Does Your Name Spell Success?

Revised January, 2011

"What's in a name?" a man named Shakespeare asked long ago. Potential employers may ask this same question of you. After all, your name is the first thing on your resume. Along with your appearance, it's one of the things most people use to form a first impression.

Much effort goes into understanding the power of names -- ask anyone having their first baby. Some believe a name is the single most important influence on the development of our personality and helps create our destiny. Can your name help you succeed? What can you do to increase your chances of success in the name game?

Teacher's pet

The focus on names starts in grade school. One study of sixth graders by S. Gray Garwood found that students with names that were popular with teachers scored higher in skills tests, set more ambitious goals and were better adjusted. And with many classrooms being seated alphabetically, already the "As" are at the head of the class in front of the teacher.

Who gets the grade?

Researchers Lief Nelson and Joseph Simmons looked at several different studies on names. They found that while all students want As, students whose names begin with letters associated with poorer performance (C and D) achieve lower grade point averages (GPAs) than do students whose names begin with A and B. This was especially true if the students liked their initials.

The researchers also looked at 15 years of grade point averages for MBA students at a large private U.S. university. Students whose names began with C or D earned lower averages than those whose names began with A or B, they found. This led them to believe that there is something subconscious about our attraction to our names and initials. It's not that students with C and D initials don't work as hard; it's just that they may find a grade of C or D not as bad if their name begins with that letter. But what about the rest of us whose initials rank even further down the alphabet? This is an area for more research.

Don't strike out

Researchers Nelson and Simmons also looked at Major League baseball records spanning 93 years to see who strikes out and the effect, if any, their name has on strikeouts. Strikeouts are recorded using the letter "K." And, sure enough, it was discovered that batters whose names began with K struck out slightly more often than others. It's not that the batters wouldn't be unhappy with a strikeout, but they may just find it a little less aversive than players with no K for an initial.

Call it like you hear it

Grouping is a natural tendency; it's the way our brains work. And we humans do this when it comes to names. While the danger for stereotyping is real, an Ohio University study showed that employers weigh several factors when judging job candidates, and that the gender match between an applicant's name and the occupation could have a subconscious impact. In a study by James Bruning, young adults were asked to predict the success of a group of people entering new careers, based on information provided about the applicants.

Participants predicted that women with more feminine names -- Emma and Irma, for example -- would have more success pursuing traditional female careers such as nurse, hair stylist or interior decorator.

Men with more masculine names -- Hank and Bruno -- were expected to be successful with traditional male careers such as plumber, truck driver and electrician.

Those whose names least matched occupation stereotypes might have a harder time landing certain jobs, the study suggests. A woman named Garrett pursuing a job in day care or a man named Bud who wanted to become a hair stylist, for example, might be searching for that dream position for a long time.

Names for success

One of the biggest studies on names was conducted by the Sinrod Marketing Group's International Opinion panel. After surveying 75,000 adults, the panel found:

Names associated with intelligence

  • Abigail
  • Alexis
  • Grace
  • Leah
  • Meryl
  • Vanessa
  • Alexander
  • David
  • John
  • Kenneth
  • Samuel
  • Tim

Names associated with leadership

  • Ruth
  • Alexander
  • Dwight
  • Lance

Names associated with working hard

  • Adal
  • Ingrid
  • Mariel
  • Margaret
  • Jake
  • Manuel
  • Ron
  • Todd

The Internet changes everything

As the online world becomes a bigger part of your job quest, consider that potential employers may turn to the Internet to find out more about you beyond your resume. Having an unusual name almost certainly guarantees higher search engine placement. An unusual name like Celine might be easier to find than Mary or Linda. And finding information on the right Isaac Smith will be easier than finding the right James or Michael with the same last name. In business, a unique name may mean you'll get a lot more "hits" -- and a lot more exposure.

Easy fixes for a name to keep

Dreaming of a name that's still you, but a bit more unique? Consider changing the spelling of your name. Amy may become Aimee. Turn Lisa into Lesa. Make Kevin Kevynn. Change Ryan into Rhyon. The search for alternatives also prompts some people to be creative with punctuation. Take Mari'elle or D'ante, for example. Some people unhappy with their first name just use their middle one. Did you know Farrah Fawcett's full name is Mary Farrah Fawcett? Or they've adopted a first/middle-name combination. Meryl Streep's Social Security card reads Mary Louise Streep.

Go all the way: changing your name

Different states have different rules for name changes. And the Internet is making it increasingly easy, fast and affordable. Once you've made the change through the proper legal channels, there is still much work to do, such as notifying the Social Security Administration, your state motor vehicle department and the human resources office at your job, among others. Then, start ordering new checks and credit cards. It may take time for your friends to start calling you by your new name. Be prepared for some who never will. To them, you'll always be the person you were when they first met you -- even if that was in third grade. Still, you'll have the pleasure of knowing that the new people you'll meet will accept your new name -- and the identity that comes with it -- easily.

Taking the stage

Entertainers are masters of creating a name to suit their image. Morgan Fairchild's name was Patsy Ann McClenny. And who would think that Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Whoopi Goldberg -- whose name makes you smile when you say it -- came into this world as Caryn Johnson.

Whether you're Maria-Elena the executive assistant; Sean the cop; a television host, media mogul and philanthropist named Oprah; or Bill the Microsoft guy, your name played some role in making you who you are.

Next: Can Your Name Keep You From Getting Hired?

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