Top of the Class Doesn’t Translate to Top of the World: The Lies We Are Told About High Achievers
The role of high school valedictorian is lofty. There they are, the epitome of success, certainly with all those terrific grades, superb behavior and commendable extra-curricular activities.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that those same folks would go on to revolutionize the world, right?
After all they were smart.
Melissa Chu wrote a piece on what she calls the “Intelligence Threshold” https://medium.com/@melissachu/the-intelligence-threshold-how-smart-do-you-need-to-be-to-succeed-a1b78bc150c3. She posits a perfectly reasonable question:
Just how smart do you have to be in order to be successful?
Answer: Not as much as you think. (okay, thank God for that)
If you’ve ever wondered what ever happened to your class valedictorian, and whether they’re billionaires and disrupters by now, here’s your answer:
It seems that both conventional wisdom, along with conventional measurements (such as IQ points) can be woefully inadequate predictors of success.
While your Bayview High valedictorian may be living a well-adjusted life in the burbs with 2. 5 kids, two cars and multiple televisions, don’t expect to hear them discussed in the same breath as a Bill Gates (who dropped out of college) and others who have grabbed the world by the short and curlies.
Each time I go back for my high school reunion (and my next will be #50, so please), I am reminded of this. Our school featured a set of twin girls, by all counts bright and capable and pretty and accomplished. There was nothing the girls couldn’t do well. They were cheerleaders, popular, beautifully made, they were intelligent and well-bred (what a term) and well-mannered. They excelled in high school. One married an insurance salesman, and worked for decades at the same insurance company. Couple kids. By all measures, contented. The other was beset by physical issues, shocked the class by being very loud about discovering that she was gay (I mean that’s her perfect right, but this was the Deep South) and is disabled. Neither of them went on to change the world, which I certainly had expected them to do. So did everyone else.
There is nothing wrong with the arc of either of their lives. It’s just life. I’m simply supporting Chu’s point. Predictors- those we love to use- are at best shaky. At worse, worthless. CV implied they would change the world. They likely changed their fare share of individual lives, as we all can, but neither was moved to make a vast difference for others, fight for world peace, or find a cure for Alzheimer’s. Again, let me be clear. Nothing wrong with that. All I’m saying here is that to judge our kids- or ourselves- via standardized tests or by comparing ourselves to those for whom school was a breeze is brutally unfair and shortsighted.
While it may be true that basic intelligence can help us pass tests, the wholesale addiction to test-taking that has taken over our school system is very poor predictor of, or training ground for, any kind of creative, inspired and radical thinking. Especially for the kinds of world problems we are currently facing, from climate change to the vast income gap.
We need ballsy, brave, bold disrupters. Traditional intelligence tests, crisp conformity to the rules and predictable, safe behavior in school are not likely good indicators of a brawler willing to question the status quo.
If anything, it’s just the opposite.
The man who was, briefly, my husband, has an IQ of 160+. He is firmly in genius territory. However, he was hobbled by anger, a lousy childhood, and deep doubts about his value. He wasted vast amounts of energy researching issues just to be right about his worldview.
His career? He repairs copiers.
While there’s nothing wrong with fiddling with the guts of your office Canon, to me, it seemed a monumental waste. All that brain power spent fueling anger and the energy to punch holes in my drywall.
The world is littered with unrealized potential.
Intelligence tests date back to France, and Alfred Binet (https://www.verywellmind.com/history-of-intelligence-testing-2795581) While the original has undergone signficant changes over the years, we in Western society still lean far too heavily on this single number as both a statement of implicit superiority as well as a predictor of success.
They’re wrong on both counts. Here’s why: there are different spheres of intelligence, each of which can in and of itself be a predictor of success depending on who we are and what we’re doing in life (https://blog.adioma.com/9-types-of-intelligence-infographic/).
For example, my natural, inborn and carefully developed competencies around word use put me in rarified air when it comes to linguistics. However I am a stumblebum idiot concerning math and logic. That doesn’t make me stupid, any more than a superbly-gifted NFL athlete is stupid because he doesn’t excel in English or calculus. His brain and body work differently than mine.
That doesn’t make either one of us better than the other. We are different, our gifts are different, and both are valuable.
As the CNBC article states:
A survey of over 700 American millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. “College grades,” Barker writes, “aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice.”
We are smart and succeed in widely different ways. To discount any individual for not possessing an IQ of a certain level is not only foolish, it’s downright abusive. That’s because our educational system tends to tamp down qualities that don’t succeed at tests. Why?
Because that’s how teachers are measured, and in many cases, paid. People will push whatever pays them, to the detriment of all of us. All of society.
The IQ test has all too often been used as a weapon to determine superiority, which is highly addictive. Rather than assess each of us individually to determine in what unique and particular ways each of us is brilliant in our own way, this one-size-fits-all method to determine success has likely done enormous damage to kids with plenty of potential in areas that don’t require perfect test scores.
Part of what Chu discusses in her article relates directly to that sphere of intelligence that has far more to do with whether any of us will be successful at much of anything. For example, she mentions perseverance, as opposed to the wholesale dumping of a difficult project due to an obstacle.
This speaks to emotional maturity, or EQ.
Daniel Goleman has written plenty on this topic (https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Intelligence-Matter-More-Than/dp/055338371X). He’s hardly alone. As the topic has caught on, now it’s a buzzword, with its own universe of training seminars and programs.
The problem is that neither reading a book nor attending a seminar will deliver EQ to you, me or anyone else. What they will do is give us an awareness of what it is. Not what it feels or tastes like. That takes hard work.
Those who have it tend to be more successful because they have empathy, compassion and care for others. Some are born with an innate sense of it.
Most of us earn it through road rash, years, injury, accidents, loss, failures. EQ doesn’t magically appear someday any more than what Chu describes as our notion that success just…pouf…suddenly appears.
What’s worse is that empathy is rapidly disappearing.
In an article for GrowingLeaders.com, studies now show that empathy among college students has dropped some 40%+ in the last decade or so.
This can easily be correlated- in my opinion as well as others- with the nearly 9+ hours a day that students spend on line. That’s growing. As empathy is dropping like a two-ton stone.
The very skill we most need which will ensure our success no matter what sphere of intelligence in which we excel is being eaten away in part by our time online. In addition, our own parents have disappeared into the Black Hole of online unavailability, and aren’t there to teach their kids to care.
Any student of human behavior online — and even if you’re not- can see it every single day.
If we want to be successful, I might posit that it helps to keep in mind that test scores are largely meaningless. By themselves they don’t predict or even imply success, unless you plan a career taking tests. Good luck finding that one.
Rather, the exploration to find where we excel, what our passions may be, those spheres in which we delight and find our competence is far more rewarding. Besides, you and I can build our competences in other spheres, which I have as a late-blooming athlete.
Very little about this is set in stone (okay, I lied. I will never EVER be good a calculus.)
To that I would add, vastly less time on line. Learning to be in and handle life. Appreciate our failings and by way of that, being patient with others’ shortcomings.
That, to my mind, is an excellent recipe for success, which in and of itself, has little to do with money per se.
It has to do with a life well-lived. How you define that is strictly up to you.