habit though, yes, and I remember I noticed it the most when he talked about the ‘10,000 hour rule”.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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