Maybe valedictorians are successful

I think there are some good points in this Time article about how successful valedictorians are later in life.

It turns out they do fine, but the article concludes they don’t ‘change the world.’

They speculate as to why:

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.

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.

I think these are interesting and reasonable sounding explanations, but too simplistic.

I don’t believe the authors give due consideration to how uncommon and how much luck goes into ‘changing the world’. It’s like concluding that no valedictorians have won the Powerball. That’s comparing something with a 1 in 400 chance (being a valedictorian) to something with a 1 in 292 million chance. It isn’t likely to happen mainly due to the odds of the second event (Powerball), not the odds of the first . It certainly isn’t likely to happen in a pool of 81 candidates that they followed.

Most world changers are what Nassim Taleb call Black Swans, which are low probability events that have more to do with luck than anything.

I know it’s tough for folks to believe. We see the successful people and forget about the odds they overcame to get there. We don’t think about the millions of other people that are very similar to the successful ones that haven’t made it.

Imagine if there were a TV show that followed the lives of lottery winners. That would probably lead us to forget those immense 1 in 292 million odds because, well, ‘it happened to them.’

That’s called survivorship bias. We don’t see the thousands or millions that were similar to the successful folks, so we can’t gauge how rare their success.

Also, I think the whole ‘change the world’ mantra is BS anyway. It has led generations of folks into narcissistic and self-destructive pursuits.

When I got close to success, I’ve seen what others had to sacrifice to have a chance of making it and I wasn’t willing to do that. I imagine there are many like me.

For example, I was a fair bicycle racer in my day. To get to the next level, I would have had to give up many things like hanging out with family and friends and have a single-minded focus on training (which, admittedly is the second reason the authors of the Time article gave–perhaps I was too much of a generalist to have a single-minded focus on training).

But, it was what I saw to get to the level after that that turned me off. I would have likely needed to sacrifice my morals and take performance enhancing drugs. I simply wasn’t willing to do that.

School brainwashes us to think of success as being world changing or making a big splash. You must be important, rich and famous, make it big! We envision getting there in meritocratic ways through hard work and persistence.

But, many find out, like I did, there’s often a dark side to achieving that success. To have a chance of that type of success often means being extremely selfish, making questionable sacrifices and perhaps, taking some moral shortcuts. I’d love to know what percentage of Hollywood super stars achieved their fame without providing a few questionable sexual favors to people who could give them a break along the way.

Perhaps valedictorians are simply smart enough to figure that out and come to believe that success isn’t about changing the whole world, but rather changing the part of world around you in, perhaps, smaller, but still important ways.

That might mean being a good and involved parent, volunteering to help others out in formal and informal ways, being a good friend and living by a good set of morals.

I wrote about this idea back in 2011 in the second part of this post.


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