As my oldest child enters the college application process, my eyes have been opened to just how misguided our system of higher education has become. In fact, many of these institutions discourage the thing they should be cultivating most: a love of learning.

What elite universities value most today is students who get things right on their first try. They don’t want to see failure, struggle or learning on a transcript, they want students who can fill in the right bubbles. This incentive creates a fear of failure and destroys creativity and curiosity during formative years.

Students today fear taking academic risks when a single B is enough to disqualify an applicant from a top university. Similarly, they avoid classes they are intellectually curious about, just because they aren’t offered at an AP level.

These norms, combined with an extreme level of parental pressure, produce kids who Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes as “excellent sheep,” with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose,” who are “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Data show us that the qualities higher education incentivizes today are vastly different from the traits that drive real world excellence. In particular, there are three lessons our learning institutions fail to prioritize that are vital to success beyond the classroom.

1. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Tests, especially standardized tests, require students to select a single right answer from a set of predetermined choices. These are the most prominent methods of evaluating a student’s potential, even though I don’t know anyone who takes tests for a living.

Success in the professional world often requires you to challenge conventional wisdom, discover untested solutions, persevere through failure and constantly adjust your approach. The ability to learn from failure and produce innovative solutions in response has driven some of the world’s greatest accomplishments, including development of a COVID-19 vaccine in record time. If we make students obsess over getting the right answer, we aren’t teaching them how to learn from getting the wrong one.

2. Creativity is key. I’ll admit, I never excelled at standardized tests and maybe that is because one of my strengths is offering creative solutions to complex problems. When the proposed choices are A, B and C, I like to come up with D, E and F. Not surprisingly, I was very creative as a kid and had a mom who really nurtured this creativity. She always had us doing projects with paint, glue guns and other household items, without a predetermined outcome; we just experimented and saw what we could make. As I grew, this creativity expanded to a love of building things, and taking them apart to see how they work.

Along the way, I developed my intrinsic motivation to create and solve interesting problems, rather than caring about a grade. Because we are so focused on teaching kids how to follow a specific path to a correct answer, students today aren’t learning to find creative solutions at a time when our world badly needs them.

3. People don’t have to be great at everything. It’s almost impossible to be great at something we don’t enjoy, and kids need the freedom to experiment and discover what subjects they like and don’t like. I am willing to bet that no one was forcing Mozart to study chemistry, and Steve Jobs probably wasn’t passionate about grammar. And we are all better for it.

Rather than expecting kids to excel equally at everything they learn, we should evaluate their performance in the things that interest them most. Do we really want to reward people for doing things well that they don’t even enjoy and diminish their intellectual curiosity in the process? This may be why valedictorians rarely become top performers in their chosen fields. They excel at complying with and mastering the system, not challenging or improving it. By contrast, a survey of over 700 American millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. The data is clear, we are just ignoring it.

Instead of cultivating intellectual curiosity and a lifelong love of learning, parents, teachers, administrators, admission departments and students are all caught up in a crazy race to nowhere that isn’t supported by positive data or outcomes.

When will we have the courage to change our approach?

Quote of The Week

“You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.”


– William Deresiewicz