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The ABCs Of Success, According To A Man At The End Of The Alphabet

Christine Cavaller
<a href= https://www.flickr.com/photos/purplecar/5361067725/>Flickr</a>

Jeffrey Zax realizes the irony; the University of Colorado economics professor just released a paper examining how success can be determined by one’s place in the alphabet. His Z name obviously didn’t doom him to a life of failure, but he’s long noticed a trend. Especially after years of attending graduation ceremonies.

“Often you would see students lined up alphabetically, each one would be called up, they go across the stage, they pick up their diploma -- and for the A’s and the B’s and the C’s, there’d be a lot of applause,” he says. “By the time you got down to the R’s and S’s and T’s, first, people were tired of applauding. Second, a lot of people had already left. They’d taken their children who had already gotten their diplomas, and headed out to the restaurant so they’d beat the line.”

So perhaps it makes perfect sense that Zax should turn his attention to this phenomenon. He calls it “alphabetism.”

“Male students with initials at the back of the alphabet were less likely to be outstanding students in high school. They were less likely to have good opinions of their high school experience.

They were also less likely to apply to college, or to go to college, or to complete college,” he says.

Zax co-authored the paper with CU Boulder grad student Alexander Cauley. Here are five takeaways:

  1. The study’s findings can only be applied to male students. Zax and Cauley used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study -- a yearly survey given to a random group of students in Wisconsin schools every year from 1957 to 2011. They specifically focused on male students because, according to Zax, women’s success is often influenced by very different factors. He says they may choose to replicate the study with a focus on women in the future.
  2. The trend affected success even after college. Men whose initials fell into the latter part of the alphabet were less likely to obtain advanced degrees and less likely to get a good job after college. Conversely, they were more likely to serve stints in the military.
  3. However, the trend seemed to die out around the age of 35. The findings suggest that by 35, a person has other characteristics which overcome their place in the alphabet. Think about it: Your employer doesn’t call on you and your colleagues in alphabetical order during meetings.
  4. Teachers can break this pattern. Zax decided long ago that he was done with the tyranny of alphabetical roll call. “There’s nothing that makes the order from A to Z magical,” he says. “We could just as easily turn it around and go from Z to A.” For the last 15 years, Zax has been doing just that. “That just gives everyone the opportunity to feel like they’re getting called at the beginning.”
  5.  And students can, too, by simply standing out. “Make sure that you’re noticed,” Zax says. “In fact, our research supports this. Our research shows that the effect we’re finding is really only there for people who have normal cognitive ability -- that is, normal IQ scores -- and normal appearances.” Zax recommends bold fashion choices: wear a shirt with a loud pattern, or maybe even dye your hair a funky color.

If you happen to be a public radio reporter who already has blue hair and an A name, Zax doesn’t have a lot of sympathy.
“You’re already an A so that’s actually kind of piling on,” he says. “That’s a little unfair.”

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