Ten days ago my husband went to a reunion at Eton College for the leavers of 1974. About 150 men crowded into the 15th-century chapel to belt out a quick Praise my Soul the King of Heaven before settling down to eat, drink and reminisce about schoolboy pranks while quietly trying to work out who had done best in the 40 years since then.
Afterwards he made two observations. The first was how good they all looked. These men, blessed by breeding, education and money, still look at 57 and 58 easily recognisable as their teenage selves.
The second was how relatively undistinguished their careers had turned out to be. Apart from one senior politician and one former newspaper editor, they were a middling group of lawyers, property investors and fund managers, rich by national standards, but disappointing if you consider their start in life.
They arrived at that school at 13, clever and mostly from wealthy families, to spend five years wearing tailcoats and becoming members of one of the world's most elite networks. Yet there they were, in their prime, and it had amounted to not very much at all.
His observation turns on its head the usual complaint about Eton – that it is an exclusive club of men who run the country. It is true there is currently a trinity of Etonians in power, as prime minister, mayor of London and archbishop of Canterbury but they are the exceptions to a more surprising rule that Eton is a club of men born to do great things but who increasingly fail to do anything much at all.
Last week I stumbled on an answer to the Eton College 1974 leavers' conundrum. It is contained in the combustible new book, The Triple Package, by "tiger mother" Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, which sets out to explain why Jews, Mormons and the Chinese do much better than other groups in the US.
They argue that it is down to three things: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. None of these is any good on its own, it is essential to have all three. Too much superiority, you have no incentive to lift a finger. Too much insecurity, and your doubts are paralysing. And without impulse control, or self-discipline, it is hard to crack on with anything.
If you apply this triple package to Etonians, you see at once what holds them back. They have superiority in spades. But they are low on insecurity, and have little impulse control as the culture relies on any achievement appearing effortless.
Not only have Chua and Rubenfeld answered the Eton question, they have come up with the best universal theory of success I’ve seen. They intended it to apply to groups, but it works still better at explaining why some people from the same slice of society do better than others.
I've never met David Cameron. But I know Archbishop Justin Welby and Mayor Boris Johnson well enough to guess that neither is a stranger to insecurity. Both, too, have the capacity to work like dogs.The triple package helps make sense of other success theories. We are endlessly told how many dyslexics and people who lost a parent young make it to the top. Now we know the reason: such things make them insecure. We also now know for the deprivation to work, the bereaved dyslexic must also know he's great, and be prepared to do the necessary to become greater.
One cheering thing about the theory is it has no time for passion – which has never struck me as either a necessary or a sufficient condition of great achievement. Nor is there any mention of other traits so often invoked, including optimism, networking, resilience or life-long learning. From the triple package theory all other characteristics will flow, as needed.
Less cheering is that it explains why the successful are seldom good eggs. Superior people are alienating; insecure people are exhausting. People who are both are doubly unbearable, especially when you take into account all the dissembling they usually do to mask both traits. And too much discipline is a dull trait in a friend as it means it is impossible to get them to down tools and open a bottle of wine instead.
Yet as a parent I extract a shred of comfort from The Triple Package. Chua's first book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, upset liberal mothers everywhere, making us feel uneasy about being such softies with our children. This time, I feel slightly let off the hook. Surely anything I do to try to increase my children's superiority will lessen their feeling of inadequacy. While if I try to make them more insecure, I'll risk denting their superiority. So the lesson I choose to extract is to muddle through, exactly as before. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)