There is Much More to Achieving Success than the Number of Top Grades You Score

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It’s become fashionable these days to talk about the diminishing importance of academic achievement in relation to the pursuit of excellence and success.

Often, it can seem like a word or two from the likes of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos can render the traditional paths of learning obsolete as we seek to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to our development and growth.

However flawed the conventional education model is, there is no doubt that it still carries significant value in helping our young people to cultivate the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the world upon graduation.


We have to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when discussing traditional education. It clearly retains a great deal of worth. However, as times change, existing education models seem to be the most resistant to adapt to the new demands ushered in by social and technological advances.

What we need to consider (and consider strongly) is that focusing solely on academic excellence is neither helpful nor a guarantee of future success even for those who consistently achieve top marks. If we want our young people to be prepared for tomorrow’s challenges, there absolutely must be a holistic approach to today’s education that includes experiential learning in equal (if not greater) measure to intellectual development.

Related: Why Studying at Top Local Universities Can Be Better Than Studying Abroad for Undergraduate Studies?

One of the most common concerns that today’s employers have throughout the world is that, while fresh graduates come equipped with the necessary practical skills to do the job, they are often lacking in real-life skills such as leadership, communication and adaptability that are needed to cope with the everyday challenges of industry.


Recent research from The Sutton Trust — a UK foundation focused on social mobility — found that over half of the teachers surveyed believe that real-life skills (often referred to as “soft” skills) are actually more important than academic skills in determining the future success of young people.

Tellingly, a staggering 94% of employers, 88% of young people, and 97% of teachers said that life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications. As founder and chairman of The Sutton Trust Peter Lampl put it, “It is the ability to show flexibility, creativity, and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills.”

While the notion that a holistic approach to education is needed, rather than educators simply teaching for standard-testing, it is proving difficult to create a deep shift in attitude, despite research suggesting that experiential learning (i.e. “learn-by-doing”) is the most effective learning method. Certainly, we’ve all experienced the difference: who among us hasn’t, on at least a few occasions, zoned-out during a school lesson or university lecture? On the other hand, when we’re actively involved in the learning process, our minds remain focused for much longer and most of what we learn sticks as a result.

Is it not time that we move past paying lip-service to broadening the scope of the conventional education model, and embraced the learning methods that are best suited to 21st Century learning?

Related: Working in Malaysia vs UK: Is There Really a Difference?

Below, I mention four highly-successful people who didn’t even complete their high school studies. We could say that these are exceptional people who possessed extraordinary talents…but that’s a simplistic view. Every successful person puts in years of hard work and dedication prior to their achievements. What sets them apart from others was that they had an opportunity to put their “soft” skills (such as creativity) to use and, through a tough learning process, they were able to bring out the best of their talents and make impressive contributions to the world.

There’s little argument that conventional learning doesn’t have a role to play in the development of our leaders of tomorrow, but it is time we recognise that it is no longer the central driver for nurturing future success stories. We have surely arrived at the point where we need to teach our young people to learn more about what’s within themselves rather than just what’s in the school books they read.


Four incredibly successful people who never finished school

  1. Sir Richard Branson: Having left school at the age of 15, the British billionaire started his first business, Student Magazine, and has since been involved in over 500 companies, including his famous Virgin brand. (Estimated worth: US$5.1bn)
  2. Aretha Franklin: She has a number of honorary degrees from institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton, but ‘The Queen of Soul’ dropped out of school at the age of 15 to look after his first child. Her celebrated singing career has been one of music’s most iconic and, in recognition of her dedication and talents, she has received 18 Grammy Awards and was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. (Estimated worth: US$60m)
  3. Mike Hudack: After leaving school at 15, Hudack joined an Internet security firm in Connecticut. Subsequently, he moved on to New York to work as a consultant for Time Warner. He later founded in 2005, leaving his position as CEO in 2012 to become Facebook’s product manager. Hudack is currently the CTO of European tech firm Deliveroo. (Estimated worth: US$200m)
  4. Francois Pinault: The French multi-billionaire is currently the majority shareholder and honorary chairman of the retail conglomerate Kering and, in 1998, he purchased a majority share of London’s famous Christie’s auction house. Astonishingly, his journey began at the age of 11, when he dropped out of school to work at his father’s lumber mill. It’s said that he wanted to leave school, in part, because his schoolmates ridiculed his poor background. (Estimated worth: US$27.8bn)


Disclaimer: This is an Opinion Article and it only reflects the views of the author and not the company or institution that may be associated with the Author. This article also does not have any intention to undermine or attack certain individuals or parties.

Written by: Roshan Thiran

Roshan Thiran is the Founder & CEO of Leaderonomics — a social enterprise working to transform lives through leadership development. Roshan previously spent a significant part of his life at General Electric (GE) and at Johnson & Johnson in global roles across the US, Europe and Asia. Connect with Roshan on Facebook and Twitter for more insights into business, personal development, and leadership.

This article is published on with the writer’s consent and originally appeared on the Leaderonomics website. You can read it here.

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