What happens to high school valedictorians?

After graduation, valedictorians aren’t the most likely to succeed

Why valedictorians rarely become rich and famous — and the average millionaire’s college GPA was 2.9

Why your good grades won’t help you change the world

These are just a sampling of some of the articles published after Eric Barker released his book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

As stated in the book:

“There is little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent [of valedictorians followed in one study] 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 these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear; zero.”

Before looking at what the research showed, it’s worth questioning some of these working assumptions. First, much of the research cited in the book is from one study released over 20 years ago. Second, is it reasonable to use “changing the world, running the world, or impressing the world” as the benchmark for valedictorian success? Aren’t they putting enough pressure on themselves even as teenagers? And finally, maybe we shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of people who are reliable, consistent, well-adjusted, successful, and happy. Those sound like pretty good outcomes to me.

But the book does raise some interesting points about exactly what’s required of a student to become a valedictorian, and just how those traits do and do not translate to the real world.

Barker lays out two primary reasons for his claims that valedictorians don’t reach the same top-of-the-class success in life after college.

First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. They’re told that earning top grades in rigorous classes is the most important factor in college admissions. They’re told that rising to the very top of their class is a noble pursuit. And while it may not be stated explicitly, I imagine they receive consistent messages that doing these things will have a far-reaching impact on their likelihood of success long past the release of their grades this semester. It’s not surprising that high-achieving kids will pursue the very achievements defined by the adults who supposedly know what we’re doing.

And second, Barker points out that school rewards the student who is a generalist and can earn A’s in every subject, rather than the student who has a true passion or expertise that dominates their time. That seems like a reasonable point to me. If you want to be a valedictorian, you can’t get so swept up in your love of playing the cello or learning karate or reading books that it gets in the way of earning top grades. Even an academic passion can’t really dominate your time. No matter how much you may want to dive in and learn even more about European history or Shakespearian plays or calculus, the pressures of your other classes—and your commitment to earning A’s in all of them—dictate exactly how much time you can afford to spend on any one interest.

So, what’s a smart, reasonable reaction for a student at or near the top of the class who might read this study and wonder if all their time and effort are worth it?

First, students should never discount the value of the traits required to earn top grades. You’ve got to be goal-oriented. You have to work hard. You have to be disciplined, focused, and able to manage a reasonable amount of stress. Those are good qualities to have no matter what your measure of success now or later might be. Those traits, much more so than whether or not your GPA stays perfect, are what will ultimately have the most influence over your future success. The right behaviors are a lot more important than the specifics of the outcomes.

But it’s also important to occasionally take stock in your personal fulfillment, engagement and happiness. While you’re earning these top grades, make sure you also regularly consider:

Do you have a favorite subject?

Do you have a favorite teacher?

Do you get enough sleep to function?

Do you have good relationships with your family and friends?

If asked to name three positive things that happened to you yesterday, could you do it?

Do you generally wake up looking forward to the day?

Can you name at least one subject you really wish you could learn a lot more about (doesn’t have to be academic)?

Do you regularly enjoy activities or hobbies that have nothing to do with getting into college?

Are you excited about the opportunities that are waiting for you in college?

Have you had at least one good laugh in the last week?

If you regularly consider those questions (or others like it) and find you’re responding with too many no’s, it’s worth considering the extent to which your pursuit of all A’s, all-the-time, is responsible.

Extremes are rarely a healthy, responsible, sustainable path. I wouldn’t recommend that a student blow off school entirely so they can pursue their love of video games any more than I would endorse a student whose pursuit of a perfect GPA has left them anxious, sleepless, and depressed.

But if you make the laudable decision to spend the time and energy required to get top grades, be thoughtful about exactly why you’re doing it. You’re better and smarter than “everybody told me to.”