The Burden Of Being 'Most Likely To Succeed' In many American high schools, voting for senior superlatives is a time-honored tradition. But it may be less than an honor for those voted "Most Likely To Succeed." Some school administrators are concerned the title can put too much pressure on students who earn it.

The Burden Of Being 'Most Likely To Succeed'

The Burden Of Being 'Most Likely To Succeed'

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In many American high schools, voting for senior superlatives is a time-honored tradition. But it may be less than an honor for those voted "Most Likely To Succeed." Some school administrators are concerned the title can put too much pressure on students who earn it.


Sue Shellenbarger, writes the Wall Street Journal's Work & Family column


Over the past month, about a quarter of high school senior classes took a vote and named one of their number most likely to succeed. It seems like a harmless ritual that doesn't affect much beyond the yearbook, but more and more schools have decided to end these polls in part to the concern that the title can put more too much pressure on recipients. A recent poll by the high school reunion networking site found nearly one-third of those named most likely came to regard it as a curse.

If you were voted most likely to succeed, did it turn out to be a curse or a blessing? What effect did it have on your life? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sue Shellenbarger wrote about the burden of being named most likely to succeed in her "Work & Family" column in The Wall Street Journal. She joins us now from her home in Portland, Oregon.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. SUE SHELLENBARGER (Columnist, "Work & Family," The Wall Street Journal): Thank you, Neal. Nice to join you.

CONAN: And you talked with one man in your piece, Blake Atwood, who said noosed with most likely to succeed is like lugging an albatross to every job interview. Noosed - that's an interesting verb.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Blake felt that way. He was haunted by the label, and I think felt stuck with it, and constantly wondered if he was measuring up.

CONAN: And constantly felt as if he was - that this was some kind of expectation placed on him, rather than a - sort of vote for success in high school, which is rather different.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, that's true. And this designation is a little different from some of the others, such as most popular, because it sticks with you in the sense that the high school interpretation of most likely to succeed is pretty conventional. You rise to the top of your field. You make a lot of money. You become famous, and it stays stationary.

And for people who grow and evolve as adults do, I think people felt that was confining. It haunted some of them. One woman said that it was hanging over her ever since she earned it 20 years earlier.

CONAN: And, Sue Shellenbarger, does it really affect people's lives, though?

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: I think it adds to - for some. What I found, it broke at about one-third of folks felt it was a burden, that is, they always wondered if they were measuring up. They wondered if perhaps they weren't fulfilling their peers' expectations.

Others found it inspiring and took courage from it. And so those folks -one young man, a Howard University graduate, told me that remembering that his classmates have voted him most likely to succeed actually kept him from seriously considering dropping out of Harvard Law School a few years later. He continues to wonder, at age 30, as a Ph.D. candidate, whether he's making it. Am I measuring up? He just doesn't want to disappoint those folks back home.

CONAN: Doesn't want to disappoint the folks back home. That's - a lot of people get out of high school and never look back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: And never think a thing about it. And some of the research I did show that people can't even remember who was voted most likely to succeed, and about one-third of the folks in the poll said that it had absolutely no significance for them whatsoever.

So, sure, a lot of people do forget it. But there is something about the notion of success that's laden with, you know, cultural values that make you feel pressured, that make you feel almost that you have to be perfect. And I think that sense of perfectionism is what haunted a lot of the people I spoke with.

CONAN: Also, it depends on your definition of success.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, that's absolutely right, and it was fascinating to me to speak with one young woman, a very talented young woman whose definition of success in high school was achievement and awards. And she drove herself mercilessly and got all of the above, and was invited to apply to a Harvard University summer program for highly gifted students and graduated most likely to succeed and suddenly felt she was lost.

She lost her sense of direction. She began to feel that she wanted other things in life, and she spent the next decade or so redefining what success really meant to her.

So it is - you put your finger on it. It is that how do we define success, and does that change over time? And for this young woman I'm speaking of now, she said that it became a milestone for her, that designation of how much she had changed. Now she values relationships. She values experiences over money and prestige. And for her, that was a valuable mile-marker in her life.

CONAN: I'm not sure how I - I'm not sure I can remember that long ago. But I would have measured successes as a high school senior and how I would measure that differently today.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: One University of Chicago professor actually took up the issue of high school class reunions and he took a look at, oh, I think, a half-dozen of them and went back and studied the participants in depth. And he was astonished by how uniform the consensus was on what is the definition of success. It meant making lots of money, gaining status and fame, or arriving to the top of your profession almost across the board. And I think that is what makes people feel so stuck on this issue.

