Who is More Likely to Change the World: A Wealthy Heir or an Orphan?

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, carries a fascinating section that reveals a remarkable reality: statistics strongly suggest that orphans are much more likely than the general population to become world changers.

Gladwell describes how in the early 1960s, a psychologist named Marvin Eisenstadt began a project interviewing top “creatives” – innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs. Eisenstadt was struck by an unexpected trend: a surprising portion of these creatives had lost at least one parent in childhood.

Others had noticed this seeming quirk of history, too. A decade prior, a historian had noted in a study of famous scientists that a large percentage had been orphaned as children.   Another study that looked at the lives of famous writers and poets found the same – that more than half had lost at least one parent by age fifteen.

Eisenstadt decided to wade deeper. He took out that year’s Encyclopedia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana and made a list of every person whose life had earned more than one column in either encyclopedia. From there, he dug deep into the crevices of history to learn about each. The result was remarkable – more than one third of these world-shapers had lost one or both parents by age fifteen

At about the same time, another historian named Lucille Iremonger was studying England’s prime ministers in the era from 1800 to World War II.   She was looking for patterns and qualities common among those who would rise to lead the nation. Yet something she hadn’t expected “occurred so frequently that I began to wonder whether it was not of more than passing significance.” A full 67 percent of Prime Ministers during this time period had lost at least one parent by age 15. This rate of orphanhood was roughly double that of other members of the British upper class in that same timeframe!

As Gladwell is quick to point out, experiencing the loss of parents isn’t “good” for children. Far too often, it is devastating. Like Prime Ministers, prisoners also are far more likely than the general population to have lost a parent in childhood, between two and three times as much.

But we can conclude this: orphaned children who do escape the tragic statistics facing orphans – often thanks to the love and help of just one or a few caring adults – are far more likely than other children to become world-changers.

Why? No one knows for sure. But careful observation of human nature teaches that, as much as we all do everything we can to avoid it, hardship refines and strengthens character. Yes, it can do the opposite – perhaps more often than not. But the women and men who do come through the pain and struggle of orphanhood with hope intact emerge with a special strength.

The one or few adults that played a role in preserving that orphan’s hope – through adoption or mentoring or financial support or perhaps just a listening ear – gave a gift that may well have made the breath-taking difference between sociopath and society-shaper. In the process, they gave a gift to the entire world as well.