Mike Nichols column: Predicting success of graduates

7:21 PM, May 25, 2013  |  Comments
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Here's the thing about the 72,000 or so Wisconsin kids who will walk off the high school stage in the coming weeks and in some cases go on to lead spectacularly successful and accomplished lives - or maybe never make it much past the corner bar.

"It's hard to predict," said Barry Wolff, the principal of Ashland High School in northern Wisconsin.

"I think there are some obvious indicators: work ethic, level of intelligence, personality," he said. "But everyone can think of students we all thought would be very successful and who did not turn out that way for various reasons."

And everyone can think of kids who, seemingly out of the blue, later surprise us so much that their success seems almost serendipitous.

For all the graduation parties and confetti that will be thrown in the coming weeks, a high school degree, the truth is, doesn't buy you much in the long run. Almost all adult Wisconsinites in most parts of the state have one. Nor can you really conclude anything from what a high school student's plans are. Census data indicates that an astounding number will indeed attend a school or college for a little while - but then quit. Of the 3.8 million Wisconsinites over 25, 44 percent did not attend school beyond 12th grade. Of those who went further, 37 percent have some college but did not get a degree.

There are, of course, reasons some folks leave school: illness, family responsibility, finances. People get called off to war, lose jobs, find a unique opportunity that just can't wait. David Karp, the founder of Tumblr - the company just acquired by Yahoo for $1.1 billion - never even finished high school. But we are not him. With very few exceptions, it's a very good idea to finish what you start.

Paul Tough, the author of "How Children Succeed," has written that so-called non-cognitive skills like grit and curiosity and the "hidden power of character" are what matter most. Grit is an old-fashioned word, and concept, but when I ran it by Wolff, he agreed. Big factors in kids who succeed are determination, willpower, inner-drive, discipline, attitude and even showing up on time, he said. If you can't show up on time for a meeting it's a pretty good bet you won't be asked to run it.

Of course, a kid has to be more than punctual, or determined, to succeed.

"A lot of students will show that in high school," said Wolff of the character traits that lead to success. "But one thing you can't predict is whether they will find something they are passionate about or enjoy doing. That can be a big factor as well."

Life is long after all, and that means it can also be a long slog. If you're a boy and you're 18 and you're no luckier or cursed than your classmates, you'll live another 58 years, according to recent actuarial tables put together by the Social Security Administration. (You might never get a nickel of Social Security out of them, but at least they're good for a little information.)

If you're a girl, you'll get another 63 years - more if you eat, drink and party in moderation, and sidestep any major illnesses, which should be easier than ever, especially when you're young. That's a long time to do something you don't like, though just what you'll really enjoy can be hard to predict as well.

High schools almost invariably ask their valedictorians to give a speech at graduation. It's a pretty good bet that person will be successful so long as they are flexible enough to pursue something they can love. But there are plenty of earnest, curious kids in the middle of the pack who will one day be the ones who really surprise us.

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