The Genetics of Success

Success is something most people want to achieve in their lives, and it is defined differently by different cultures; but it generally involves a high degree of recognition for some accomplishment in a person’s career and/or personal life. Our United States culture honors those who become outstanding corporate leaders, athletes, and actors. Often, these successful icons write autobiographical books detailing how they became successful, and usually offering advice on how most anyone who has the desire for success can also achieve the same greatness that they achieved. Is this actually true?

Genetic research would suggest otherwise. The good fortune of having been born with the right genetic make-up can determine just how far a person can go in their lives and what they can accomplish. We are talking about resilience.

Everyone experiences some degree of stress throughout their lives. Some of this stress can be extreme enough to be categorized as “trauma.” Some people are able to bounce back from trauma, while others suffer crippling depression and/or anxiety. The degree to which someone bounces back is typically determined by genetics. Many people are even able to compensate for, or overcome debilitating physiological conditions due to the fact that other genetic factors can help them over-ride the disability. In many individuals even brain damage can be overcome because new neural pathways can form to compensate for the damaged neurological structures. Of course epigenetic or environmental factors interact with genetic factors to help determine a person’s resilience to stress of any kind, whether physiological or psychological.

The point is that people who achieve success despite overcoming great odds in their lives, whether they be environmental or physiological, have been given a significant advantage by genetic factors of which they might be completely unaware.

The lack of awareness of the role that their genetic good-fortune has played in their achievement can give successful people the false impression that they somehow did it on their own to a much greater degree than is actually true; and can cause them to hand out the advice to others that they too can achieve the same kind of success.

Another phenomenon can be explained by the genetic theory of success: Highly acclaimed successful people who unexpectedly kill themselves without giving any indication that they are in pain. Friends and family are often bewildered saying that they had no idea anything was wrong: “Robin seemed to be happy; Kate was her typical cheery self the day before when we went to lunch; Anthony was living his dream to the very last day.” If a person does not have the genetic stamina to handle success (which can be extremely stressful), their resilience can simply run out abruptly without warning. They continue trying all of the same strategies they have used most of their lives to keep going (cheerful attitude, etc.), but the sustaining underlying stamina is not there. It can come to a jarringly abrupt end, shocking even themselves.

From a scientific standpoint, I like the quote from the research study Psychobiology and Molecular Genetics of Resilience (Adriana Feder, Eric Nestler, Dennis Charney, 2010): “Complex interactions between an individual’s genetic make-up and his or her particular history of exposure to environmental stressors determine the degree of adaptability of neurochemical stress response systems to new adverse exposures, as well as the function of the neural circuitry involved in stress responses.”

Humans are genetically wired for certain drives, and for responses to life. Environmental and other epigenetic factors can intervene and alter certain behavioral responses to life, but the basic drives and response-patterns will still be there, as will certain inborn abilities.

We were not all meant to achieve success in the same ways. We certainly weren’t all meant for high recognition. I believe that everyone has unique strengths, weaknesses and abilities. Discover yours. Use that information to determine what you consider to be successful for yourself, not what some narcissistic Type A corporate CEO tells you you should consider success. Relax and enjoy being you.

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