By William Stixrud for Time STIXRUD
When my daughter Jora was in high school, she went to a talk I gave on the adolescent brain, during which I pointed out that high school grades don’t predict success very well. On the way home she said, “Great talk, Dad, but I bet you don’t really believe that bit about grades.” I assured her that I did. To prove it, I offered to pay her $100 if she got a ‘C’ on her next report card — in any subject.
We’ve all heard the familiar anxiety-inducing nostrums: That a screw-up in high school will follow you for the rest of your life. That if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale, you’ll never reach the c-suite. That the path to success is narrow and you’d better not take one false step. I have come to think of this unfounded belief system as what we psychologists call a “shared delusion.”
So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.
I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. I myself was a C+ student in high school who flunked out of graduate school. At one point I went for 20 weeks without turning in a single assignment. (I often tell the underachievers I see in my practice: “Top that!”) Long story short, I managed to do pretty well in life, and I credit my failure in graduate school with leading me to a career more in line with my skill set.
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