You don’t have to get straight A’s to find career success

Grades in school aren’t that important. You’d be surprised how little they matter.

I’ve had a successful career as a psychologist. I’m the director of the Everett Clinic’s Behavioral Health Department, which I started 25 years ago. Several years ago, I was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for my contributions to the clinic.

Yet I was an average student in high school, with a low B average. (I was also a chronic school truant, but that’s another story). I did get some decent grades in college in sociology and psychology, but I was far from a straight-A student.

Despite my lackluster performance in school, I’ve done very well in my career. And despite low grades in English composition (my writing was so bad that an English teacher offered to give me special tutoring, which I stupidly declined), I’ve been writing for The Herald for several years, and have been published in magazines and professional journals.

I was never really motivated by grades. I was far more interested in ideas, philosophy and literature. I was an avid reader and activist. I found myself in many leadership positions throughout my schooling.

One of my favorite writers, Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton School of Business, wrote an article in the New York Times, which published on Dec. 9, titled “What straight-A students get wrong.” His findings mirror my own experience.

“The evidence is clear — academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career performance,” he wrote. Numerous studies have demonstrated this lack of relationship over the years, yet parents still fret over their children’s grades. And many kids stay up late at night to earn those A’s — over-studying for tests, doing extra-credit work and otherwise shooting for the stars. In their pursuit of perfection, they struggle with anxiety and stress.

Getting straight-A’s comes from giving the teacher what she wants, memorizing facts and spitting them out on tests. Yet “Career success rarely comes from finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve,” Grant wrote. It comes from thinking outside of the box, creative capacity, looking forward and leadership ability. Earning A’s requires a high degree of conformity — yet job success often requires taking a new, unexplored path.

Career success also comes from “playing well” with others. Most successful professionals work in teams, which require a high degree of emotional and interpersonal intelligence. But straight-A students, on their quest for top grades, spend less time with their peers and more time in the library. They often lack social skills that are critical for successful teamwork.

Steve Jobs, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Apple, graduated high school with a 2.65 GPA. J.K Rowling was a straight-C student in college. There is a long list of underachievers in high school and college who blew everyone away in their chosen professions. Our own Bill Gates is another prime example.

A study conducted of successful architects found that they often had a high grade in a subject they were interested in, but much lower grades in classes they found boring. Their performance reflected their interests.

What does this mean for parents?

Don’t worry so much about grades. Focus on activities that nurture creativity, originality, critical thinking and curiosity. (That’s not video games!) School and community involvement may be more useful for getting into college than simply good grades. Help your student build character, not just a portfolio.

The ability to work hard is important. Athletes know how to work hard to improve in something they love, even if they get low grades in activities that don’t interest them. Help students find something that they enjoy and are good at, and then support that activity.

My hope is that each youngster will find a career that they enjoy. That, combined with hard work, will help them become successful.

Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at

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