Are 37,000 Valedictorians Successful? That Depends
Popular culture has always focused more on external comparisons than on inner character. It doesn’t seem to be getting better. Our kids are growing up in a hyper competitive world with a pervasive sense of limited resources and opportunities amplified by social media which shows all the success that others are experiencing.
That’s too bad, because when kids compare their success to other kids, it is always a lost cause. There will always be somebody else having more success in almost every arena.
Don’t believe me? Check out these stats about outstanding high school students:
- There are 3.7 million high school seniors in the USA, and only 37,000 valedictorians. But many of this elite group won’t be attending one of the selective “Ivy Plus” colleges, because there isn’t enough room for them! For example, there are only about 12,000 spots for US born freshmen in Ivy League schools.
- In those same 37,000 high schools, a total of almost 70,000 boys and girls are selected as the “Most Valuable Player” of their basketball team. But according to the NCAA, fewer than half will play college basketball at any level. And how many of them will be MVPs of their college team? Not many!
This pattern continues across academics, sports, music and art. The comparison game has few winners, and even those winners are likely to be losers at the next rung, or in the next season.
Our valedictorians and MVPs deserve respect for their dedication and skill. If their self esteem mostly comes from working hard and doing their best, they are likely to feel great about themselves, with some bonus recognition from others thrown in. And they are likely to thrive, no matter what college they go to, or whether they ever play basketball again.
But if their their self esteem comes from comparing themselves with others, from “being the best”, they are almost guaranteed to come up short; it is only a matter of time until they are beaten or don’t measure up.
If the 1% of high school students who are valedictorians or MVPs are unlikely to get into their preferred college or continue a formal athletic career, isn’t it true that the odds of the other 99% “winning” at the comparison game are even worse?
Some parents, and some kids, react to this reality by trying to game the system, like the parents involved in the sickening college admissions scandal, who were more concerned with what college their child would go to than with the character and independence of their child. They paid gigantic bribes, cheated on tests, and stole opportunities from other kids in order to manipulate an outcome.
All so their kids would seem to be something rather than actually be something.
I happen to love competition. I’m glad my kids play games with winners and losers. I think it is important to know how to do both, and I also know it is way more fun to win.
But our society’s obsession with comparisons, with seeming, is harmful and counterproductive. That’s too bad, because when kids judge themselves (and are judged) on their effort and progress, on being rather than seeming, they get two GIANT advantages:
- Internal control over emotional outcomes. If you feel good about doing your best, then you can always control whether you feel good, no matter what happens.
- Maximized external outcomes. The best way to get an external outcome that you can’t directly control (from passing an audition, to starting on a team, to getting into a particular school) is to do your best at what you can control.
Here’s a chart (with a nod to “Limelight” by Rush!):
|Being (The Underlying Theme) leads to…||Seeming (The Limelight)|
|Regularly Finishing Your Homework||A High Grade|
|Memorizing Your Lines And Being Off Book||Being The Lead Actor|
|Regularly Writing And Finishing Songs||Performing An Original Song|
|Running Hard In Practice||Getting Playing Time|
When we, and our kids, focus on our own efforts, on BEING we receive an improved opportunity for self esteem and better results.
When we, and our kids, focus on external outcomes, on SEEMING we receive low self esteem, anxiety and worse results.
As a guitarist, I’ll finish with a musical quote on the difference between seeming and being. Here’s one from the band, Rush:
Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme
from “Limelight” by Rush
On To Greatness, In Parenting, Music, and Life,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
P.S. Here are a few more great relevant quotes!
“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
-Michael Jordan, basketball superstar
“The safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want.”
-Charlie Munger, billionaire investor
Original Lyrics for “Limelight” by Rush:
NCAA: “Estimated probability of competing in college athletics”
CollegeVine: “The Demographics of the Ivy League”
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