CONAN: And people 10 or 20 years out might redefine it quite differently as a, well, you know, being happy and being a productive member of society.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Well, that's right. Or they defined it as deepening their relationships, being successful parents, having what they feel is meaningful travel or meaningful community service activities. And those aren't things you think about so much when you're 18 or at least many people don't. So it does - it serves as a milestone if you're mentality resilient enough to see it that way, I think.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you were voted most likely to succeed, did it prove to be a blessing or a curse? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email:

We'll start with Stacy(ph), Stacy with us from Nashville.

STACY (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Stacy.

STACY: Hey. I was one of those voted most likely succeed. And I have a hard time looking at my peers from high school anymore because I don't feel like I have any way measured up to that expectation. I just felt like (unintelligible) by that award, which I was so excited to get back then.

I was very, very musical and I still am. And I still sing professionally from time to time. But the course that I have chosen in my life is that of a mother. I have four children. And while I feel very successful and happy with that course and recognize so much value in that choice, I do have a really difficult time facing my peers from high school because they always say, well, you were so talented. Why didn't you do anything with it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Have you considered moving to Bora Bora?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STACY: That would be wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm sure, as you come to redefine it, your classmates will be accepting too. But do you go back to high school reunions?

STACY: I've been to one, yes, and everybody wanted to know what I was doing with singing, not how are my kids doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, there is time yet, Stacy.

STACY: I'd hope so.

CONAN: And you're in the right city.

STACY: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

STACY: Mm-hmm. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Laurie(ph) in St. Paul. I was voted most likely to succeed as well as most mischievous. I could only pick one so I chose mischievous. In other words, I would rather not take myself too seriously. I've been extremely successful in five careers and now begin a career as an artist.

And it's interesting, Sue Shellenbarger, one of the people that you talked to also offered the opportunity of making a choice between mostly like to succeed and something else.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: I think the emailer probably made the better choice. Mischievous is a label that's easier to wear over the long term.

CONAN: I think so. Yeah.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Yeah. The woman I spoke to was also voted most likely to be remembered, and she chose mostly like to succeed. And she said, looking back now, she really wishes that she'd rather be memorable, she said, than be stuck with this definition of success.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kirk(ph), and Kirk with us from Bucks County in Pennsylvania.

KIRK (Caller): Hey. I was actually voted most likely to get mugged.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Really?

KIRK: Yeah. I had a horrific time in high school. I went to Pennsbury, a large high school, late '70s, early '80s. And, you know, I'm a gay man and it was a really horrible time. And, in fact, it was so bad, I didn't even want to go to college. And my mother bribed me to go to college with a used VW bug, and eventually got into education and I have a PhD now. But from the high school experience, not a chance would I have thought that I would have ended up being a teacher right now.

CONAN: And have you ever found yourself down a dark alley staring at the wrong end of a Saturday night special?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KIRK: Once when I lived in New York City, yeah. So maybe they were right.

CONAN: Maybe they were right. But you may not have been the only one who was mugged from your class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kirk, thanks very much for the story.

KIRK: Yup.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Here's an email from Elizabeth. Luckily, I managed to live down being class clown. But sadly, I still can't shake the title of most accident-prone. Last year, I fell off my second floor porch and broke my back. Ouch.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: You know, Neal, it's interesting, these can be very painful votes, these polls that if the kids voted mostly likely to have a bad reputation or most likely to have a conversation with himself, those can come back to haunt you in the future. And that is another reason that these polls are diminishing in popularity, fewer schools are running them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go - really, fewer running them, not just most likely to succeed, but most mischievous too?

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Yes. There are - more schools are cutting them out because some of the legal and ethical sensitivities. You know, for example, one young woman came back and sued her high school after she was voted worst reputation, among other things. They can - you know, school can be kind of tough and there can be some mudslinging sometimes even in good humor. And if that goes up on somebody's Facebook page, it can haunt them later. So that's one reason that the number of schools doing this has been declining.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Nathan, and Nathan is on the line from Gainesville.

NATHAN (Caller): Hey. I was just voted most likely to succeed. I'm graduating this Friday from high school. And the kind of, well, voting I guess or a - it's kind of scary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to expose you to the - what led your classmates, do you think, to vote you most likely to succeed?

NATHAN: I'm not really sure, actually. I mean, I do well in my classes, I get good grades. But, like, I really don't know.

CONAN: Well, bear it with a light heart, I think is the advice that we could give you based on the story that we're reading from Sue Shellenbarger and on the advice that we're getting from our callers.

NATHAN: I will make sure to...

CONAN: And if class clown is still available, go for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NATHAN: No. No, it's not the same.

CONAN: OK. Nathan, congratulations. Good luck.

NATHAN: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about the burden of being voted most likely to succeed. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Holly(ph), and Holly with us from Chesapeake in Virginia.

HOLLY (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Holly.

HOLLY: How are you guys today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

HOLLY: Thanks, guys. I just - I was voted most likely to succeed back in 2000 in high school. You know, it's been a little, well, 11 years now. And I definitely am not where I thought I would be, you know? At 16, 17 years old, I thought by now I'd be graduated from college with a master's degree, on my way to working on a, you know, solid family. And here I am still feeling like I'm stuck.

