The recipe for success has been the subject of search and experimentation from the dawn of time.  The search tends to follow two paths—one external and one internal.  The external pursuit traces individual and collective action, while the internal pursuit inventories traits and characteristics of successful people and groups.  Science recently identified an important ingredient in that recipe.

A series of 3 studies (Judge, et al., 1999) followed participants from early childhood to retirement to determine the influence of personality and mental ability on career success.  Career success was measured by both extrinsic factors (e.g., income and occupational status) and intrinsic rewards (e.g., job satisfaction).  The findings are revealing.

High Conscientiousness was strongly associated with intrinsic career success.  That is, those who are highly conscientious are more likely to find significant career success.  Conscientious people are hardworking, persistent, dependable, and organized.

High Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Cognitive Ability were all associated with extrinsic career success.  People displaying these traits most often benefitted from more promotions, higher salaries, and greater professional prestige.

Neuroticism was a strong, negative factor in career success.  People with high levels of neuroticism generally lack the ability to psychological adjust to stress and are emotionally unstable. Taken together, high levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, and mental ability with low neuroticism, were associated with extrinsic career success.

It shouldn’t be surprising that smart people who work hard, are outgoing and emotionally under control are more successful in their careers than those who lack one or more of these characteristics,  But the clear take-home lesson from this research is the finding that conscientiousness is the single personality trait associated with gaining both the external trappings of success and the deep sense of satisfaction from one’s career.  According to science, hard work pays off in many ways.


Judge, T. A., Higgins, C. A., Thoresen, C. J., & Barrick, M. R. (1999). The Big Five personality traits, general mental ability, and career success across the life span. Personnel Psychology52(3), 621–652.