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A Broken Stereotype

July 3, 2016

There's a strange and dangerous disconnect between the stereotype of a successful student and what builds a successful person.

To an extent, I think is a problem most successful, creative, and entrepreneurial leaders run into every so often, and I think it's a beacon for a much larger problem, which is what the public takes to be the ingredients of successful leaders, and how they differ from what many successful leaders are often like.

Before I go on, though, of course this is going to be an exercise in overgeneralization. I'll be discussing disparities in stereotypes, and trying to pull out commonalities between successful creatives and stereotypically successful students. But I believe the main point still stands, that the things we deem important in school end up being less important, the further we venture into our lives.

My current (and soon to be past) high school is often cited as the most academic in the state. We like to put ourselves up on a pedestal for fostering world-class educational opportunities (often through equally intense levels of stress). We like to compare our student-to-teacher ratio and brag about the fact that our small student body is often highly successful in state- and national-level contests, enough to stand with the giants. This academic environment, if you will, is a result of a number of factors, stemming from the students, the parents, and the school equally. But a core part of that experience, that stress, that success, is the culture the school holds so dearly to their heart, a culture with very particular set of priorities it considers to be important to be "successful", however that's defined.

Having gone through the system as a part of the celebrated top-some-percent of the student body, I'm intimately familiar with that set of priorities. It's repeated in our guidelines, our books, our lectures, and then again in school-wide addresses, our policies, and our syllabi. Relentless focus on work ethic, time management, responsibility, community spirit, and so on, these values and characters make up a particular type of person. A single "model student", from which all students ought to take after.

I'm not that student.

I began to realize that when I chose to take a break from school recently, for pursuing some other goals balancing personal, side projects and jobs with my experiments in entrepreneurship, to take a breath and a break to find the next step I want to take.

A model student wouldn't have taken that break.

This idea of my nonconformist choice comes up increasingly often the more the idea of a gap year is brought up in my life. I consider myself academically competent, having gone through the routine contests and classes, so it takes people by surprise, I learned, when they discover I'm taking a break from school. The problem is, though, it shouldn't. At least, I don't think it should.

The surprise factor exists, of course, because the model student wouldn't take a break from school for petty things like personal projects or jobs. The model student would truck on, going into college and then to graduate school, studying deep in the academia to earn the celebrated accolades for their discoveries in the field. And since I've been following the stereotypically academic path for the last some years in school, why would I ever deviate from that road to success? Ideally, I wouldn't. But ideally, the model student would be an accurate depiction of success.

So here I am, taking the contrarian path, taking a break and raising questions. And honestly, I'm lead to wonder why my path is the contrarian path -- why creativity and entrepreneurial spirit and independence and self-motivation are being met not with celebration in the general educational public, but with quizzical looks and good-lucks.

I'm not here to completely "debunk the myth" of the model student. Many of the qualities we praise in students, like dedication, commitment, work ethic, and honesty, are qualities I admire and hold dear to myself, because they genuinely make great people, regardless of their position or follower counts or figures on their paycheck.The bits of that model student character I find problematic are the bits that seem to be somehow correlated to "success". You know, filling in your volunteer hours, taking all the honors classes, working a full week ahead of deadlines, going to science fairs, and so on. Somewhere in the long list of things that make up the model student are, apparently, clauses about being obedient, following the tradition, staying within the limits, and conforming to the norm.

Those are the bits that I'm concerned with.

By definition, qualities like creativity and stubbornness and visionary insights require people -- require students -- to step outside the established boundaries. Success very nearly always requires breaking some rules and rewriting others. Conformity to the norm is, in my experience, what the mediocre do, not the exceptional. The standards of the model students are not intended to lead students to make a dent in the history; it's designed to help students fit into the history, to find safety and avoid risks. That's a fine way to live a life, but that's no world-class success.

The world may be built by a billion average people, but it's shaped and bent throughout history by a few very non-average visionaries. And as long as my standard of success is to impact the world in some meaningful way, to have more significance than the average Joe, that definition will always include nonconformity, and always stand against the model student.

In that, I take pride.

While the models may be getting the marks, the rebels will be the ones leaving them.

There's nothing wrong with the qualities of the model student, if the model student is the model of the average student. But once we begin to convince ourselves that becoming the model student is a sure-fire way to success, we've convinced ourselves out of it. During times when we're so entangled into the idea of pursuing success and avoiding failures, I think all of us can benefit from a detailed look-back at whether or not we're chasing what we really want. And while we're at it, it also wouldn't hurt us to get our models in touch with reality, to tell students that nonconformity and uniqueness and stubbornness have a place in schools and in society, and to tell the rest of the world to celebrate the students who stick out, who let themselves fail and see how far they can reach, because while the models may be getting the marks, the rebels will be the ones leaving them.