This time of year is fraught with inaccurate and dangerous messages for high school graduates ‒ and for that matter, college grads ‒ about their futures. It is a message that is rooted in the same flawed logic that makes executives focus on making their companies smart while ignoring the more important issue of culture, or organizational health.
Here’s how it plays out.
High school counselors and college recruiters misguidedly convince students that they should try to get into the most prestigious college possible because this will determine the success of their careers and their lives. The unfortunate conclusion that teenagers draw is that their test scores, GPA, essays and strategically designed extracurricular activities will translate into happiness in adulthood. Of course, anyone over the age of forty knows that this is patently untrue.
There are two primary fallacies that need to be debunked here. First, a person’s job does not determine his or her happiness in life. It took me many years to figure this out, as I initially bought into the notion that the prestige of my career and the money I earned were the foundations of success. For those who think this sounds naive, know that most of the young people leaving high school and college are under the impression that this is the case. The result of this is a failure to appreciate more important determinants of fulfillment in life, like marriage, friendships and faith.
It’s critical for young people, and their parents, to realize that their college experience has a far broader impact on their life than on their career opportunities. Unfortunately, schools are not rated based on how they shape a person holistically, and so we fall back on careers and salaries as an indicator of quality. This leads to poor decision‒making and seriously unrealistic expectations for students and parents alike.
Second, even if one were to believe that college is primarily about getting a great job, there is no reason to believe that going to a higher rated school leads to greater success in one’s work life. As someone who has been working with leaders for twenty‒five years, I can say with confidence and sincerity that the vast majority of the best executives and employees I’ve encountered did not go to the most prestigious schools or have the highest S.A.T. scores. In fact, what the successful ones have in common has little or nothing to do with their educational background or raw intelligence, and almost everything to do with emotional intelligence, character and work ethic. Trust me when I say that most executives will wholeheartedly agree.
So why does society put so much emphasis on numerical indicators like test scores, grade point average and school rankings? For the same reason that businesses focus on finance, marketing and technology ‒ those things are easier to measure than the benefits of organizational health. We human beings seem to crave concrete, measurable predictors of success, perhaps to give us a greater sense of control in the world. But that doesn’t make those predictors accurate indicators of anything. Success, fulfillment and happiness in life are driven by a more integrative, nuanced and behavioral combination of factors, that can’t be easily captured on a spreadsheet.
So what is the message for parents and students? First, don’t buy into the lie that success and fulfillment in life are determined by the prestige or ranking of the college you attend or the job you land. Second, take a more holistic approach to life as the best leaders do, embracing attitude, behavior and effort more than intelligence and status. And finally, when it comes to searching for a college or a job, find the one that will allow you to develop your character and social skills so that you become the best husband, wife, parent, neighbor, and yes, employee you can be.
Now, if only there were a ranking for that.