Revisiting valedictorians

The most popular Apply with Sanity blog post of 2019 so far is actually one that I wrote two years ago. I’m not exactly sure what makes it so share-able (let me know if you have an idea), but I’d like to re-post it today so it goes back to to top of the page for new readers. Enjoy!

When I think about high school valedictorians, two things always come to mind.

One is simple: as cool as it is to be number one at your high school, remember that every high school has a number one. There are roughly 35,000 of you every year. If you happen to be valedictorian, that's wonderful and you should feel proud. But only a little. Like high SAT scores, the glory of being top in your class fades really fast, usually by the first day of college.

The other thing I always remember is a conversation I had with a former student--who was valedictorian--after his first year studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He said that he was doing well, and had decent grades, all As and Bs. I asked about the Bs: he'd never had a B before in his life, how did that feel? Fine, he said. "Most the guys on my hall were their high school valedictorians, too. We can't all be straight-A top of the class forever." That struck me as wise. (He's now a software engineer at Microsoft.)

I'm thinking about valedictorians for a number of reasons in this graduation season, but mostly because last week a friend sent me this article, titled "Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows." My friend simply asked me: "Thoughts?"

I have thoughts.

Normally I'd begin with what I think the article gets right, but not today. Let's look at what the article gets very, very wrong.

The main idea is that high school valedictorians rarely go on to do great things, probably because of the very qualities that make them valedictorians. Look at this excerpt from early in the article:

"Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the academic pack. Of the 95 percent who went on to graduate college, their average GPA was 3.6, and by 1994, 60 percent had received a graduate degree. There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent 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."

What? A group of people, 95% of whom graduated college, 60% of whom got graduate degrees, 90% of whom are in professional careers, 40% of whom are in "highest tier jobs," all with "good lives" by "all measures." And the writer somehow isn't impressed by that. Because none of them were able to "change the world, run the world, or impress the world"? What?

This reeks of Silicon Valley only-billionaire-disrupters-count-for-anything culture. And it's ridiculous. I dare you to tell the doctor who diagnoses your cancer and begins life-saving treatment that she's merely successful, not a world changer. I dare you to tell the accountant who saves your parents thousands of dollars they can spend on your college that he's really not impressive because he doesn't run the world.

All the most successful person at your high school did was go on to be one of the most successful people in your society? And that's not good enough? Sure. Whatever.

Why, according to the researcher, are valedictorians so incredibly un-impressive in life? For one, students who do well in school are obedient. Because they're good at doing what they're told, they are not good at world-ruling awesomeness. Grades, we're told, don't predict intelligence, they're just "an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules." 

The other reason top students are "rarely the number ones in real life" is that they are "generalists." To have excellent grades in all your classes means that you're pretty good at everything, but that you're probably neglecting your one true passion. The valedictorians and salutatorians the study followed were "extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.”

So let's have a look at the big picture for these poor, sucker valedictorians. These losers ended up extremely well rounded, successful both personally and professionally, self-disciplined, in top-tier professions, living good lives. But they didn't reach "eminence," whatever that means. Sad, sad, valedictorians. What a waste.

If you were to ask me (I graduated in the middle of my high school class, and I don't run the world, so you probably didn't ask me), I'd say the article is right for all the wrong reasons.

You absolutely shouldn't put too much stock in being valedictorian, but not because valedictorians are lame could-have-beens who spent too much time being generalists to accomplish anything great. I've taught a dozen or so high school valedictorians, and dozens more who ranked in the top ten percent. Some are globally-gifted geniuses who really are so good at everything that they became successful in some career but could have easily become successful in 20 other careers had they chosen a different path. Some are not too intelligent but really hard workers who strive for excellence despite their lack of natural talent. Some are suck-ups and cheaters. Some are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in a shallow talent pool, and they never would have been in the top at a different school or a different year. There's just a whole lot of variety to students in the top ranks.

The reason we shouldn't pay too much attention to valedictorians is that there's no significant difference between being number one and number two. Or number four. Or number 20. If having good grades and being in the "elite" is important to you, that's fine. Do the work you need to do to be counted among the elite. But don't get stressed out over your ranking within the top; it's just not worth it. And if you have a passion or project or problem that makes being in the top tier not important to you, that's also fine. It doesn't mean you're not smart and have no options in life. Nor, however, does it mean you're more passionate and more likely to change the world than the students in the top.

I remember I was watching college basketball on television a few years ago when the commentators were talking about rankings and who was number one that week. And one of them made a really good point that applies to this discussion as well. He said that the idea of a single Number One Team is really flawed. There are around ten really great, top-tier teams, he said, and in any moment for a number of reasons any of them might beat another one, but there was no way to really show that one was objectively better than the others. Your high school graduating class probably works about the same. There's a core group, around ten percent give or take a few, who are undeniably the top performers. Depending on the metric you want to use and the day, any one of them could be the number one.

So don't put too much value in the valedictorian, but put more value in the group as a whole.

There's a growing movement to do away with high school rankings, but I'd be surprised if rankings go away completely any time soon. For schools that keep rankings, I'd recommend looking to the quirky-but-fair rule used in professional cycling. In big races like the Tour de France, everybody who crosses the finish line in a pack is given the same time as the leader of the pack. As long as there's no gap between your wheel and the wheel of the racer in front of you, you get the same time. This recognizes that anyone in that pack could just as easily be at the front or the back, and it reduces wasteful and dangerous jockeying within the pack. Ranking students this way would accentuate the tiers and acknowledge that there's no significant gap between different spots. You might end up with four students ranked number one out 100, and you'd likely end up with the the bottom 15 of the 100 ranked 85. This would, I believe, more accurately reflect the relative strengths of the graduates. 

The article rightly points out that being number one in your class doesn't guarantee future success, and that plenty of successful people are not top ranked:

"Shawn Achor’s research at Harvard shows that college grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice. A study of over seven hundred American millionaires showed their average college GPA was 2.9." 

That's a good point, but please remember that those stats apply to people who go to college. The average GPA of millionaires may be a C+, but 85% of millionaires have a college degree. Graduating college (currently about a third of American adults have a bachelor's degree) is the clearest way to make it into the top tier. Beyond that, don't worry too much about the numbers. 

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