Adam Grant just wrote a lovely piece in the New York Times that points out that, as he puts it, “Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence.”

He’s right, and for the right reasons, but a quick skim of the piece might lead you astray.

The key insight isn’t that “slackers win over the long haul.” Instead, it’s this: we’re always choosing between “explore and exploit,” and exploration is more powerful early on.

So don’t blindly optimize for the rules you’re given. The dominant strategy over the long haul is to run little experiments that help identify options that are not “on the menu” but which are nonetheless available.

What this means for students in high school and college is that it’s not necessarily best just to do whatever everyone tells you to do, as well as you can figure out how to do it. It’s better to reserve some of your time and energy for little trials and explorations.

Study a new subject. Try a new study method. Meet some new people. Experience the discomfort of failure (preferably in a context where the long-term consequences will be minimal). And so forth.

A Few Quick Examples of How I Use This with Students

  • When my students make errors, I help them see whether it’s an “I didn’t know enough math” error or a different type entirely, e.g. “I didn’t approach this as creatively as I could have,” or “I was on auto-pilot, rather than giving this my full attention.”
  • In Chapter 20 of my book How to Be a Brighter Student, I get into this in some detail. I’ll include an excerpt in the comments below.
  • When students experience trouble shifting to this perspective, we often discover the need to discuss mindset and/or stress. (If you have the book, see Chapter 5, Harnessing Your Mindset, and Chapter 9, Stress: A Primer, for more detail.)

Some details from Chapter 20 of “How to Be a Brighter Student

Getting help

As you may have noticed, making important life decisions is mostly regarded by our culture as something best left to the experts: first your parents make decisions for you, then college counselors, then graduate advisors, then professional mentors and managers, and on and on and on.

This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing: experience often leads to better results. (Also, there are certain kinds of mental tasks related to decision-making that become biologically easier after one’s early 20s, so advisors for students may be especially helpful.)

Sometimes these experts will be amazing professionals with fantastic, groundbreaking advice for you. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll just be a “safety net” of decent advice, so your very worst decisions won’t be too bad. You need to be able to tell the difference.

Ultimately, you’d prefer to make your own decisions, perhaps informed by the wisdom of others, but not defined by it or by them.

Going it alone

Most decisions are informed by your “autopilot.” You make decisions at least partly (if not entirely) by seeing that the current situation matches some past situation (possibly in relevant ways, and possibly not), and then doing in the present whatever you think was the right thing to do in the past. (See Gladwell’s Blink and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more in-depth knowledge on this.) This is not a bad thing, but it’s useful to understand how to balance this important but unconscious force with your conscious, executive mind.