Ask the Experts

Valedictorian Vicissitude

I am not at the top of my class. Do I have a chance to make any real money in my career?

We are all wondering the same thing, is the world ruled by Harvard dropouts who create mega-online companies? Here is good news for you. A study of over seven hundred American millionaires showed their average college GPA was 2.9. Do students graduating with top grades have assurance of financial success?

Researchers following valedictorians into professional life after college generally found that they all attained the traditional markers for success. Top of the class grades and the majority landing top-tier professional jobs maybe the case, but very few went on to hit the bigtime of professional fame and wealth.

It appears that the traits that set you up for success at high school and college are not the same as those that lead individuals to world-changing breakthroughs or the creation of billion-dollar enterprises. Schools and colleges generally reward those that consistently do what they are told and life rewards those that do exactly the opposite.

Conformity, diligence and willingness to bow to the system creates valedictorians, which is exactly what the college wants. They find out what the professor wants and they provide it consistently. In a closed academic system the rules are very clear and the system is rigid. Out in the real world, life’s rules are not so clear, and those not strictly abiding by them can be at an advantage.

Many valedictorians admit that they were not the smartest students in the class, but simply the hardest working. Some acknowledged that they gave teachers what they wanted and did not really absorb the material.

Many of the world’s most influential thinkers came up with a radically new solution to a political, technical or scientific problem. Those that break the mold and think out-of-the-box are more likely to be the ones starting a new social media platform or Google.

Interestingly, both founders of Google were quoted attributing part of their success to their early educational training, which was far from rigid conformity. Larry Page and Sergey Brin both attended a Montessori School, whose foundation was the liberty to choose and act freely within a prepared environment.

Going along with what is already working moderately never made anyone famous. Digital agencies now abound to promote those offering unconventional or innovative solutions. Before the Net, many innovators were marginalized, taking a lifetime to find an audience.

Schools tend to reward being a generalist and the real-world rewards expertise and passion. There is very little recognition by colleges of passion and proficiency in a particular field, instead the emphasis as always is the end grade and test results. Life is the opposite, you can and will be rewarded for passion and innovation.

Students who enjoy learning tend to struggle at high school as the education system is too stifling to allow them to pursue their passions. Top graders usually go on to be people that support the system and become part of it. They do not change or overthrow the system, conformity does not set you apart from the rest.

Back to your question, the answer is yes; however, the keys to success are knowing yourself and picking the right pond. Having a personal definition of success is important. In an interconnected world where you can work 24/7, we are surrounded by unrealistic achievement standards set by the Internet and media.

I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have… Thomas Jefferson.

John Regan is a former Director of Sales for equity research.