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Tom Greene: 6 Surprising Secrets of Success

Anxiety in America is at an all-time high right now. It’s the time of year that US high school seniors are learning where they will (or won’t) spend their next four’ish years. Parents and kids know that their future success hinges on a single decision by a group of total strangers.

But, getting in the right college has little to do with your kid’s future success. Why? Because most of the advice on success is logical, well-meaning and, well, totally wrong.

So, what does predict success? According to Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, it has very little to do with grades or getting into your dream school. These six observations from his book will blow your mind.

1. Valedictorians Rarely Become Millionaires

I bet you thought the Valedictorian of your high school class would be wildly successful, right? Not so fast. Karen Arnold a researcher at Boston College wanted to see what becomes of high school Valedictorians and Salutatorians. Of the 95% who graduated college, the majority of them went on to lead productive lives. But, did they change the world? Did they go on to become titans of industry? Nope. But, why?

Because most Valedictorians are rule followers and not rule breakers. And, playing by the rules never leads to outsized results. According to Dr. Arnold, “they settle into the system rather than transform it.”

2. Grades Don’t Matter

Our parents always taught us that getting good grades are the key to success. But, the average GPA of millionaires is a paltry 2.9.

So, how come the impulsive kids who barely paid attention in school ended up more successful than the whiz kids?

Because, focusing obsessively on grades and performance at the expense of free-spirit creativity is limiting. Those C-students in the back of the classroom weren’t even paying attention. But, they also weren’t encumbered by the expectations of making A’s and becoming a Doctor or a Lawyer in a few years.

All that freedom gave them extra time to try other things. You know, creative stuff like music, acting, writing, programming and the like. Things the whiz kids had no time for.

That free-spirit approach allowed them to explore different disciplines, perhaps some outside the confines of traditional education. They were able to find something they were truly passionate about and exploit that passion.

President Barack Obama graduated from Columbia College and Harvard Law School. Did you ever wonder why he never released his college transcripts? He probably had a 2.9 GPA. Today he is worth $70 million.

3. College Doesn’t Matter

So if playing by the rules isn’t the secret to success, what is? Apple founder Steve Jobs never graduated college, but he clearly summarized the key ingredients of success in 1982:

But the key thing is that if you’re gonna make connections which are innovative, you can’t have the same bag of experiences as everyone else, or else you’re going to make the same connections, and then you won’t be innovative, and then nobody will give you an award (for greatness). So, what you gotta do is go and get different experiences than the normal course of events.”- Steve Jobs

You can add Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres to the list. They’re all college drop-outs and they’re all visionaries. If I had their money I’d burn mine.

Elon Musk earned a Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania but dropped out of a Stanford University Ph.D. program. Today he is worth a staggering $190 billion. Do you think Elon Musk had a 2.9 Grade Point Average? I do.

According to author Eric Barker, “58 members of the Fortune 400 richest Americans either avoided college or never graduated. Their average net worth is $4.8 billion. That’s twice the average net worth of those Fortune 400 members who attended Ivy League Schools.”

In addition, some of America’s biggest brands are rethinking the need for a college education. Companies like Dell Computer, IBM and Google are reducing educational requirements for certain positions. It’s a dramatic change, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

4. Your Performance is (Almost) Irrelevant

As Ricky Bobby’s father Reece Bobby once suggested, “if you ain’t first, you’re last.”

But, Reese Bobby was incorrect. Your performance is not always the best indicator of success.

According to Jennifer Chapman, a researcher at University of California at Berkeley, the single best predictor of success is good, old ass-kissing-not performance. Yup, ass kissing can’t completely save you from poor performance but it is clearly correlated with higher degrees of success.

5. Jerks Do Better

Studies also show that jerks finish first a lot more than high performers. And, they’re often more successful.

If you’re too nice people see you as less competent or weak. If you’re a jerk, people see you as powerful. Jerky people are more assertive and aren’t afraid to tell people (or their boss) what they want or need. That assertiveness doesn’t win you any friends at the water cooler but it keeps your wallet fatter.

6. The School of Hard Knocks Beats the Ivy League

Would you be surprised to learn that fifteen British Prime Ministers were orphans? It’s true. See, many times it’s life’s tragedies that serve as the rocket fuel for success.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, suffered from severe and debilitating bouts of depression. So did, Sir Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud and Princess Diana.

Oprah Winfrey, Ralph Lauren and Elvis Presley share the humblest of beginnings. They weren’t just poor, they were hungry, abused and afraid.

But, that kind of upbringing can be a stronger motivating force than any Ivy League education. Once you’ve been hungry or cold you never forget it and you never want to go back there.

The Big Finish

Okay, so let’s recap what we’ve learned here.

First, Valedictorians almost never become millionaires. They simply don’t break enough rules to get there. Second, grades just don’t matter that much to your future success. Most millionaires had a 2.9 Grade Point Average. Third, College doesn’t matter. As Steve Jobs suggested in 1982, go and get different experiences than the normal course of events.”

Fourth, your performance is irrelevant. Try flattery instead of working harder.

Fifth, jerks do better than high performers. Sixth, the school of hard knocks beats the Ivy League any time. Just ask Oprah, Ellen, Elvis or Elon. Chances are if you go by one name you are rich and famous.

So what does matter? It’s simple. Things like grit, determination, focus and a relentless pursuit of things that other people deem impossible. Think: electric cars, privatized space travel or putting 1,000 songs in your pocket.

That’s it, just a few words of inspiration for those of you waiting by the mailbox. Just remember: none of it really matters.


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