Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is "Most Likely To Succeed" A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Or Burden?

Sue Shellenbarger's Work & Family column at the Wall Street Journal today covered a fascinating topic: is the "Most Likely To Succeed" label a burden? For decades, graduating senior classes have voted on which classmate would be running the world at some unspecified future point. The people who win this award tend to be popular, smart and ambitious, which generally does bode well for one's performance in the labor market, according to Christy Lleras, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who's studied this topic. Shellenbarger cites Lleras's study, published in Social Science Research in 2008, finding that people who'd won this award earned 12% more than their peers 10 years later. A different survey by found that about 4 in 10 most-likely-to-succeed winners viewed the label as an inspiration.

On the other hand, about a third viewed it as a curse. Clearly not everyone who wins the most-likely-to-succeed label will have a stunning career. People may have mixed feelings about their careers in the first place, but when you add in the pressure that your classmates once expected you to achieve high school definitions of success, it can feel even worse.

I've been thinking of this in light of gifted students and their later career development. Many gifted students clearly feel a lot of pressure to succeed, much of it self-inflicted. When you're young, everything is possible -- you'll win the Nobel Prize in physics and the presidency, and publish best-sellers and perform piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall! Later on, not only do most of us have to specialize, many soon learn that success of the people-have-heard-of-you variety requires other skills beyond sheer genius. Persistence. Risk-taking. Long-term goal setting, etc. These are important skills too, but not necessarily ones we think of cultivating during the school years.

Anyway, I'm curious how people talk with their gifted kids about goals and career aspirations. Do you encourage total dreaming, or ever talk about the practical side as well?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

We tend towards pragmatism. While my son once expressed an interest in winning the Fields Medal, more frequently his planning does not extend past getting a PhD in computer science, which he should be able to attain fairly easily (unlike the Fields Medal).

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that you could get PhDs fairly easily. Everything Laura mentioned in the post beyond academic skills, like persistence, risk-taking and long-term goal setting, applies to getting a PhD too.

Anonymous said...

My son is quite bright, but he's just not that interested in school. He dreams of being an actor. We've been told by people who should know that he has talent. Of course when he thinks of being a successful actor, he's thinking mega-star.

We insist on good grades because we know he can get them, but we don't insist on all A's all the time. We do our best to get him training and opportunities in drama. We also remind him that actors need day jobs, and that making it big is a long road and depends on lots of things besides talent.

Bostonian said...

Laura Vanderkam wrote, "many soon learn that success of the people-have-heard-of-you variety requires other skills beyond sheer genius."

That's true. But many of us were confronted with the fact that although we were bright, we were not as smart as the very best students at our universities. One student I correctly identified as being much smarter than me went on to win a Macarthur -- the "genius" award.

subaruthie said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Laura. I've found myself wondering lately why no one ever really helped me set long term goals (in junior/high school, it was, "graduate college;" in college it was, "go to grad school"). And I can think of a few teachers and professors who helped me figure out what I was good at, but none ever showed me how to translate that into a vocation. I feel like I'm left with a unique skill set and nowhere to showcase it (though I must admit I live in the middle of nowhere for my husband's job and have stayed home the past year with our first child).

I think that all students would benefit from learning about setting long term goals and identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. Students who might have loftier goals (like truly wanting to be an astronaut!) need examples of how to get where they want to go, beyond getting into the "right" school. Looking back, I'm really surprised that we didn't have opportunities like this at the Academy.