About the Author

Ronald F. Ferguson is an MIT-trained economist who focuses social science research on economic, social, and educational challenges. He has been on the faculty at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government since 1983, after full time appointments at Brandeis and Brown Universities. In 2014, he co-founded Tripod Education Partners and shifted into an adjunct role at the Kennedy School, where he remains a fellow at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and faculty director of the university-wide Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI).

Tatsha Robertson has more 20 years of experience handling investigative, feature and news stories for digital and print media. She was the first female New York City Bureau Chief for The Boston Globe, served as Deputy Editor and Interim Managing Editor at Essence Magazine, and later became the Senior Crime Editor for People Magazine. She also taught as an adjunct instructor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. She is the author of Media Circus: A Look at Private Tragedy in the Public Eye, and is currently working on a thriller novel as well as a blog called The Ordinary Genius Project.

Book Description

This book unveils how parenting helped shape some of the most fascinating people you will ever encounter, by doing things that almost any parent can do. You don’t have to be wealthy or influential to ensure your child reaches their greatest potential. What you do need is commitment―and the strategies outlined in this book.

In The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children, Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson, named in a New York Times profile as the foremost expert on the US educational “achievement gap,” along with award-winning journalist Tatsha Robertson, reveal an intriguing blueprint for helping children from all types of backgrounds become successful adults.

Informed by hundreds of interviews, the book includes never-before-published insights from the “How I was Parented Project” at Harvard University, which draws on the varying life experiences of 120 Harvard students. Ferguson and Robertson have isolated a pattern with eight roles of the “Master Parent” that make up the Formula: the Early Learning Partner, the Flight Engineer, the Philosopher, the Fixer, the Model, the Negotiator-Counselor, and the GPS Navigational Voice.

The Formula combines the latest scientific research on child development, learning, and brain growth and illustrates with life stories of extraordinary individuals―from the Harvard-educated Ghanian entrepreneur who, as the young child of a rural doctor, was welcomed in his father’s secretive late-night political meetings; to the nation’s youngest state-wide elected official, whose hardworking father taught him math and science during grueling days on the family farm in Kentucky; to the DREAMer immigration lawyer whose low-wage mother pawned her wedding ring to buy her academically outstanding child a special flute.

The Formula reveals strategies on how you―regardless of race, class, or background―can help your children become the best they can be and shows ways to maximize their chances for happy and purposeful lives.

Behind the Book is brought to you by HKS Library & Research Services, in collaboration with the Office of Communications & Public Affairs. If you have any requests, comments or suggestions, please contact us.

Alessandra S.:                    Is there a recipe for youthful success? In a new book titled The Formula Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Ron Ferguson and journalist Tatsha Robertson try to answer this question. After interviewing the families of hundreds of successful young adults, Ferguson and Robertson traced the roots of these individual successes to one common origin, good parenting. On this episode of Behind the Book, we'll take a closer look at The Formula and what roles parents can play in their child's upbringing that will lead them down the path to success.

Alessandra S.:                    I do really want to talk about what The Formula actually is and what it entails, but first I kind of want to get into the story behind the book. Why did you decide to write it?

Ronald Ferguson:             Well, Tatsha started around 2005. She was a journalist with the Boston Globe, a bureau chief at the time, and she was meeting all kinds of fascinating people, and she started to wonder how they got that way. Sometimes they would talk about their parents, and she thought parenting might have something to do with it, so she started interviewing people back then.

Alessandra S.:                    Professor Ferguson had been working on a project called the How I Was Parented project in which Harvard students interviewed fellow students to discuss how parenting had gotten them where they were. Professor Ferguson and Robertson connected, and their discussions eventually led the two to research and write The Formula.

Alessandra S.:                    At the heart of their formula are eight roles which parents must navigate in the upbringing of their child. The authors found these eight parental roles to be present in virtually every case they explored when interviewing families.

