Top of the class isn’t everything

Leaving education isn’t the right path for everyone. But if I had not had made that leap and left school, I would never have become who I am now.

Richard Branson Virgin Atlantic Seattle Union Jack

When I was still at school, I was as far from the top of the class as it is possible to be. I recently stumbled across an article titled: This is why valedictorians don't become billionaires, which adds weight to the argument that coming top of the class isn’t everything.

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The piece discusses research by Professor Karen Arnold, which tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians after graduation. The study found that nearly 90 per cent of the high achievers are now in professional careers, but none of them have gone on to change the world.

Professor Arnold found that while they hold qualities that set up them for success in high school and college – "self-discipline, conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules" – these qualities don’t necessarily lead them to disruptive ideas or profound breakthroughs.

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As Arnold writes: "Valedictorians aren't likely to be the future's visionaries... They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up."

Traditional education systems reward those that comply with the rules. But life isn’t about sticking to the rules. As Steve Jobs famously said: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

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A survey of over 700 American millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. I didn’t come anywhere near the top of my class. In fact, I didn’t even get a GPA – or know what one was. I left at 16-years-old to pursue my passion of creating and publishing a youth magazine called Student.

From Student we began selling cut-price records under the name Virgin Mail Order. Virgin Mail Order turned into Virgin Records, and Virgin Records gave us the clout to start Virgin Atlantic. The rest, as they say, is history.

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic VSS Unity

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic VSS Unity

I’m not advocating that young people leave school, however this research proves that we need to rethink traditional education. We need to start teaching students in a way that plays to their strengths, and not just tries to improve their weaknesses. If we do, we will unlock a huge amount of untapped potential.

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