At 33-years-old, I’m a part of the millennial generation whose parents and grandparents routinely label entitled and self-absorbed. We’re the last in a long line of generations who were told we were “special snowflakes” who with hard work, determination and a college degree could have the American dream delivered to our doorstep. Many of us subscribed to the notion that hard work can and does pay off. So in high school we (well, actually not me, I got contact lenses in 9th grade and you couldn’t tell me nothing as I traded in my books for the boys) buried our heads in books just knowing those college-level courses would place us ahead of the game. We obsessed over SAT scores and aggressively aimed to get into Ivy League schools regardless of how much they cost because we knew an undergrad degree from them alone was enough to kick us into high gear towards that six-figure salary and Dutch Colonial in a gated community.
But then 2008 happened and many of us graduated in a recession only to discover that even with our kick-ass valedictorian speech, 5.0 GPA and Brown degree, we may have been able to snag some kind of employment and maybe even afford a brand new Lexus, but we were still living pretty average and not making the six-figures we were promised. To add insult to injury, a new study is showing that when it comes to changing the world in a Mark Zuckerberg kind of way, your valedictorian status probably isn’t really a big deal.
Time.com recently reported on a study that followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians after graduation to see what became of students who were seen as the brightest and best in their classes. Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, discovered that of the 81 students she observed, their average GPA was 3.6, and by 1994 many of them had received their college degree. Arnold observed that 90% were in professional positions and 40% were in the highest tier of their respective employers. Although none of those observed were exactly living broke, none were necessarily doing anything “spectacular” either which poses the question: Does academic success guarantee notable career achievements? Arnold says the answer is clearly no and our culture’s attitudes and expectations regarding education are to blame.
When it came to the debatable success of her study’s subjects, Arnold says “doing everything right” may be the quickest path toward mediocrity:
“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.”
“Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”
The study confirms that “doing everything right” in terms of traditional success standards of “hard work + degree = a good life” isn’t necessarily misleading but may be the reason why so many of my friends find themselves frustrated in the careers and unfulfilled. Many of my peers are slowly beginning to feel like hamsters on a wheel as they revamp resumes, sit through boring staff meetings, wait to accrue vacation time and keep their fingers crossed for promotions. They’re able to afford the basics: a decent home in a nice neighborhood, a new car every couple of years but do they feel like their making any kind of difference in the world? No. And furthermore many of them feel replaceable and stuck in positions where they aren’t valued and anyone with a few brain cells and two working arms could perform.
Arnold says this is because traditional career paths value conformity and not innovation. In other words, our generation may be filled with more “Yes Men” than independent thinkers.
“Essentially, we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.”
Many of the valedictorians in Arnold’s study admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others reported they aimed more to give 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.
If you think of it, many of the leaders we look up today didn’t take the most traditional career or educational paths. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook was a Harvard drop out and is now the fifth richest person in the world at 33 years old. Many of the tech giants including Bill Gates of Microsoft and Travis Kalanick, once the founder of UBER are all folks who gave the finger to the front row in class and trusted their ideas and ingenuity more than any textbook. Does it mean that a college education is worthless and that you can’t be a success just playing by the rules? Of course not, but it does mean if you want to make a significant mark on the world, you’re probably not going to do it by following your syllabus. The article breaks down exactly why:
“School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down.”
“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 fifty-five; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.”
Maybe it makes sense to take a chance on trusting your professor less, and your gut instinct a little more. Some of us millennials don’t give ourselves enough credit and we talk ourselves out of pursuing our passions before we even begin to explore the great impacts they could make not just our own future but others in the world. Because the truth is working harder doesn’t always work when it comes to changing the world. And even if I spend the rest of my days in data entry, I think it’s important to teach my daughter to work smarter and embrace her individuality, and most importantly question everything. Just because it’s always been done one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way. So start that YouTube channel. Write that book. Open that restaurant. We won’t all be Mark Zuckerberg’s but that doesn’t mean we all have to settle for being Leslie in HR for the rest of our lives either.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.