Don't look back achievers are gaining on you

April 29, 1993|By Frank James | Frank James,Chicago Tribune

Lois Scott has always hurtled forward on the swept wing of success, a young woman in a hurry.

At 17, she entered Cornell University, obtaining her master's degree in business administration by 22. By 23, she was married. By 24, she was a vice president at an old-line Wall Street investment bank. By 29, she was a senior vice president in another venerable firm's Chicago office.

Now 32, she's a senior vice president at Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, a bond business job traditionally filled by men with at least 10 to 15 years on her. And at the rate her career is moving -- somewhere just under Mach 1 -- she could make partner before long.

People who lead such turbocharged lives are known to psychologists as super- or high-achievers. From the time of Alexander the Great, who began his career as a conqueror at 18, to President Clinton, who at 32 became governor of Arkansas, high-achievers have inspired awe and envy.

Not only do they manage to snatch the glittering prizes beyond the reach of most other people, but they often grab them remarkably early in their careers. Their influence and power bely their relative youth. By comparison, they make the rest of us feel like ne'er-do-wells.

At 32, George Stephanopoulus is White House communications director. At 27, Jeffrey Zucker is executive producer of NBC's "Today" show, the morning news/magazine TV program. And Shari Korn, 29, makes a reported $2 million annually trading securities at Kidder Peabody.

Incidentally, high-achievers should not be confused with overachievers. They are distinct breeds.

The indifferent student who went on to become famous as Albert Einstein was an overachiever. Based on his record, who could have known he would rise so far?

Most high-achievers, by contrast, leave other people in their dust very early on. If you are not on the way by your teens, you are probably not going to get there, the experts say. Ms. Scott, for instance, was a straight-A student since kindergarten.

No reclusive bookworm, she was involved in everything, including high school cheerleading. She was the squad captain -- of course. "At some age, the Jaycees rated me the No. 1 high school kid," she recalls.

John Rogers Jr., 34, is founder and president of Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-area investment banking firm he started 10 years ago. As a kid, he slung hot dogs, soda pop and beer as a vendor at local ballparks. He worked his way up the food chain to the point that he got to sell the best items and gained a spot in the union.

And at Princeton University, he was on the basketball team -- captain, of course. "Everyone likes the respect of their peers. That's what you strive for, whether you're selling hot dogs or shooting baskets," he says, explaining one of his motivations.

"The basic principle is that achievement will be fulfilling in and of itself," Robert Schoder, a 34-year-old partner at the John Buck & Co. real estate firm in Chicago, says in explaining the super-achiever's credo. Of course, the money, recognition and career advancement that come along with achievement are gratifying, too, he admits.

Not all super-achievers make megabucks. Mae Jemison, 36, the astronaut and first African-American woman in space, recently quit NASA to go to West Africa, where she will take part in humanitarian work.

She, however, is an exception; high-achievers tend to be money-magnets.

Apparently, super-achievers are sparked in either of two ways: childhood deprivation or encouragement. "One source is a very strong deprivation in childhood, which may be true in Clinton's case," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sen-ma-hi), a professor of human development at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Clinton's natural father died before his son was born, and the president was raised by a stepfather, an abusive alcoholic.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and other University of Chicago researchers are in the midst of a study of accomplished people now in their old age -- including Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize laureate.

He hopes to isolate the factors that lead to such off-the-chart success.

The researchers have reached some early conclusions. "It looks as if you got it from deprivation, [so] as an adult you will be dissatisfied with what you achieve. You pile success upon success in this drive to prove yourself," says Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.

People who were spurred by great encouragement tend to be more content with their achievements, he says.

It helps to have parents who were high-achievers. Ms. Scott's father had a doctorate in business in his early 30s when he decided to attend medical school, graduating at 40. Her mother had a master's degree in social work.

This was in Apalachin, N.Y., a farm town where children, oncegrown, tended to remain on the family farm and women weren't encouraged to be successful.

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