Achievement & Success. We’ve Got This All Wrong

Achievement & Success. We've Got This All Wrong


Invoking visions of triumphant moments filled with straight A’s, honor roll awards and valedictorian speeches, achievement is a popular, trending educational enigma we hate to love, or we love to hate. Standardized achievement tests, high-achieving students, academic achievement, grade-level achievement, the achievement gap—it is all about academic achievement in education. In the U.S. and in many other countries, the focus of education is on achievement, and as adults—the civic leaders, educators and parents—we enthusiastically reward our schools and our students for their educational achievements. Yes, our students have learned since Kindergarten that the goal in education is achievement in the form of grades, scores, awards, accolades and attention.

But are we focusing on the right sort of achievement?

Once our kids enter high school, the over-arching focus is now on earning enough notable achievements in and out of school to fill their college applications and ensure acceptance into a desirable college. High GPA’s, AP classes, volunteer experiences, extracurricular activities, academic and athletic achievements during high school, and rewards, awards and honors are collected to secure a place in the best university possible. The best and the brightest as well as our gifted students are often leading this pack of high-achieving students seemingly destined for lifelong success.

This is the road to success, or rather this is the road to success our high-ability students have been led down by the adults in society—educators, community leaders, government leaders, friends and parents. And we have told them and led them to believe that success in school from Kindergarten through college is their ticket to success in their adult life. Work hard, excel, be the best, be the shining star, and you will succeed in life and in your career. Academic achievement, good grades, high scores, renowned college–this is the way to an equally illustrious career, right?

I think we’ve got this all wrong.

We are leading our kids astray in a big way. We are sending them down a not-so-clear path to success, or maybe even a slippery slope to failure.

Upon reading the article, “Harvard-Stanford admissions hoax becomes international scandal”, in the Washington Post about a high school student who wove a huge web of lies about her admittance into two Ivy League schools, I was struck by the extreme pressure and competitiveness these high school students succumb to in order to achieve and meet the expectations of the adults in their lives.

And for what?

High school students are under tremendous pressure to produce a nearly-unattainable amount of notable achievements while in high school in order to guarantee scholarships and acceptances into well-known universities. They are learning to be competitive, to be hard-working, to excel and they see the need to be the best. This is the road they are being led down.

Is this the right road for future success?

Attending a well-known university is widely accepted as the golden ticket to success in their adult lives and in the work world. Again, the adults in the lives of these students and  in society could be leading our kids down a path which does not automatically lead to success in the work world.

Graduating from Harvard, Yale or Stanford most definitely looks outstanding on a resume and it just may win the job-seeker the position of his dreams, but does this all lead to the holy grail of career success which this student has been groomed to seek and has worked towards since Kindergarten? Does academic success always lead to career success?

Maybe not.

We’ve groomed our children—the gifted, the high-achieving and nearly all students—to be competitive, to excel, to be the best, to shine and to stand out academically. And they’ve listened well—just look at all the lucrative businesses which cater to tutoring and test prep–achievement is big business.

With a degree from a great university in hand, our students are ready to enter the work force and continue their tradition of achievement. After years of attaining near-impossible accomplishments in school, they will follow their march down the road to outstanding achievement in the workplace. Naturally, they continue down the path they were groomed to follow since Kindergarten.

And that is the problem. Academic success may not lead to career success.


Excelling in school, competitiveness and academic achievement are not always the keys to success in the workplace. After reading article after article on how to succeed in the workplace with advice on moving up the business ladder, I found  articles that advise workers to be careful to not outshine their co-workers and especially their bosses. Envy is rampant in society and especially in the work place where everyone wants to stand out and be promoted. An envious co-worker or insecure boss can destroy the reputation and livelihood of a highly-intelligent, outstanding employee who believes that excelling, being competitive and producing results to move his or her company forward will earn him or her success and promotions on his way up the ladder of success.

Evidence has shown that producing notable achievements at work and being the shining star is not a straight-shot path to success as was the case in school. Other skills and performance factors which are not often taught in school, such as dressing for success, good communication skills, networking, social skills, being a team player and leadership skills are more important for a successful climb up the career ladder than distinguished achievements at work.

Also, being intent on excelling at your job, unlike in school, can be the downfall of a successful career as this can lead to resentment from co-workers. Gifted people, highly-intelligent workers and the high achievers are by far the most prevalent workers to become the victims of workplace bullying at the hands of envious co-workers and insecure bosses. Cutting down the tall poppies happens not just in school, but in the workplace, too.

In corporations and businesses where job security is a constant, gnawing threat, those getting promotions are not often the shining stars, the high achievers, the ones who excel above all others. They are the ones who learned that being a team player, having good leadership skills, having excellent communication skills, being able to effectively network and generally being well-liked and respected was the sure path to career success.

Isn’t it wrong then to expect our children to strive for academic achievement in school thus leading them to believe that this is the same road to success in the work world? Do good grades reflect successful business skills? Can achievement in school lead directly to success in the work place?

Maybe we’ve got this all wrong.


Giftedness in the Workplace: Can the Bright Mind Thrive in Today’s Organizations?, Dr. Mary E. Jacobsen, MENSA Research Journal, Vol. 39 (2), Summer, 2008

Harvard-Stanford admissions hoax becomes international scandal, T. Rees Shapiro, Washington Post, June 19, 2015

Casting Stones at Cacti. Our Intolerance of Gifted People, Celi Trépanier, Crushing Tall Poppies

Dealing with Difficult People, Bullying & Sabotage, Lynne Azpeitia, MFT Gifted, Talented and Creative Adults

Gifted Adults in Work, Noks Nauta and Frans Corten, SENG—Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted, 2002  

Giftedness in the Work Environment: Backgrounds and Practical Recommendations, Noks Nauta and Sieuwke Ronner, SENG—Supporting Emotional Needs of Gifted, 2008

Gifted Individuals Make a Significant Contribution to Innovation in Organizations, Chris Hoeller, Backwards Time Machine, January 2014

What are the common problems of gifted people in the workplace?, Quora question thread, August 2013

Gifted Adults in the Workplace—Nerds or Heroes or Misfits, Cat Robson, Talent Development Resources

Surviving a Bad Workplace Culture, Talent Culture

Get Noticed! Four Easy Steps to Climbing the Corporate Ladder, Alan Hall, Forbes, April 11, 2013

At Work: Are you too smart for the job?, Andrea Kay, USA Today, January 25, 2014

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