You know, I didn't graduate from Virginia Tech yet. You know, I'm working as a manager in a restaurant, doing the best that I can. But, you know, barely holding my head above water. And a lot of the things that she was saying about, you know, your definition of success is different now than it was in high school, I've had to really try and define what it is for me for success, and that whole feeling of being lost, really trying to come into my own at this point. You know, I don't want to blame my classmates for anything.

CONAN: Of course not.

HOLLY: It's not their fault, you know? It's my own, but it's also one of those the things that the sheltering nature of high school and the structured nature of high school is so much different than the way that the real world is. You get in the world and it's not exactly the same way as the regimented go to class, go home, do your homework, go to class, go home, do your homework. So...

CONAN: One of the things that's different, Holly, though is the timeline, which is, of course, in high school, everything, as you say, is very regimented. In real life, the timeline can be quick or slow. It varies person to person. You may be just on a slightly different arc than everybody else.

HOLLY: That's what I hope. You know, I'm trying to justify to my own self and not compare myself to other people, you know, and make my own way now and find what's, you know, going to make me happiest in life. So...

CONAN: That is the way to approach it, Holly. And look at it this way, you could be busing at that restaurant.

HOLLY: Yes, I could, instead I'm managing and doing a little better than that. So...

CONAN: OK. Thanks...

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: Holly, you should know too that many people got decked by the recession. And even the most promising young people coming out of high school face setbacks. One young woman who also received that label in high school said she tried to start a business, and it was taking her years and years to get it off the ground instead of the two years she projected. So you're not alone in that.

HOLLY: Yeah. And it's one of the things too, from high school, I thought that college would be the answer. It would somehow show me the path for what I was supposed to be, where I was supposed to go. And in reality, I needed to find that within myself. Like, Virginia Tech was going to make that happen for me, you know? I had to find it. And I'm still searching for it, but, you know, I'm getting there. So...

CONAN: Well, good luck, Holly.

HOLLY: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: This email from Brian(ph): As a teacher, I always ask my students why they don't put themselves as most likely to succeed. I ask if they think they will be a failure. Why would they say someone else is better than them? Great topic.

I'm not sure he's understood the concept of self-esteem in high school, which could be a little low. But maybe that's different for teachers.

Ms. SHELLENBARGER: One young woman I interviewed had asked her classmates to vote her most likely to succeed. She had a hard-scrabble upbringing by her single grandmother and she was determined to succeed. And for her, that meant survival rather than, you know, a lot of money. And she was voted most likely to succeed, and she made that her mission in life and actually is doing quite well now as a young entrepreneur in New York City.

CONAN: Adam is on the line from Boston.

ADAM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Adam.

ADAM: I was - I just got you in the car in the way home, and I was laughing to myself because my 10th high school reunion is this summer. And I was voted most likely to succeed three out of the four years in high school. And the only reason it wasn't four is that the other - the year that I didn't win, there wasn't a best all-around category, so the kid that won that won most likely to succeed instead.

CONAN: I see.

ADAM: And I was laughing because I'm now an Episcopal priest, and I was wondering if my classmates in high school would think that was success, because I certainly do.


Ms. SHELLENBARGER: You raise such a good question, Adam. I love that story. And I think that Holly raised a similar values question earlier when she said, I have four children, I'm doing great by my life. When did a poll on whether people thought that most-likely-to-succeed candidates had met that projection, people generally said, yup, they did really well. I think that this is one reason people don't go back though to their high school reunions because often that most likely to succeed label was popped right there on your name tag with your senior picture, and people don't want to confront that.

If, you know, they may feel quite solid in their own moorings and walk into that room with their former peers and everybody says, hmm, that's all you're doing? So you raise a very good issue.

ADAM: I wonder, though, since I'm in a profession that tends to define success differently than other people, if it's more distilled in my case just because for me success has nothing to do with money at all, and in some cases, it's actually better not to have it as a clergyperson.

CONAN: Well, I can understand the distinction, though I suspect those questions stop popping up once the collar appears.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAM: Yeah. Well, I'm not going to my reunion because it's in Alabama. It's a little bit of a trek. But if I had, I think I would have left the collar at home.

CONAN: OK. Adam, thanks very much for the call. Congratulations.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Just a couple of emails. I was the female recipient of most likely to succeed in my class. I honestly didn't remember that until I started listening to this segment, from Beth in Emporia, Kansas.

And this from Tracy(ph): I was voted most desirable to kiss - one, I had no idea that category existed; two, it was profoundly disturbing to know that my peers, 500 high school seniors, thought of me that way.

Sue Shellenbarger, thank you very much, from the Wall Street Journal. This is NPR News.

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