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Hard Work Without Focus Will Get You Nowhere

Hard work without focus will get you nowhere. A thought-provoking Boston Globe feature demonstrates this simple but often-ignored truth.

In fact, The Globe’s reporters found that high school valedictorians; presumably some of the hardest working students in their classes, were likely to be failures. In-depth, 25% of the valedictorians did not complete a bachelor’s degree and 40% made less than $50,000 a year.

One in four of the valedictorians aspired to be doctors but none completed medical school. Shockingly, four of the 93 valedictorians The Globe studied admitted to being homeless at least once since high school.

What happened here? Why did Boston’s “best and brightest” achieve so little after high school? My guess is that these students did not learn to focus, or worse trained themselves to focus on the wrong things.

How High School teaches you hard work without focus

“Being busy is a form of mental laziness.” -Tim Ferriss

To explain, earning honors in your average American high school requires a long record of accomplishments and a lot of busy work. For example, they name a student valedictorian for getting good grades in all her classes, playing several sports, and taking part in a lot of activities.

A valedictorian could participate on the football team, the basketball team, the track team, ROTC, drama club, glee club, debate, student government, and three or four other activities. In addition, the valedictorian could take several advanced placement (AP) classes in widely divergent subjects.

Thus the valedictorian does not learn how to focus. Instead, he or she learns how to do an okay job at a lot of different things and act busy. The valedictorian learns how to be a mediocre football player, an off-key singer, a clumsy dancer, a passable actor, and an acceptable public speaker. However, the valedictorian does not stand out at any of these activities.

The valedictorian, therefore, learns how to be a professional in mediocrity in high school. In particular, the valedictorian learns how to impress teachers and follow rules rather than studying with a focus. That means the main lesson many people learn in high school is hard work without focus.

Learning the wrong thing in high school: hard work without focus

The valedictorians often lack the in-depth knowledge and deep work necessary for success. They lack those attributes because in-depth knowledge and commitment require focus. Instead, the valedictorian focuses on superficial knowledge and learns not to focus on any subject or activity.

For instance, to be a good actor a person has to focus on acting. The kid whose only extracurricular activity in high school is drama club is more likely to make it to Hollywood or Broadway.

Instead of following their passions, or concentrating on their best subjects, the valedictorians try to do everything. Hence, they are at a terrible disadvantage for an environment like medical school which values specialization, quality, deep work, results, and focus.

The valedictorian falsely thinks he or she is on the road to success simply because he or she is working hard. When the valedictorian then graduates and enters an environment where results matter, he or she flounders. The valedictorian flounders because he or she does not know how to focus on specific tasks or knowledge.

For instance, the math geek who spends his spare time crunching numbers is more likely to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics or get a job at Goldman Sachs than the valedictorian. That’s because the university mathematics department, and Goldman Sachs, are looking for people who can focus on mathematics — not “well-rounded individuals.”

Teaching kids hard work without focus

We should teach focus in high school. Unfortunately, our schools rarely teach focus.

The high school environment disturbingly punishes people for focusing. Peers will brand a student that focuses on one subject a geek, a nerd, or a weirdo.

To make matters worse, teachers and guidance counselors sometimes brand the focuser antisocial and discourage his or her discipline. Typically, this involves forcing kids into activities they do not care about just to make them “well-rounded.”

Sadly, many valedictorians devoted their time and energy to being well-rounded rather than learning. Hence, they found themselves unable to compete in the real world where deep knowledge is valuable

Fortunately, many people are too smart, or too stubborn, to learn the no-focus lesson. There are a lot of great teachers and coaches out there who ignore the social climate and push kids to focus. Many people learn to focus from sports which value winning, a quantifiable goal, over social acceptance.

It’s unfortunate how many students lack the strength of character to focus when the world is telling them not to. Not everybody is lucky to have a strong teacher or coach who cultivates their passions and pushes focus.

The Globe concludes that Boston has failed its valedictorians. But the schools’ greatest failure to those kids could have been ignoring the simple lesson of focus. Fortunately, focusing is one lesson anybody can learn later in life — even a valedictorian.

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Daniel G. Jennings

Daniel G. Jennings

Daniel G. Jennings is a writer who lives and works in Colorado. He is a lifelong history buff who is fascinated by stocks, politics, and cryptocurrency.

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