Ronald Ferguson:             The first role is The Early Learning Partner, and that's the parent who is very engaged with the child doing things that the child experiences as fun, but where they're also problem-solving, and they're also learning skills.

Ronald Ferguson:             Then, the second role is The Flight Engineer. If you think of life as a journey, well really high achievers are on a pretty high trajectory through life, and the flight engineer makes sure that they stay on that trajectory so if they start to go off track some kind of way the flight engineer intervenes.

Alessandra S.:                    The third role The Fixer ensures that the child has the resources and connections they need to succeed. The authors found that even in times of economic hardship the families they interviewed were able to find resources and allies to help their children advance.

Alessandra S.:                    The fourth role is The Revealer who shows the child how big the world is and what opportunities are available to them.

Alessandra S.:                    The fifth role The Philosopher helps their child to find purpose.

Ronald Ferguson:             A three-year-old can ask some very deep questions.

Alessandra S.:                    Yeah, totally.

Ronald Ferguson:             And you can blow it off, or you can give a serious answer. You might have a parent that'll go away and think for two days and come back with an answer that a child has asked.

Alessandra S.:                    Right.

Ronald Ferguson:             The sixth role is The Model who is an adult that carries himself in a way that the child wants to emulate. “I want to kind of be like that.”

Ronald Ferguson:             The seventh role is The Negotiator. The negotiator teaches a child how to make their case, how to defend their interests, how to speak truth to power respectfully.

Ronald Ferguson:             The final role is The GPS Navigational Voice, and the GPS navigational voice is the mother or the father in the child's head. Still speaking, still giving advice even after the child maybe has grown up and has moved away from home.

Alessandra S.:                    Ferguson and Robertson are careful to emphasize that success does not necessarily mean an ivy league education or tons of money. Instead, the authors envision success as something a little more abstract and a lot more personalized.

Ronald Ferguson:             These are people who have done a lot with what they had. They have become successful in so far as they are fully realized human beings. We have a little equation in the book that says Smarts plus Purpose plus Agency equals Fully Realized, and so it's not success by anybody else's conception. It's having people who have the smarts to do what they need to get done, but they are also about something.

Alessandra S.:                    Yeah.

Ronald Ferguson:             They have some things about the world that they want to change or some things that they want to achieve, and they have the gumption to get up and actually go do it.

Alessandra S.:                    Although The Formula was effective among families of all stripes it wasn't always evenly applied within the same family.

Ronald Ferguson:             One thing we do point out in the book is that the child needs to be receptive and all your kids may not receptive, so that may be one source of a difference. But more frequently what we find is that not every child in the family experience The Formula. The parent may say, “Well, I raised them all the same way” but no you didn't, okay.

Ronald Ferguson:             One other point that's important to add is that not every child's going to be a superstar, but we still think The Formula is going to help each child bring out the best in themselves.

Alessandra S.:                    Around the country, people are starting to take notice of the benefits this unique style of parenting can have on children. Since the book's release educators and other community members around the country are trying to bring the message of Ferguson and Robertson's book to the children in their lives. Even the authors' literary agent has said he's starting parenting differently as a consequence of the book.

Alessandra S.:                    Back at Harvard, Ferguson is incorporating and expanding the lessons he learned through writing The Formula into his own work as the faculty director of the university-wide Achievement Gap Initiative under which he's already planning some intriguing future projects.

Ronald Ferguson:             The Achievement Gap Initiative, the main project for the last few years has been a project called The Basics that came about after I noticed about 10 years ago that cognitive skill gaps are pretty stark by the age of two which means we need to get to parents early.

Alessandra S.:                    Right.

Ronald Ferguson:             And we need to go to scale and get to all parents, and so this book will help us do that.

Alessandra S.:                    To learn more about The Formula you can visit mastersoftheformula.com, and check out The Achievement Gap Initiative at agi.harvard.edu. This has been Behind The Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at the Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future Behind the Book videos by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter at HKS Library, and visiting our website