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Why Are We Told That Good Grades Lead to Success in Life?

It's time we prioritize humanistic aptitude over analytic in defining success.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy that my 9-year-old daughter gets good grades in school. Good grades are better than bad grades, after all, and I’m glad to see that she is recognized for the hard work she puts into it.

But I know that the narrative we’ve been taught—good grades (and high test scores) lead to getting into a good college which leads to getting a good job which leads to success (and happiness) in life—is a myth. My personal experience has shown that becoming successful, however you want to define it, is mostly about being in the right place at the right time if or when opportunity knocks. Knowing people in positions of power is a big factor, of course, and plain luck has a lot more to do with being successful than we like to think.

In short, the linear model of success that is inculcated at an early age is just a nice, comforting, and easily understandable story that has little relevance in real life. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to see that the story acts as a form of social control and as an ideological means of keeping the wheels of capitalism spinning. I’ve come to refer to this narrative as The Big Lie, a harsh but I believe accurate assessment about the dominant ethos in K-12 education.

Research going back many years has provided firm evidence of The Big Lie. In 1950, for example, Charles W. Cole, president of Amherst College, reported the surprising results of a study he had conducted. It was commonly believed that those who earned the highest grades in college were most likely to have successful careers, as the brightest students were often rewarded with good jobs that put them on a fast track. However, college grades turned out to be a poor predictor of later success, Cole found; his research showed that students who received average or below-average grades frequently rose to the top in business and other professions.

These findings raised many questions and encouraged all kinds of theories explaining why this was so. For Cole, it was that different people “peaked” at different times in their life, with some realizing their highest potential as teenagers, others as young adults, and still others in middle age. There were late-bloomers (people who peaked later in life), underachievers (those who were able but lazy), and another group that Cole referred to as “half-achievers,” i.e., people who were greatly gifted but did only respectably because they approached work inefficiently. Unfortunately, the system was rigged for early achievers, Cole concluded, and he called for new ways to predict future success based more on motivation than precocity.

In his research some 40 years later, Seymour Epstein, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor and co-author of You’re Smarter Than You Think, found that it was what he called “experiential intelligence”—common sense, social skills, the handling of emotions, and ability to solve problems—that heavily determined one’s level of success. “Success in life has a lot more to do with your experiential mind, or your practical intelligence, than your intellect,” Epstein said in 1993, believing that how one managed the normal trials and tribulations of life was a better predictor of success than how smart one happened to be.

Epstein’s research correlated with a then recently published 10-year study of valedictorians that showed that the academic elite tended to realize just average success in the real world, with some evidence to suggest they lacked exactly the kind of experiential intelligence that Epstein was talking about.

Thankfully, some young people are embracing an alternative model of success and in the process rejecting the premise of The Big Lie. In 2019, for example, Ami Wong, a sophomore at Duke University, observed how many of her mates at the elite university were striving for perfection, convinced that their future success depended on the highest grade-point average possible.

Wong, however, citing William Deresiewicz’s article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” which was published in American Scholar in 2008, knew that there was more to success than an academic score that could pave the way to financial stability. “If we only value academic and professional intelligence, then what are we excluding from our views of success?” she asked in the Duke Chronicle, fully aware that social, creative, and emotional intelligence were being left out of the equation. It was actually the latter skills that were more likely to lead to success, both personal and professional, Wong understood, suggesting it was time we prioritize humanistic aptitude over analytic even if the former was not quantifiable.