Why Don't Valedictorians Rule the World?

Straight A's don't make millionaires. They make middle managers.

If you were ever bummed out that someone beat you to the top of your high school's graduating class, allow us to offer up a little refreshing, research-backed schadenfreude. As it turns out, receiving top honors in your teens doesn't translate to big-time success later in life. In fact, a study of more than 80 valedictorians and salutatorians (that's second-place finishers, guys) reveals that making straight A's means you're almost destined for middle management.

Yes. Slackers rejoice.

Eric Barker, the author of the new book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, told CNBC that students at the top of the class end up doing well in school, but "don't actually become billionaires or the people who change the world." Barker bases his claim off research done by Karen Arnold, the author of Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians.

Graduating at the top of your class is hardly a recipe for failure, of course. But, according to Arnold—who followed the career paths of all those valedictorians and salutatorians after they graduated—more than 90 percent of them ended up holding nicely paid positions in professional fields. As Barker summarizes, "They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted… By all measures, the majority have good lives." In other words, the top of your class is likely to land in the middle of the pack and stay there until retirement.

So that's 90 percent. What's the percentage of them that go on to "change," "run," or "impress" the world? What's the percentage of them that go on to become heads of state, millionaires, and inventors of society-shifting technology?


In fact, a survey of more than 700 American millionaires showed a perhaps startling figure: the average GPA among this ruling class was a mere 2.9.

"[Grades] aren't any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling [a pair of] dice," writes Barker.

So don't feel bad about all those times you cut class here and there to smoke joints and chase skirts. Those chances don't come around twice. Making millions, on the other hand, can happen just like that.

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Ari Notis
Ari is an editor specializing in news and lifestyle. Read more