What happens to the smart, "overachiever"-types in college?

Posted: April 23, 2017

You know, the ones that make straight A’s in all upper-level classes, in “National Honor Society”, top-level band or orchestra, graduate at top of their class. What happens to these kids after high school or college? Do they end up being “average," or go on to be CEOs or high earners?

This depends quite a bit on what college the overachievers go to. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who deals with math and social science, gave a really fascinating speech[1] at the Zeitgeist Conference in 2013 that shows that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. He demonstrates that students in the top 5% of their class publish research at about the same rate (X papers per year) no matter whether they go to Harvard (which accepts only 5% of their applicants) or the University of Toronto, which accepts 82% of their applicants. Students at the bottom of the class at Harvard are no more successful than students at the bottom of their class at the University of Toronto.

This means that the smart overachiever types who go to Harvard are more likely than not to consider themselves not-so-smart and not-so-overachievers once they get there, and this change in their perspective follows them for the rest of their lives. These students often get what is call “imposter syndrome,” because they begin to believe that, no matter how much they have accomplished in their lives, there is always someone way smarter and more accomplished than they are. Imposter syndrome is the more dangerous cousin of humility. Obviously, we don’t want everyone to believe they are the smartest person in the room. Those people can be insufferable. Nor do we want people to feel like everything they’ve accomplished is a fluke and sooner or later people will realize they’ve been faking all along. Imposter syndrome can lead to depression and anxiety—like the epidemics of depression and anxiety we currently have.

So that’s one thing that can happen to those smart overachievers. I have yet to meet a smart overachiever type who didn’t have a crisis of self-confidence in college.

Some obviously go on to great things, but as often as not, those CEOs of multimillion dollar companies and governmental leaders did not go to the super-elite colleges. This doesn’t mean they weren’t smart or overachievers. Condeleeza Rice is a classic smart overachiever type who went on to be Secretary of State. She attended the University of Denver and overachieved there, too. ;-)

But if you think in terms of pure numbers, there are something like 40,000 high school valedictorians graduating every year. There are 4,000 seats for freshman in the Ivy League; say 10K seats for freshmen if we count all the highly-selective colleges in the country. This means that only one out of every ten valedictorians will be able to attend a highly-selective college (really less than that because some of those seats go to non-valedictorians). Multimillion dollar corporations only need one CEO a piece, when there are more and more amazing graduates coming into the job market every year. It’s just not numerically possible for every smart overachiever-type to be a famous highly-financially-successful-type person after graduation.

Does this mean they’re average? That depends on what your definitions of “success” and “normal” are. Many people choose to step off the “success” treadmill for one reason or another. They want work/life balance, or to be their own boss, or to do something outside the mainstream. I would argue that this does not mean they’re more or less successful than normal. But I think it’s a good idea for us to stop encouraging our teens to be overachievers and instead support them in finding and following their interests. Being happy and fulfilled is more important than “achieving” as far as I’m concerned.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell - Zeitgeist Americas 2013

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