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Why the Best Students Are Not the Biggest Successes

Tom Shieh
Tom Shieh

Following the rules may not be the path to business stardom.

A letter grade or professional degree often bears little weight compared to entrepreneurship and business acumen.

Robert Kiyosaki's 2012 book "Why 'A' Students Work for 'C' Students" discusses the professional outcomes of stellar versus lackluster students, and the theory has caught on. The premise is true, but not for the reasons one may think. As counterintuitive as it may seem, in the world of business, academic prowess doesn't guarantee financial achievement or success. 

A students and C students

Students who achieve A's and other high marks in school tend to be rule-followers. They understand what is being asked of them and deliver the desired product in the requested form, fashion and timeframe given to them. A students are both intelligent and compliant. There is little room for individuality or innovation when you allow educational institutions, academic curriculum, teachers and professors to dictate your behavior and thinking. 

Students who receive C grades are less afraid to fail and may be less averse to risk. Students who earn C's are not necessarily less intellectually capable, but, all things being equal, they do not place such a high value on letter grades. C students are more likely to handle failure in a constructive way, dusting themselves off and trying again. By virtue of not always achieving remarkable letter grades, C students understand that anything less than an A is not a catastrophe but can become a learning opportunity. 

Billionaire dropouts

Some of the most prominent business leaders of recent times aren't people who performed particularly well in college. Their lackluster performance at the college level does not reflect an intellectual deficit but rather a shift in focus. For example, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were impressive enough academically to be admitted to Harvard, Larry Page to Stanford, and Jeff Bezos to Princeton, but none of them graduated. Why did they decide to drop out of college?

The answer is simple: At some point in their academic careers, they realized that their success in life wasn't going to be predicated on a letter grade or a university degree but rather on the product of their efforts. Higher education ceased to be a means to an end. So these and many other successful entrepreneurs struck out on their own, to blaze their own trail.

Companies such as Apple, Dell, Microsoft and Facebook were each established by individuals who dropped out of college. Many Fortune 500 companies, as well as SMEs, were created by people who didn't place high a value on a college degree. Other successful companies started by dropouts include Oracle, Uber, WhatsApp, Twitter, Whole Foods and WikiLeaks.

Zuckerberg and Gates withdrew from university to pursue entrepreneurship. While they could have become successful following the rules, they understood that they would only win big if they wrote their own. This thinking represents the entrepreneurial mind and spirit. These and other highly successful individuals recognized that their ideas were fresh and innovative, so they chose to focus their time, money and energy on developing their business. 

So should we encourage students to drop out of college?

The easy and obvious answer is no. If you are a rule-follower, an A student, then research shows a greater likelihood that you'll achieve financial success if you graduate from college. In fact, a Georgetown University study revealed that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in their lifetimes than those who did not attain a college degree. Statistically, college is the safe bet. This truth is not lost on most, including the National Center for Education Statistics, which reported that young adults with a college degree were more likely to be employed and earn a higher wage than their peers who did not graduate with a degree. Those who value safety and security, those who strive to be A students, fill important, powerful and valuable roles in business. Even if they never achieve enormous financial success, they will remain accomplished and safe.    

The individuals who found enormous success after leaving college to pursue their own business endeavors are the exception, not the rule.  According to a 2016 study by Jonathan Wai and Heiner Rindermann, only 10 percent of Forbes billionaires had no college or an unknown college background. While the statistic that 1 out of 10 Forbes billionaires don't hold a college degree seems impressive, we have to remember that each of these individuals possesses the intellectual ability to attain many different degrees and certifications from any number of elite schools across the globe.   


Sometimes the college dropout does employ the college summa cum laude graduate. After all, as of 2017, Facebook had more than 25,000 full-time employees and still only one Mark Zuckerberg. The success of college dropouts who then become billionaire entrepreneurs is due to their determination, intelligence and execution of a great idea. 

Image Credit: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock
Tom Shieh
Tom Shieh Member
Tom Shieh is a creative, serial entrepreneur with a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and Master's Degree in Telecommunications. Originally from Taiwan, he has several years of technical and management experience at IBM, Level 3 Communications, and Northrop Grumman. He has owned and managed over 100+ revenue-generating websites within 13 different company entities.