How to Be a Success Even If You’re a High Achiever

Overachievers can paradoxically be their own worst enemies. Learn how to be a success whether or not you’re a high achiever.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #244

How to Be a Success Even If You’re a High Achiever

Listener Magenta writes in:

“Why is it that so many A-students, who were the best at studying and learning, do not actually get ahead in real life situations?”

Oh, Magenta, you’ve stumbled on “the myth of meritocracy.” I was privileged and cursed to attend two of the best schools in the world: MIT and Harvard. I know many A-students. Some are astoundingly successful, but many do not know how to be a success in real-life.

Today we’ll break format a bit. Instead of a specific tip, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on life and how to be successful. There are different kinds of getting ahead.

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A-Students’ Social Mobility is Burdened by Student Loans

“Getting ahead” might mean being socially mobile: going from poor to rich through hard work. America once had lots of social mobility. We still believe we have it, but we don’t. Norway, Sweden, and Germany have far more social mobility than we do.

Once, top students could get into top colleges, and still pay off student loans soon enough to move up in the world. That was how to be a success. No longer.

Now, things are worse for top students. More educational loans are privatized with high interest rates. Great for banks, bad for students. In 2005, banks promoted shameful legislation that Congress shamefully passed making it so student loans can’t even be discharged in bankruptcy. Now, the best financial decision for smart people who aren’t rich may be to skip college and take a mediocre career that wastes their talent but doesn’t land them $200,000 in debt.

Student debt is one reason A-students today don’t get ahead when it comes to social mobility.

How to Be Successful Depends on More than Skill

“Getting ahead” also means having your ideas valued and your career advancing. Here, A-students may also struggle.

In school, how to be a success is accomplished through hard work. More time studying means better grades. Then A-students go out into the world expecting hard work and smarts to keep working. After all, for 12 to 16 years, hard work and smarts got them top grades.

Success depends on skill, relationships, timing, and opportunity.

Life Depends on More than Smarts

Hah ha! Joke’s on them! The real world doesn’t work that way. Yes, being lazy and stupid is how not to be a success, but working hard and being smart will not guarantee getting ahead. Not by a long shot.

How to be a success depends on skill, relationships, timing, and opportunity. When things go poorly, A-students do what worked before – they work hard. But skill is just one piece. “Good enough” skill is all you need. Relationships, timing, and opportunity complete the package. But we don’t teach those things in school, so many A-students don’t learn them.

Form Strong Relationships

A-students believe their personal greatness will guarantee success. It worked in school. They don’t need those pesky other people. Hah ha! Joke’s on them! The real world doesn’t work that way.

The modern world has no “Self-Made Man, Woman, or Intersex.” I learned this from Keith Ferrazzi, my classmate who wrote the book Never Eat Alone. Keith used relationships to become a C-level executive in a Fortune 500 company by his 30s.

Who do you help in your life? People you know and like. Not people who are just smart. That’s true on the job, too. Above a certain level, everyone is assumed to have “good enough” skills. Employees need good relationships with bosses, mentors, and colleagues to advance. Even at the bottom, great skills don’t help unless the people giving promotions know you have the skills. That means relationships!

It’s true for entrepreneurs, too. They deal with investors, employees, and partners. The world’s smartest business idea is useless without a network of people who bring it to market.

Top students often skimp on forging relationships in favor of studying. That’s why in my episode on study groups I recommended that you choose a study group with long-term relationships in mind. I wasn’t kidding. That’s important stuff.

How to Succeed Requires People Skills

Creating and developing relationships is a skill you can learn. I even wrote a whole episode about building supportive relationships, plus I created an audio product on my web site called Social Survival Skills for Geniuses, which gets very tactical about face-to-face interpersonal skills.

Relationships are one reason to attend a good college. You can learn online. But you can’t get the relationships built over 3 am adventures drinking Scorpion Bowls in Chinatown. Some of my Chinatown classmates who aren’t homeless are now CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, senators, venture capitalists, and movers and shakers. And they’ll take my phone calls. We have such good relationships that I don’t even need to blackmail them with pictures of those 3 am drunken escapades.

Timing and Opportunity

A-students are often good planners. They’ve planned since 8th grade to go to college. And their plans worked. Hah ha! Joke’s on them! The real world doesn’t work that way.

Success often depends on spotting and taking opportunities when they arrive. People who overplan their lives out of a neurotic need to feel in control (like me) can be so focused on “the plan” that they miss the off-plan opportunities. Life’s most important factors are rarely planned.

A-students are often great planners, but bad at seizing opportunity.

Coping with Failure

Finally, A-students are good at everything but failing. They’ve never done it. Most people learn to recover from setbacks, but high achievers don’t get much practice. Setbacks can devastate them. If you want to be successful, learn to fail fast and keep going.

We all want to get ahead. The A-students who get ahead in school do what school rewards: getting good at stuff. But how to be a success in the real world requires more. To succeed, you need to form and nurture strong relationships. You must spot opportunity, and be willing abandon your plan when opportunity strikes. Then, when it doesn’t work out, you need to be able to get back up and keep going. A-students may find these skills challenging, since they’re the opposite from what it takes to succeed in school, but it’s never too late to start putting them into practice.

This is Stever Robbins. I help successful people get ahead by improving their interpersonal, political, and opportunity recognition skills. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


Improving your relationship and interpersonal skills:
Past Get-it-Done Guy episodes:
Student loans and social mobility:

Sad Student, Businessmen Shaking Hands and Men Partying images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.