How Much Does Height Matter In Career Success?
The average American man is 5’ 9”. Women are closer to 5’4".
The average 20th-century American president, on the other hand, is 6 foot. Nineteenth-century presidents were still taller, at 5' 10". In fact, in more than half of presidential elections, the taller candidate has gotten more popular votes.
It's no surprise that height is strongly correlated to success in professional sports like basketball, where how high one can reach is an explicit part of winning the game. But it's bothersome to think that we would vote for someone based on a physical attribute that has nothing to do with the job.
Are we heightist?
It sure seems like it. Statistics show that an extra inch of height translates to an average of $1,000 more annual income—the six foot man makes five grand more than his 5' 7" colleague.
On the other hand, it's well-known that Hollywood actors skew short—especially leading males. Robert Downey Jr., America's highest-paid actor at the time of this writing, is below average at 5' 8". Other high earners like Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise, and Zac Efron are below average.
The discussion of heightism and success in America mostly revolves around speculation like Hennessey's. We vote for the tall guy "because height conveys power." The short guy gets the leading role "because he's easier to work with"... except he makes less money and gets worse gigs than the tall guy. What a bunch of discriminating bastards, we are.
Fortunately, that's not true either. A few years ago, three economists, Nicola Persico, Andrew Postlewaite, and Dan Silverman, tackled heightism from a clever statistical angle. Controlling for family background, they looked at workers' heights and earnings—which were correlated as highly as race and gender earning disparities—and then investigated how tall those workers were as teenagers.
That data yielded something remarkable:
"Controlling for teen height essentially eliminates the effect of adult height on wages," they wrote. "The teen height premium is not explained by differences in resources or endowments."
In other words, how tall you are now actually has nothing to do with how much money you will earn; it's how tall you were in high school that matters.
Notably, the economists found that height as a pre-teen or child did not correlate to future success. Only during those crucial, awful, self-conscious pubescent years where we struggle to "find ourselves" does height play a pivotal role in our future earnings.
The crucial difference between more and less successful people, it appears, is not height, but what height bestows at age 15: confidence. And just like getting started in sports early correlates to higher chances of professional success, a confident teenager will do more, get more, and be more confident at age 40 than an anxious one.
This explains the tall presidents: running for president takes shovelfuls of confidence—confidence you likely have had from a young age. Indeed, histories of US presidents: how success correlates with age and experience—indicate that successful presidents were confident go-getters who had the gall to defy normal paths and procedures.