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Why Valedictorians Fail

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How success in the real world requires a different kind of intelligence

The conventional wisdom is that if you go to school and get good grades, you’ll be successful. In reality, the only success doing well in school guarantees is success in school. Many valedictorians have learned the hard way that success in school does not mean success in the real world of business and investing. The real world is a whole new game—an exciting, fast-paced game where different rules apply.

The world of the future belongs not to the “A” students, but to those who can embrace change, see the future and anticipate its needs, and respond to new opportunities and challenges with creativity and agility and passion.

Why Valedictorians Fail...Especially as Capitalists

In 1981, Karen Arnold, a professor at Boston University, began a study of valedictorians and salutatorians from graduating classes of Illinois high schools.

Professor Arnold discovered that, “while these students had the attributes to ensure school success, these characteristics did not necessarily translate into real-world success…. To know that a person is a valedictorian is only to know that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life.”

Translation: real life is not measured by grades but by your bank statement—and they don’t teach that in school.

What Happens to Valedictorians?

In her book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, Professor Arnold states that high school valedictorians go on to do well in college, averaging an overall 3.6 grade point average. Most went on to work in conventional careers such as accounting, medicine, law, engineering, and education.

Arnold says, “While valedictorians may not change the world, they run it and run it well...but just because they could get As doesn’t mean they can translate academic achievement into career achievement.”

She also stated, “they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they can put all their passions...The opportunities to become famous or change the world as an accountant, for example, are few and far between...They obey rules, work hard, and like learning, but they're not the mold-breakers. They work best within the system and aren’t likely to change it.”

Translation: Valedictorians don’t make good entrepreneurs and investors because they’re afraid of risk. They make great employees.

My Poor Dad Was a Valedictorian

My poor dad came from a family of six children. Three of the six were valedictorians and my dad was one of them; all three became PhDs. My dad was probably an academic genius. He read and studied voraciously and graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in two years from the University of Hawaii. Although he worked full time and raised a family, he also found time to attend advanced courses at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern.

He lost his job at the age of 53 and was not prepared to do anything else. He was a teacher at heart and a former government employee who had few marketable skills outside of teaching. Cashing in his retirement fund and savings, he purchased a brand-name national ice cream franchise. His business venture soon went bust. I returned from Vietnam in 1973 to find my dad sitting at home looking through the newspaper’s want ads for a job.

My poor dad attempted to follow the prescribed pattern Professor Arnold discussed: Obey the rules, work hard, don’t break the mold, and work within the system. Being a valedictorian did not help him in the real dog-eat-dog world of business.

My Rich Dad Was a Dropout

My rich dad on the other hand was a dropout. He had to leave school to help run his family business. While he didn’t get a degree, he did get an education—running a business in the real world.

Using his education in the real world, my rich dad built a huge real estate empire and hired many “A” students to run his company. He did not need to be a valedictorian to be successful in the real world.

Why “A” Students Work for “C” Students

My poor dad did well in school as an “A” student. He did well as a bureaucrat in the government.

Unfortunately, when it came to money, business, and investing, he missed out on the opportunity to gain real world knowledge. He could not survive in the cutthroat world of the big business and investment, while the “C” students and dropouts Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, my rich dad, and hundreds of others find and develop their genius as true capitalists.

What kind of education are you seeking?

The message is simple: Success in the classroom does not ensure success in the real world. The world of the future belongs to those who can embrace change, see the future and anticipate its needs, and respond to new opportunities and challenges with creativity and agility and passion.

So, what do you value—and what values are you instilling in your kids? To go to a good school and get good grades? Or to find an education that has real-world value and prepares you and your kids for success outside the ivory towers?

If you want to be rich and successful, traditional education, while helpful, is not enough. You need a strong financial education too; it’s an investment that pays dividends year after year.

Interested in learning how to achieve real success? Join our free, financial education community here.

Original publish date: April 24, 2013

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