Defining Success

I started this topic quite a while ago and put it away as I could not comfortably come up with a method to address the topic. I now have a daughter in college and it seems to have taken on a new life for me.

We all want to be successful and even more so want our children to be successful. I didn’t want this discussion to be purely an analysis of numbers and trends, but rather the relationship to both the opportunity and probability of “success” and more importantly the definition of success. For so long, so many of us have defined “success” as going to school, then going to college, graduating, getting a good job with a major company and going on from there.

Is that really the proper definition of success in today’s world?

We normally associate the attendance of and graduation from college as a prerequisite of success. I was reading an article about relative graduation rates for students in the US who attend college. It showed that the graduation rate could be directly correlated to the cost of the college. That means that the more expensive the college tuition (Private school vs. Public institution) the more likely it was that the student would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 4 years. I guess that means that if you want to up the odds of your kid graduating from college that you had better send them to an expensive school.

The problem is that they are now all expensive. Very expensive.

It showed that on average about two thirds of students entering a Private institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 64%), and that about one third of students entering a public institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 37%). It also shows that the gap closes significantly if graduation data is reviewed after 6 years instead of 4. Private school students hit 3 out of 4 graduating (actual number 78%) and public school students hit 2 out of 3 (actual number is 66%).

Stepping it back a little further, and out of my own curiosity, I looked up the percentage of high school students that graduate from high school and enter college. This number comes in at about 70%. It is interesting that in these difficult economic times that this number is now at its all time high (actually it was set in 2009, but 2010 was at almost the same level). Being something of a math-guy, I multiplied the two numbers together and came up with the fact that less than half the people that go to high school actually graduate high school and college (even after 6 years of college).

Okay, so what.

When is the last time you have hired, or you have heard of someone being hired into an organization without a college degree? If less than half the people entering school graduate college, chances are they won’t be hired by a corporate organization. That doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. It means they are doing something else.

This got me thinking a little bit further on the topic.

I did what most people do these days. I went out and “Googled” the percentage of college graduates that are actually hired into a position that requires a college degree. I make this distinction because some graduates will take positions that do not require a college degree to perform the work (check out the baristas at Starbucks), and others will not find work (check out the “boomerang” kids returning from college to live at home).

As we all might expect this number varies with the status of the economy. In 2006 and 2007 approximately 85-90% of college graduates found work. In 2010 this number dropped to only 56%. 22% of 2010 college graduates took jobs that did not require a college degree. In total 78% of 2010 college graduates found work, but many of them were “under employed”.
That means that of the people who start school, a little less than half actually graduate college with a degree. Of those that graduate college, a little more than half (or a quarter of the total that started) actually find a job that requires a college degree.

A little more research – again with Google’s help, revealed that of those that find work as a college graduate new hire, 46% – again almost half, will leave their jobs (either of their own volition or at the company’s direction) in the first 18 months of employment. The information I found goes further to indicate that while 46% leave, only 19% of those that stay will be successful, with successful being defined as advancing up the corporate chain with increasing responsibilities and a (hopefully) fulfilling career. To me that means that 35% (the 54% that do not fail less the 19% that are actually successful) of college graduate new hires remain employed but are again not what we might successful.

So let’s recap. If we have 100 people who start school, approximately 70 of them will graduate high school. Of those 70, approximately 50 will graduate college. Of those 50 college graduates, approximately 28 will find a job that requires a college degree in today’s economic climate. Of those 28 that have found work, approximately 13 will leave their jobs in the first 18 months of their employment. Of those 15 that remain employed, approximately 5 will be what we as business leaders might call successful.

According to our preconceived notion of success, only five percent (5%) of the people will be successful.

Now I have had to pause here for a while because there are so many different directions that I can go with this type of information and analysis. We can look at the societal or cultural reasons why almost three quarters of those people starting school won’t graduate from college and will most likely be excluded from consideration for positions in our companies. We can look at what causes almost half of those that we do hire to leave. We could also look for the presence of similar characteristics in the successful five percent and see how we might be able to teach and train people on how to utilize these success attributes.

Or we could ask if we have the right definition of success.

The comedian Craig Ferguson had what I thought was an incredibly insightful as well as very funny monologue addressing what he called the “deification of youth” where he noted amongst other things that youth also meant a lack of experience. ( And a lack of experience to me means that you don’t know what you want yet. How can people be successful, when they lack the experience to know what they want to be successful at?
When we judge success we have a tendency to judge it from our own perspective and experience (because we are not young, we have experience), and not everybody has the same perspective. As time passes and we gain more of the “experience” that Craig Ferguson mentioned our perspective also changes. Not everyone who starts school is destined to be a leader in business. Not everyone who plays golf is destined for the PGA, or now senior PGA tour.

Of the two I think it is now the golf one that bothers me most.

Many, simply by the choices that they make will opt to be something other than what “we” may currently define as successful in business. We see this in the generational definitions that are currently in vogue. Generation X, Generation Y, Baby Boomers, etc. all have their own definitions of success. We as business leaders need to understand these differences and try to adapt to them as well as try to adapt them to the goals of business. Not everybody will meet our definition of success, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful.

That doesn’t change the fact though, that I want my daughter to graduate from college…and get a good job.

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