A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with my daughter, Caroline. She’s heading off to college in a few years, so I’m trying to spend as much time with her as humanly possible. We got talking about school, and she mentioned offhand that her GPA was 4.35.
“I didn’t even know your GPA could get that high,” I joked. My GPA in high school was 2.0. If you add that to my college GPA—another 2.0—Caroline still beat me by nearly half a point. “Do you think you’ll make valedictorian?”
Caroline took a bite of her food and shrugged. “Maybe. I know I’m in the running, but I’m not sure I want it.”
I was a little taken aback when she said that. Caroline is competitive at everything she does, whether it’s on the field hockey field or in math class. “How come, sweetie? Isn’t being valedictorian something you’ve always wanted?”
“Yeah, but I’m just not sure it’s worth it. I watched a video a little while ago that made me rethink things.”
Now I was getting worried. She watched a YouTube video that made her stop caring about school? Was she planning to drop out and live on a commune?
Caroline read my expression and laughed. “Oh, Dad, relax. It’s a speech that went viral a few years ago by a boy who was valedictorian of his high school class.” She pulled up YouTube on her phone. “You just have to watch it.”
In the video (which has over 16 million views), Kyle Martin, the valedictorian of The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, delivers a speech to his peers at graduation. He explains how he worked his butt off to earn a 4.64 GPA. When the dean of students announced he had won the award, it was the greatest moment of Kyle’s life. “It felt SO good!” he said, “… for about fifteen seconds. Fifteen seconds of my heart racing and my adrenaline pumping. Fifteen seconds at being at the top of the pile of all my accomplishments.”
Then he said: “But there must come a sixteenth second. Maybe I was hoping all my problems would fade away in comparison to this amazing achievement. But none of that happened. I felt nothing.” Kyle explained that his greatest accomplishment was paid for by sacrificing his most important relationships. It was all about that GPA, and his friendships fell by the wayside. In that sixteenth second, Kyle realized he had reached the top of the mountain and left everyone behind.
I finally understood what Caroline meant about how achieving valedictorian wasn’t worth it. Was that extra tenth of a point worth Friday and Saturday nights holed up in her room studying? Was a small plaque that said VALEDICTORIAN worth giving up her Saturday mornings volunteering at the soup kitchen? Caroline will never stop trying hard, but I’m grateful she learned that achievement for achievement’s sake is not a virtue. That success is only worthwhile if it is shared with others.
It took me a lot longer to figure that out. I’ve written about how I struggled in high school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. I was a fixture of the resource room, went to summer school all four years, and just fell through the cracks. A teacher once called me “stupid,” and I believed it. Somewhere along the way I decided to prove everyone wrong. I wanted to become incredibly successful even though I couldn’t read very well or solve for “x” for the life of me. I signed up for every club, played on the football team, became a DECA champion, volunteered at my local church, and worked two part-time jobs. I racked up so many achievements that I was voted “Did Most for Suffern High School” in the yearbook superlatives. I kept feeding my achievement addiction in college, where I was president of my fraternity, president of my senior class, and the commencement speaker, even though I failed basic algebra six times. In my twenties, I found something I was really good at—sales—and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. By the time I turned thirty, I was a top salesman living in a fancy condo in Boston’s South End.
I had the same fifteen seconds that Kyle Martin did. Except for me, they were fifteen years. Fifteen years of achieving and achieving to prove everyone wrong. Fifteen years of hoarding plaques, awards, and bullet points on my resumé. Fifteen years of leaving everyone else in the dust. When I finally had my sixteenth second—when I realized I had nothing to show for my achievement except a nice car and an empty condo—I packed my bags and drove to Denver, Colorado, to begin a new career teaching leadership skills to young people. To help them avoid the same mistakes I made. To teach them, as Kyle did so eloquently in his speech, that “Nothing is more important than authentic relationships. Nothing. Not your goals, not your successes. Your life cannot be meaningful without them.”
Everyone experiences those fifteen seconds at some point in their life. If you’re fortunate, you understand everything you’ve been missing in that sixteenth second. You reevaluate the meaning of success. So, the next time you feel the adrenaline of triumph, the next time you achieve that goal you have been working so hard for so long to achieve, take fifteen seconds to bask in the glow and pat yourself on the back. But in the sixteenth second, take a good look around that mountaintop to see who is by your side. Then look down to see whom you left behind.
Was it worth it?