Do adolescent rule-breakers grow up to be more successful?

Image: Bill Gates, Microsoft Chairman and Co-Chair and Trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas.

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Around age 11, Bill Gates started to become a problem for his parents.

As his intellectual capacity grew, so did his argumentativeness. He refused to do the things his mom asked of him, like cleaning his room and showing up on time to dinner, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It came to a head one night when Gates was about 12 years old. The "tempestuous" know-it-all got into a "nasty" shouting match with his mother, according to The Journal, and his father threw a glass of water in his face. Soon after, Gates told a counselor: "I'm at war with my parents over who is in control."

Gates' adolescent behavior might seem like nothing remarkable — many of us went through similar stages of rebelliousness without growing up to be multibillionaires.

Yet a new study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology and cited by theAssociation for Psychological Science, suggests that there is in fact a connection between defiance and rule-breaking in adolescence and earning a high income later in life.

Back in 1968, nearly 3,000 sixth-graders living in Luxembourg took intelligence tests and answered questions about their feelings toward school. Their teachers also filled out questionnaires about the students' behavior. At the time, researchers assessed the students' family background as well.

In 2008, researchers revisited this data in order to see which childhood traits predicted career success and income. They were able to get in touch with 745 of the students, who were now about 52 years old.

Some of what the researchers found wasn't especially surprising. For example, more studious kids (as rated by teachers and by the kids themselves) went on to land better jobs.

But the researchers were surprised to find one childhood characteristic — beyond IQ, parents' socioeconomic status, and the amount of education the students attained — that predicted higher adult income: rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.

At this point, the reason why rule-breaking preteens go on to become high-earning adults is unclear. The researchers say it's possible that people with rule-breaking tendencies are more inclined to stand up for themselves, which could lead to greater financial success.

Meanwhile, other research has yielded similar findings: One study found that agreeable (i.e. nice) adults tend to make less money than disagreeable adults. And Malcolm Gladwell arguesin his book "David and Goliath" that entrepreneurs like Apple founder Steve Jobs and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad were more successful because they were disagreeable, allowing them to take social risks and decline requests that weren't in their best interests.

Of course, this research isn't a reason to encourage your sixth-grader to run wild in school or at home. But if you notice a defiant streak in them, know that it isn't an inherently bad thing. It could help facilitate their success (and maybe even help them become the next Bill Gates) down the road.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum