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Color outside the lines

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Life success has little to do with school success

In school, I was an overachieving type-A teacher-pleaser. I liked school, learning, socializing...all of it. And, I proudly brought home the evidence of my academic success every quarter. I was as mainstream as mainstream could get. When talking about it with my mother recently, she said,"I never worried about you," meaning she knew I'd do the good, first-child thing of turning in my  homework and preparing for tests. 

Now that academia is in my rearview mirror, my love of learning hasn't dulled--in fact, I find myself ever more curious about an even broader array of subjects. But what I've observed, thanks to the reconnection of my enormous graduating class through reunions and social media, is that the highest academic achievers didn't turn out to be the highest life achievers. Many of the top earners or business owners from my graduating class were in the middle to lower-middle of the pack in school. Grades in school didn't predict academic success in life.

How could this be?

A friend of mine--another chronic A+ student--was talking about this with me recently. "We were chicken. We could see all the pitfalls and why-nots. They either didn't see them or weren't scared off by them. We had never failed so we were terrified of it."

Could this be true? Are the kids in the middle the most fearless in following an unconventional path? When there's no self- or parent-imposed pressure to be in the top 10%, does that open up the possibilities to follow your interests or widen your scope? If you spend your younger years succeeding and failing in equal measure, do you become more comfortable with risk?

I'm not gonna lie: I went to high school with an all-star cast of characters. Some have gone on to be novelists, actors, television producers, Broadway dancers, stand-up comedians, serial entrepreneurs, restauranteurs, internationally acclaimed hair stylists... the list goes on an on (and this is a middle class public school, btw). I'm awed by the dream-chasing that's gone on with my classmates. They took some serious chances, and I'm not saying they found overnight, fairy-godmother-esque success. I'm sure it took time, grit, and drive. But, they did it. 

One of my favorite stories is about my handsome-football-player-straight-C-troublemaker-got-to-know-the-principal-real-well-from-all-the-time-spent-in-his-office classmate. He went from most likely to be a convict to biggest stand-out success in terms of earnings. At one point, he owned something like 50 mansions in the Hamptons (which he rented out for beaucoup bucks), a mortgage bank, and now has multiple drug-treatment facilities to combat the rampant opioid crisis. He's a millionaire many times over.

It seems to me that the most wild success stories to come out of my class are from kids who were tsk-tsked by the teachers and admonished by the administration. None of them were the valedictorian or salutatorian. 

Those two became doctors.

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