The Popcorn Effect: What Success Has to Do with a Kernel of Corn

What leads to success? Why are some people successful and others aren’t? And is there a recipe for success? Journalist/moderator Claudia Reiterer’s new book “The Popcorn Effect: From Dream to Success” deals with these very questions. At the first meeting of the UGL Women’s Network, the author gave a reading in the Ars Electronica Center, where she also gave us an interview.

Credit: Johanna Firmberger

Claudia Reiterer interviewed 28 people who have achieved success in a wide range of disciplines—among them, skier Marcel Hirscher, mountain climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and star chef Alfons Schuhbeck—for her book “The Popcorn Effect: From Dream to Success”. The prominent journalist and TV show host wanted to find out what drove these people. Why are they so successful? What external influences played a role? What preconditions are necessary for success?

The result: the theory of the Popcorn Effect. Just like with a kernel of corn—Stärke [translator’s note: this means strength and (corn)starch in German], energy and pressure are decisive for success. But which kernel ultimately pops depends on many factors.

On the occasion of the first get-together of the new UGL Women’s Network at the Ars Electronica Center, Claudia Reiterer read excerpts from her book and discussed what she learned about success as she did her research. Curious? The journalist reveals more in this interview.


Credit: Johanna Firmberger

Maybe you could start by telling us a little about your background.

Claudia Reiterer: After elementary school, I definitely wanted to attend college preparatory school but my foster parents didn’t permit it. They said I should learn “a proper skill”. I wanted to go into journalism, but they didn’t regard that as worthwhile. So I went to nursing school in Graz, and then I worked for five years in a cardiac surgery unit. But meanwhile, I got my equivalency diploma and I completed my university studies with a triple major in teaching, psychology and social medicine.

While I was in college, I had part-time jobs, and one was encouraging shoppers in a shoe store to spin a wheel-of-fortune. That’s where I was discovered by Peter Rapp [impresario] who wanted to get me into the entertainment industry. And I gave it a try in Vienna and learned quite a lot, but I ultimately realized that’s not for me. And right at that time, there was a casting call to staff the first private radio station in Styria, Antenne Steiermark. Back then, in 1995, private radio was a rarity in Austria—there was only Radio Melodie in Salzburg and Antenne Steiermark. And at the audition, I was selected immediately. I worked there for 2½ years, during which I also did some work for the private TV station in Graz, and was finally recruited by ORF–Austrian Broadcasting Company’s Styria regional studio. Then I moved on to ZIB [news department]—that was right at the time of the Lassing mine disaster. I worked for ZIB 1 [primetime national news], Report [political magazine], Hohes Haus [parliament coverage], I spend 10 years at konkret [consumer information], and in between I also did some dancing. Since January, I’ve been at Im Zentrum [panel discussion]. And I also wrote two books during this time.

You latest book is entitled “The Popcorn Effect”. How do you mean this?

Claudia Reiterer: You know what they say about being on a roll? All of a sudden, the complications come unraveled and you have the feeling that things are going your way! When does this breakthrough occur in your career? I wanted to find an image that gets that across. So for me, it’s like in the case of popcorn. Corn consists of starch; once you add energy, the pressure comes into play and, at some point, there’s an explosion. I wanted to know why every kernel doesn’t pop. And there are many factors that go into this. Where does the corn grow? In what sort of soil? Does it get enough sunshine? Sometimes, in the middle of a field of corn, you find a plant that’s particularly beautiful. Why is that? It’s not just genetics; the environment plays the primary role. This is precisely the issue I’ve been working on for so long. When I was young, I was often very angry because, as a foster child, I was treated like a second-class citizen. That’s why this matter of justice has always been on my mind. At what point does inherent ability explode? When does it kick in?


Credit: Johanna Firmberger

For your book, you interviewed a lot of different people …

Claudia Reiterer: The intention was to find out: What sort of childhood did you have? What school did you attend? Are there commonalities? And I had a couple of hypotheses that, during the process, were either debunked or confirmed. Previously, whenever I had been asked what went into success, I had said: one-third luck, one-third likeability, and one-third ability. But my work on the book led me to recognize that luck is usually diligence. People who have achieved something in life have done an incredible amount of hard work. And they have tremendous perseverance.

Nobody sees their path to success. Many people are too envious, begrudge others their success, and don’t see what a long, hard road they travelled to get there. And that these successful people didn’t give up. One example is Alfons Schuhbeck, the famous chef. He applied for his dream apprenticeship 34 times, and he was turned down every time. It wasn’t until the 35th time that he finally got the job. Or take Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner—she ascends to the summit until she reaches it. That’s stick-to-itiveness! And there’s a difference between that and patience, which it’s often conflated with. Very successful people can be extremely impatient. You don’t have to be long-suffering; instead, you have to keep trying, over and over again, and not give up.

And conversely, are there things that stand in the way of success?

Claudia Reiterer: Fear. And unwillingness to take risks. That leads nowhere. Skier Marc Girardelli tells a story about assessing children whose parents considered them highly gifted. The kids were asked to jump off a chair, and some of them simply didn’t want to jump. So they were deemed unpromising candidates. Taking the plunge into a risky situation without fear of failure, without fear of making a mistake, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying all over again—that’s what’s important!

Are there particular groups who find it more difficult to achieve success?

Claudia Reiterer: Yes, of course. The key question that emerges is: Where was I born? And that brings us back to the field in which the corn stalk grows. No matter how talented you are, sometimes it’s just difficult. But I’m convinced that, here in Austria, almost anything is possible.

How helpful are women’s networks for achieving success?

Claudia Reiterer: No women’s network helped me. I’m rather critical in this respect. Some women’s networks I’ve gotten acquainted with don’t like strong women. There’s often a powerful leadership group, and sometimes they don’t want someone coming in who could challenge their position. In many women’s networks—in contrast to many men’s networks—the primary consideration isn’t whether the women are strong. Instead, the decisive criterion is: Do I like her or not? Could she pose a threat to me? Ultimately, I made the transition to building and maintaining personal networks with many women.


Credit: Johanna Firmberger

What do you have to say about getting support from those who have already made it?

Claudia Reiterer: This is very important. Hannes Leopoldseder, my former director of information at ORF, believed in my talent. One time I did a show, and I just sort of mailed it in, as they say in the business. I was terrible, and the reason is that I wasn’t adequately prepared. And he really bawled me out for that! But that was the right thing to do. And that’s precisely what I appreciated. He praised me when I did a good job, and he gave me constructive criticism when I screwed up. That way, I could learn. That’s how it was then and it’s still the case today that most of these positions are held by men. You always need people in high places who can give you a helping hand—until you reach that point yourself, and then hopefully you don’t forget how you got to the top.

Is there something like a success formula?

Claudia Reiterer: No, of course not. But I took the formula “luck, ability and likeability” and expanded it into what I call The Popcorn 6: perseverance, hard work and an iron will—which means: Do I really want this or don’t I? Most people simply lack desire. If you always seek a reason why something won’t work, then you simply don’t want it to work.

Do you have some personal words of wisdom you’d like to share with us in parting?

Claudia Reiterer: Sustain the love of what you do and the joy you derive from it. When that vanishes, you have to do something else. That’s ultimately what it’s all about, in your career and in private life. If your career is so demanding that you can’t enjoy your private life, then that’s wrong. And when your career is so demanding that you don’t even enjoy your job anymore, then that’s wrong too. As romantic as it sounds, it really does ultimately boil down to loving what you do.

Claudia Reiterer is a TV show host, journalist and author. She has moderated “Im Zentrum” on ORF–Austrian Broadcasting Company’s channel 2 since 2017.

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