High GPA? Forget it, focus on your Relationship GPA
Imagine, you're 82 years old. Your dying wish is to travel back in time to speak to your 20-year-old self. Suddenly your wish is granted, and you're standing in front of your college-age reflection, with 5 minutes left to spare. What would you say? In 1938, Harvard University began a lifelong study of 268 men. Researchers followed the lives of these students from sophomore year to their death up to 70 years later. During this time, the men graduated, married, and fought in World War II. Some became incredibly successful. Of the study participants, four would run for U.S. Senate, and one - John F. Kennedy - would become president of the United States. Others fell in the opposite direction. Many would die early, divorce, or grow addicted to alcohol.
As the participants entered their 80’s, the researchers of this study began to look holistically at the lives of these men. They examined their records from college until death, wanting to find which factors led to long-life, happiness, and perceived professional success. Ultimately, their discovery culminated in one simple idea: that personal relationships mattered more than anything else.
As former director of the study George Valliant put it, “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Over the course of the study, individuals with strong personal relationships lived happier, healthier, and longer lives than their more isolated peers. Current director Robert Waldinger summed up the findings in one sentence: “The good life is built with good relationships.”
In 2015, 68 years after the study began, Greg Foster and I—two Harvard sophomores—stumbled upon the Grant study.
Instantly, we were hooked.
So we embarked on a quest to find out. We interviewed dozens of current Harvard students and compared their lifestyles to those of the most successful Grant Study men, focusing on the ways in which Harvard students cultivated personal relationships in college. How did the best students find friends, make mentors, and expand their personal networks?
The year’s work has culminated in a book called “Your Relationship GPA: Lessons from Harvard Students on How to Make Time for What Matters Most." In it, we have come to a realization: students, by and large, focus on the wrong things in college. Evidence of this abounds at Harvard—students eat their meals alone, give cursory answers to questions like “How are you?,” and focus on personal success at the expense of deep relationships.
Unfortunately, the structure of college makes it difficult for students to focus on what matters, especially since the only measurable feedback given is a grade. Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton calls this dilemma “the curse of counting.” In his research, he shows that people tend to optimize what they can count, even if it’s not in their long-term interest to do so. While his research focuses on the accumulation of money—describing the ways in which people slave away to earn more, even if doing so is detrimental to their happiness—the same could be said for GPAs. We manage our grades so neurotically because we can control their up-and-down movements, and because we can use them as a measure of comparison with the people around us.
But what if we’re quantifying the wrong thing entirely? In his landmark book, “Emotional Intelligence,” psychologist Daniel Goleman explains that, past a certain IQ, your EQ is a better predictor of future success. Once a college student’s intelligence is one standard deviation higher than the mean (or an IQ of roughly 115-120), adding a few extra IQ points has little effect on long-term success.
Many companies recognize this and are moving away from tests of intelligence. Google’s people analytics team, which essentially conducts academic research for the company, discovered that after two years out of college, grades were no longer predictive of hiring success. According to Google's Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock, “We did a bunch of analysis and found that grades are slightly predictive your first two years, but for the rest of your career don’t matter at all.”
The idea of focusing on more meaningful metrics isn’t unique. We all face a struggle between our external goals and our inner desire to be good, loved, or cared for. David Brooks, author of “On the Road to Character,” labels these two categories as resume virtues and eulogy virtues. “The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the job marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
For many students, their move to college is the first time they’ve left their childhood homes. This represents a unique time to rebalance life priorities. Research from Duke University shows that habits are most malleable when individuals first enter a new environment. Free of the constraints of the past 18 years, students need to think critically about themselves. Do I treat people as I should? Would I sacrifice for my friends? How do I want people to remember me?
The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” But if schools like Harvard won’t help us develop the habits to form strong relationships, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
* This post was featured on linkedin "Careers: Getting Started."