Geography of Fame

WHERE do the most successful Americans come from? I was curious. So I downloaded Wikipedia…

Why do some parts of the country appear to be so much better at churning out American movers and shakers? I closely examined the top counties. It turns out that nearly all of them fit into one of two categories.

First, and this surprised me, many of these counties consisted largely of a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Mich., I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor, Mich. The counties graced by Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Columbia, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Ithaca, N.Y., are all in the top 3 percent.

Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart. And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there.

But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople.

The success of college towns does not just cross regions. It crosses race. African-Americans were noticeably underrepresented on Wikipedia in nonathletic fields, especially business and science. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with discrimination. But one small county, where the 1950 population was 84 percent black, produced notable baby boomers at a rate near those of the highest counties.

Of fewer than 13,000 boomers born in Macon, Ala., 15 made it to Wikipedia — or one in 852. Every single one is black. Fourteen of them were from the town of Tuskegee, home of Tuskegee University, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington. The list included judges, writers and scientists. In fact, a black kid born in Tuskegee had the same probability of becoming a notable nonathlete as a white kid born in some of the highest-scoring, majority-white college towns.

More here, fascinating. Including an implicit criticism of my own personal migration pattern (having a kid in NYC then moving out to Bergen County, NJ). Apparently being a child of an immigrant is a big plus. Got that covered for my kids.

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