What we can learn about career choice from the Terman study


The Terman study is the longest running longitudinal studies ever to be carried out in psychology. The study included 1,528 of the most intelligent children born between 1900 and 1925. It started in 1921, and the participants have been followed up every four to five years ever since. Data was collected on their personality, habits, life-choices, health and much more. This allows researchers to track the results of different life choices over decades.

Two of the leading researchers working on the Terman study recently released a book: The Longevity Project, which aims to uncover the factors that lead to the participants having long and healthy lives.

The book has a fascinating chapter on career choice (though I’d recommend the whole thing).

Here’s a summary of the key conclusions:

The factors leading to career success

  • Intelligence predicts success, but it’s no guarantee. All of the participants in the Terman study were very bright, but a quarter ended up in less prestigious occupations, like clerical workers and craftsmen. Only one fifth ended up ‘highly successful’ – prominent doctors or lawyers, accomplished in the arts, or leading scientists. One fifth ended up ‘unsuccessful’ within their professions.
  • The more successful, the longer they lived. The most successful men lived on average five years longer than the least. In fact, Terman’s rating of success at age 30 predicted life-span decades later.
  • This effect was not explained by greater wealth, avoiding smoking and drinking, a happier marriage, more education, or conscientiousness (although conscientiousness did explain part of the effect).
  • A stable career with a clear progression of rising responsibilities also predicted longevity, compared to a ‘drifting’ career through many different professions.
  • Continuing to work into old age was a significant predictor of longevity.
  • Overall, the findings do not suggest that avoiding stress and responsibility is a good strategy for having a healthy life. Rather, they suggest that the becoming the type of person who perseveres to achieve ambitious goals leads to both success and health.
  • This links to a broader theme in positive psychology – in Flourish, Seligman proposes that achievement is one of the five key components of a flourishing life.

What else predicted career satisfaction?

  • Choosing your occupation rather than drifting into it.
  • Being ambitious and enjoying challenges.
  • Productive, hardworking people tended to be happier, healthier and more socially connected than their more laidback peers.

The real causes of career stress

  • Despite the common sense advice to relax more if you want to avoid stress, the findings of the study don’t suggest that facing difficult challenges damages your health.
  • However, having poor relationships with your co-workers or boss can damage your health, especially if you’re naturally low on agreeableness. This ties up with the literature on the importance of social support at work.
  • Another path to damaging stress is having lots of responsibilities, but insufficient resources and influence to control outcomes: think of being a middle manager, relying on many others to achieve your goals, but lacking the political power and budget to easily make things happen.

Is it important to be a good ‘match’ with your career?

  • There was no evidence that having a good match between your personality and occupational environment (an analysis performed using Holland types) predicted a longer life.
  • In some cases, a high degree of match was even harmful. For instance, the assertive and persuasive ‘enterprising’ men, who sought jobs in sales and management, ended up living less long than the same personality types who sought jobs in other professions. It seems that the match between their workplace and personality reinforced stresses and unhealthy habits common to each.
  • In some cases, a good match was helpful. For instance, men with social personality types benefited from being in social environments, like counseling.
  • Overall, there wasn’t a strong relationship either way between personality and environment fit. This matches up with the other literature we’ve come across.
  • Based on this, we don’t think you should prioritise having a good match between your personality or interests and your type of work (e.g. don’t avoid becoming a consultant, because you’re not the right ‘type’ of person). It’s further evidence against the do what you’re passionate about approach to finding a good job.
  • Rather, focusing on finding work that’s engaging, that contributes to something larger than yourself, which lets you form positive social relationships, and in which, if you persevere, you can be successful. Engagement, meaning, positive relationships and achievement are all ingredients of a flourishing life.