In the academic realm, many people consider being named valedictorian the pinnacle of success and a high grade point average the ultimate badge of honor. Most would say that a high GPA is a necessary ingredient to make a huge impact in the world and to be successful. The results of a recent study conducted by a researcher at Boston College indicate that reality is a bit murkier.

The Surprising Study Results

For the study, researcher Karen Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians after graduation. Predictably, most attended and graduated from college with high GPAs. More than half received graduate degrees. Today, almost 90 percent have professional careers and 40 percent hold the “highest-tier” jobs. By most definitions, these formerly high-performing students have carved out successful lives.

The most notable finding of the study is that none of those formerly best-of-the-best high schoolers have risen to the top of their chosen professions as trailblazers and visionaries. None went on to become “household names.” They are, by definition, successful because they are employed professionals earning a comfortable living. But these former high achievers are hardly transforming the world.

High-Achieving High Schoolers Get an A+ in Conformity

Discussing the results of her study in Money Magazine, Arnold notes that high schools reward students who follow the rules and give teachers exactly what they are looking for. High schools neatly lay out for students the pathway to graduation and success. Those who work hard and master the curriculum succeed in school. People who further succeed and make a splash in life, though, are those who rise to the occasion when life throws a curveball—those who embrace a challenge and welcome the unknown, rather than shy away from them.

Forge Your Own Path

As Oprah Winfrey told graduates of Howard University in 2007, “Sometimes you find out what you are supposed to be doing by doing the things you are not supposed to do.” Attending class, studying, and getting good grades is important, but so is trying new things and thinking outside the box.

Sometimes, the most teachable moments occur outside of the classroom, and it’s important to allow students leeway to pursue their interests and take risks. The world is full of successful people who didn’t even graduate from high school. Actor Quentin Tarantino, Tumblr founder David Karp, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and pitchman George Foreman are examples of high school dropouts who pursued their passions and made it big. (The average college GPA of U.S. millionaires is 2.9.)

So, what’s the takeaway lesson to be learned from the Money study and others like it? By all means, students should do their best and strive to achieve high grades in high school. A high GPA is something to be proud of! However, a high GPA is not the only measure of success. It is just one piece of the puzzle.

Every high school has a valedictorian, salutatorian, top tenth percentile, etc. What will really set apart a graduate and position him for success is being smart—and an academically curious, original thinker. Students should strive to be brilliant, but should not use a report card as the only yardstick for brilliance. Students should study hard but be brave enough to follow their passions and interests wherever they lead. That will make them uniquely brilliant and position them for true success.

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