Graduates of 2017,
This is truly a moment to behold—years of small academic steps culminating in a diploma of honor and achievement. As you embark on whatever new chapter of your life lies before you, and as you close one of hard work, study groups, and rigorous preparation for standardized tests, questions of future success are undoubtedly on your mind. And perhaps most relevant to you, you’re wondering how much the work you’ve done in school matters. What is the meaning of a high (or low) GPA in the real world? In the grand scheme of things, how do you find success when it isn’t mapped out for you by counselors, academic calendars, and college admissions requirements?
We’re generally encouraged to play it safe (in school and in life), but is doing the normally prescribed “right thing,” and not risking the ups and downs of extremes, the path to success—or to mediocrity? Looking at those who follow the rules and do everything right, what becomes of valedictorians? It’s what every parent wishes their teenager to be. Mom says study hard and you’ll do well. And very often Mom is right.
But not always.
Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the academic pack. Of the 95 percent who went on to graduate college, their average GPA was 3.6, and by 1994, 60 percent had received a graduate degree. There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives.
But how many of your number-one high school performer peers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.
Commenting on the success trajectories of her subjects, Karen Arnold said, “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas.” In another interview Arnold said, “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries … they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”
Was it just that these 81 didn’t happen to reach the stratosphere? No. Research shows that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be home-run hitter outside the classroom.
So why are the number ones in high school so rarely the number ones in real life? There are two reasons. First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.
In an interview, Arnold said, “Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.” Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others said that it was more an issue of giving teachers what they wanted than actually knowing the material better. Most of the subjects in the study were classified as “careerists”: they saw their job as getting good grades, not really as learning.
The second reason is that schools reward being a generalist. There is little recognition of student passion or expertise. The real world, however, does the reverse. Arnold, talking about the valedictorians, said, “They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.”
If you want to do well in school and you’re passionate about math, you need to stop working on it to make sure you get an A in history too. This generalist approach doesn’t lead to expertise. Yet eventually we almost all go on to careers in which one skill is highly rewarded and other skills aren’t that important.
Ironically, Arnold found that intellectual students who enjoy learning struggle in high school. They have passions they want to focus on, are more interested in achieving mastery, and find the structure of school stifling. Meanwhile, the valedictorians are intensely pragmatic. They follow the rules and prize A’s over skills and deep understanding.
School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down.
Shawn Achor’s research at Harvard shows that college grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice. A study of over 700 American millionaires shows their average college GPA was 2.9.
Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes—both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments. It’s like putting a governor on your engine that stops the car from going over 55; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.
So, the answer to your questions—about success in the real world and how to reach it—is simple: decide it for yourself. Follow your specific passions and master them. Channel the skill of hard work into learning and truly understanding whatever it is that sparks your curiosity. Your life and your success are your own. Seize them.
Eric Barker is the author of the just released Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. His humorous, practical blog, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree," presents science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life. Over 290,000 people subscribe to his weekly newsletter and his content is syndicated by Time, The Week, and Business Insider. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Financial Times.