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Questions for Jonathan Wai

Interview by: Karen Christensen

A psychologist and human capital expert describes what it takes to become a member of the global elite.

Your blog for Psychology Today is called Finding the Next Einstein. Describe your quest.

I wanted to explore the idea that the quest for another Einstein — someone who would forever alter our society in the way that he did — is incredibly important, because of the potential implications. Through my blog, I connect the latest findings in the fields of Psychology and Education to what is going on in the world. I also advocate for gifted kids — especially financially-disadvantaged ones — who, to a large degree, are ignored in the American school system.

I’m continually amazed at how the study of talent crosses so many boundaries. For example, my recent conversation with David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, highlights the amazing similarities between talent development in sports and in the realms of education and work. I credit my blogging and writing with helping me connect and learn from groups well outside of academia, especially from the business world. So much incredible thinking and innovation occurs outside of each narrow discipline.

In your research you recently investigated, ‘Who becomes a member of the global elite?’ What were your key findings?

I focused on three groups of people: billionaires, the most powerful people according to Forbes magazine, and World Economic Forum attendees. This most recent paper built on my previous work on the U.S. elite, which looked at billionaires, Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, senators, and House members, and expanded the investigation to global elite groups. My sample included over 4,000 people, and my goal was to determine the degree to which educational selectivity and brainpower factored in the backgrounds of people who have attained positions of leadership in society.

One key finding was that the people who control our society are extremely smart, and many of them went to elite schools all over the world. Within the U.S., for example, individuals in the top 1% with respect to ability were highly over-represented at 45 times base-rate expectations among billionaires, 56 times among powerful females, 85 times among powerful males, and 65 times among Davos participants. And overall, even within self-made billionaires and Fortune 500 CEOs, higher education and brainpower was connected to higher wealth and compensation.

These findings indicate many things, but I’ll just highlight a couple of them here. We still see news stories glamourizing college dropouts who end up highly successful — with standouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But what these articles tend to leave out is that Gates and Zuckerberg had already been accepted to and attended Harvard, so they had access to those networks. In addition, it’s not clear whether personal traits such as their phenomenal brainpower and personal drive — which existed well before they started college — were the key reason they became so successful. So, on the one hand, you have people like Peter Thiel saying ‘college is not that important’, but on the other hand, it turns out that Thiel himself — who has more than one Stanford degree — as well as the majority of the global elite attended highly selective schools. At least for the people who currently control and lead the world, an elite college education seems very likely to have been a part of their trajectories. Maybe this will change in the future, but this data should give pause to anyone who wants to join the global elite who thinks not going to college is a good idea.

When a tiny handful of select people control a disproportionate share of the world’s money and power, that is something worth deeply thinking about. For example, Gates has a grand plan to improve our world, Zuckerberg wants to connect the entire globe to the Internet, Elon Musk wants to create a Martian colony of 80,000 people, Larry Page has huge ambitions for Google that will likely dictate our future, and Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, owns the store that sells everything, wants to explore space, and has dreams of saving humanity. The decisions these people are making will influence all of us, for better or for worse.

Were there differences between the men and women you studied?

Your readers won’t be surprised to hear that females were under-represented among the global elite groups: the Davos ratio of males to females was 5.4 to 1; for billionaires it was 9.4 to 1; for CEOs it was 9.6 to 1; for powerful people it ranged from 7.2 and 13.2 to 1; and for self-made billionaires it was 47.7 to 1. In my earlier study of Fortune 500 CEOs, females had higher educational selectivity and brainpower than their male counterparts, which I found fascinating, because it suggests that female CEOs have to be even more outstanding to reach the top of a Fortune 500 company.

Amongst billionaires and Davos participants, what were the most popular college majors?

Overall, the most popular major was business, including Economics, Accounting and attending an MBA program. For the billionaires and Davos group, over half of the individuals majored in business. However, 29.9 per cent of the billionaires and 23.8 per cent of Davos attendees majored in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In her book Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland discusses what she calls ‘the rise of the alpha geeks’, or those who have a facility with numbers and a STEM background increasingly joining the ranks of the super rich. This appears to be confirmed by my data. It also shows that if you want to be rich and powerful, majoring in either STEM or business will not hurt your chances.

You also looked at whether education and cognitive ability vary by country and sector. What did you find?

For country differences, within billionaires, Canada, the U.S., and India had a high percentage of people who went to elite schools, whereas the opposite was true for Taiwan, Russia and China. Within Davos attendees, Mexico, Korea and the U.S. had the highest percentage of elite school graduates, with Russia, France and the U.A.E. having the least, and Canada was also above average. Educational selectivity and  brainpower really seems to matter in the U.S. and Canada.

For sector differences, within billionaires, the realms of technology and investing had the highest percentage of elite school graduates, whereas fashion and retail, media and real estate had the lowest. Within Davos attendees, academia had the highest education and brainpower, followed by investing and research institutes, whereas insurance, fashion and retail, and transportation had the lowest. In general, the technology, investing and academic sectors tend to select very heavily based on where you went to school and how smart you are.

What is an ‘intellectual outlier’, and what role do they play in organizations (and society)?

Malcolm Gladwell
popularized the term ‘outliers’ in his book of the same name, in which he downplayed the role of intellectual talent in the story of success. My work — along with that of my colleagues — has documented the opposite. Not only do intellectually-talented kids end up as very successful adults, as documented by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow in their longitudinal “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth”, but those adults who make up the global elite of our society are, to a large degree, quite intellectually talented, as my research indicates.

For example, Jeff Bezos scored highly on a cognitive ability test at age 8, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin both scored highly on the SAT at age 12, and Bill Gates aced the SAT in high school. Elon Musk taught himself coding and sold his first program at age 12, Jack Dorsey wrote open source software at age 14 that is still used by taxi companies today, and Michael Dell learned to code in junior high and at age 8, applied to take the high school equivalency exam. Then there’s Sean Parker, who was crunching code on computers by age 7.

These examples are not just limited to the tech sector. My research shows that the most powerful people in the world — Davos attendees, billionaires, CEOs, judges, academics, media, members of government, and other influential elite groups — are, to a large degree, intellectual outliers. Furthermore, with the increasing influence of technology on society, the power of intellectual talent is being amplified. Just consider the reach of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Tesla, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and so many other organizations. In part, my research is aimed at studying these intellectual outliers and their impact on society. Influential inventions and ideas come from the minds of extremely smart people, and that’s why investing in talented young students is critical to our future.



Psychologist Jonathan Wai is a research scientist in the Duke University Talent Identification Program and a visiting researcher in the Department of Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. His work has won multiple Mensa Awards for Research Excellence and has been featured in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and newspapers worldwide. His blog, Finding the Next Einstein, can be found at PsychologyToday.com.


This article originally appeared in 'Smarten Up!' (Spring 2015).

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