WHERE do the most successful Americans come from? I was curious. So I downloaded Wikipedia. (You can do that sort of thing nowadays.)
With a little coding, I had a data set of more than 150,000 Americans deemed by Wikipedia’s editors to be notable. The data set included county of birth, date of birth, occupation and gender. I merged it with county-level birth data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics. For every county in the United States, I calculated the odds of making it to Wikipedia if you were born there.
Roughly one in 2,058 American-born baby boomers were deemed notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry. About 30 percent made it through art or entertainment, 29 percent through sports, 9 percent through politics, and 3 percent through academia or science.
The first striking fact in the data was the enormous geographic variation in the likelihood of becoming a big success, at least on Wikipedia’s terms. Your chances of achieving notability were highly dependent on where you were born.
Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.
Where you were born depends on where your parents lived, of course, and it turns out that living near colleges and places with higher than average numbers of immigrants seem to characterize the top-rated places of origin, as shown in the table below: