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Do names predict success?

I’m halfway through reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” now, which is a bit late since its 2008 hit for 11 straight weeks in the New York Times Bestseller list. The first half made a point on the successful seizing opportunity, while the other half that I’ve yet to read, discusses about the impacts of their legacy.

What I’ve learned so far is that an outlier, meaning “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body” or “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample”, becomes successful in the world because they seize opportunities. They have had helps along the way,  “…and no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone,” explains Gladwell. They embrace this trait, aside from possessing the personality, the intelligence, the talent, and the ambition. These are qualities that celebrate a person’s individual merit, which is what most of us think of when judging the successful person.

They’re also lucky people thriving in their generations. If they lived in another time in another place, things would’ve been completely different. So much is predetermined, even when it comes to birth dates. It’s not a coincidence that computer whizzes were born in 1955, and business tycoons were born in the 1930s. The best hockey players were most mostly born in January, February, and March. That got me thinking… What about names?

More and more parents are getting unusual names in this generation compared to earlier generations. Why? In the age of change, we are placing individuality and uniqueness as higher values than ever. Almost a decade ago, when we hear Phoebe’s new name was Princess Consuella Banana Hammock from Friends (Season 9), we think she’s ridiculous, as the way Phoebe has always been. These days, you hear celebrity babies named Kal-El, Blue Angel, and Pilot Inspektor. A young man from Oregon changed his name to Captain Awesome. A British boy changed his name to Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine The Hulk And The Flash Combined. Can you imagine someone with a name like that working in a mundane secretarial job?

Whenever I order something at Starbucks and they asked for my name, I often say “Michelle” or “Lucy”, just for the sake of simplicity and that I don’t have to spell out my name plus repeating myself.

My name is Stacia, and I’ve always believed that I’m the different one in the family. I’m the youngest child and the only daughter. I have two elder brothers named Vincent and Jeffrey. My name could’ve been Sarah or Stephanie – but it turned out to be Stacia. I asked my mother why, she never gave me a specific answer for 22 years. “We wanted you to be ‘Tracie’, but that sounds kind of like a guy. So we thought ‘Stacie’ would be okay, but then we went for ‘Stacia’. So there you are,” she half shrugged, half smiled.

There are plenty of friendly strangers on the streets of San Francisco who can start up a conversation with you, especially whenever you’re walking somewhere alone and you carry an open body language and walk in good posture. No matter how crowded the streets are, you get that. On one occasion, a stranger said this regarding my name: “It sounds like a stage name.”

Sure, a unique name makes memorable first impressions. But when individualism is taken too far, it can put us right into self-absorption. “I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic,” said Jean Twenge, author of “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement”  and “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before”. Apparently this trend of giving unusual names to newborns began during the baby boom. Now that the world population is over 7 billion, parents are focusing more on their children standing out in the world. Now there’s a strong “drive for distinctiveness” in this era, so it was called in a new study by social scientists Jonah Berger and Baba Shiv. For someone whose name is Stacia walking down the fruits aisle, she would buy something like a dragonfruit or a rambutan to snack on for the week, as opposed to apples and bananas. Well, that’s not the case for me – my favorite fruits are apples and bananas and these days watermelons, actually. But the study tells us that people who are stimulated to think of distinctiveness were more likely to walk much further to get their favorite snack.

How did the researchers know about this? Well, they asked college students questions totally unrelated to food, then instructed them to write an essay on “a time they felt extremely distinctive … separate and different from the people around you.” Besides walking a lot further to get those snacks, they were also willing to pay about 70% more for it. Of course, studies like these are old news for the modern advertisers. Multitudes of mass-produced commodities are sold today that promises consumers that their products express the real, authentic you. Your Hermes Birkin bag, your Louboutin shoes, and your J Crew sweaters make you you. Who are we kidding?

“There’s been this cultural shift toward focusing on the individual, toward standing out and being unique as opposed to fitting in with the group and following the rules,” Twenge tells LiveScience. Before the baby boomers were born, parents placed higher priority on their children being obedient. That was in the 1950s, when Apple founder baby Steve and fellow computer whiz baby Bill was born. Now that we’re living in the midst of Millennial opportunists, society generally placed their values higher on standing out than fitting in.

As to whether these unique names lead to narcissistic traits or not, it’s still too early to tell. Nevertheless, a growing body of research do suggest that a name have long-lasting effects on the baby’s life, whether it’s good or bad, common or uncommon. David Figlio, a researcher at the Northwestern University in Illinois explains that “we’re always trying to think about the first bit of a child’s identity and so if we as a society pay a lot of attention to names it makes a lot of sense that people’s names might influence how they think about themselves and the way in which people might think about them.”

As a kid, I don’t really like my name. Because it’s weird and I always have to correct people how to pronounce it. But then, the belief that I am different in the family, just as my mother has always confess to me that she has higher hopes for me than any of my brothers, I became the most outspoken one and never really been afraid to speak up in a foreign environment or express my opinion in Speech class. As a result, I set expectations for myself and know that I have to work hard to reach them. The problem, however, is setting high expectations that are higher in value for me, but may not be valuable for someone else. That is, in fact, a dose of narcissism. “The relationship is so strong that when people want to measure self-esteem in a more subtle way you can do it with the name-letter task,” said Twenge while indicating a study method involving subjects picking out their favorite letters in the alphabet. Not surprisingly, those with higher self-esteem picked the letters in their name, especially the first letter in their initials.

And of course, I do like S. S stands for a lot of things, like Success (three Ss there!). But I do know that I’m Still Stuck in School, in my Senior year now, Strengthening my Soul and Stamina to Succeed in my Standard.