Academic achievement is a bit like the acquisition of wealth. It means everything up to a certain point, after which it becomes utterly meaningless (well, not exactly utterly meaningless, but marred by diminishing returns). With enough of either, an individual can unlock an almost limitless number of doors and opportunities, garner respect, inspire awe, lead. But just like the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and both wealth and academic achievement are no exceptions.
Take the Donald Trump and Warren Buffett for example. Both men are wildly successful business moguls who have more than enough money to do whatever their heart desires. However, while Buffett dedicates most of his fortune to philanthropy, Trump spends his time writing books with titles such as Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life and Midas Tough. The latter’s presidential bid is plagued with a similar air of arrogance, constantly supplemented by superfluous claims of business acumen. If there’s one thing Trump knows how to do well, it’s flaunting his achievements, by no means modestly. But egotism is far from a valid strategy for a presidential race. And life in general for that matter.
(You might be wondering why Trump’s poll numbers are up if I claim that the strategy he’s adopted leaves him dead in the water. The truth is, the thirty percent Trump is polling at is far from enough to carry him through the primaries when the other seventy percent is split between four candidates who will inevitably consolidate their support behind one, the party leadership favorite. But the election is an enormous can of worms that can only be opened at a different time.)
Like the dichotomy between Buffett and Trump, the acquisition of academic success can go in one of two ways. It can improve lives. Or destroy them.
Many look up to the educated, the learned, the intellectual. They are leaders, innovators, and, perhaps most importantly, role models, pushing us to our limits by motivating us to do more, to be more, than we think we can do and be. In that regard, they are the most powerful force known to man.
But just as readily as we look up to those who are smarter, keener, more intelligent, a leader can turn into a dictator, an innovator into a man misguided by delusion, a role model into an arrogant fool. Academic success – success in general – can be a double edged sword as sharp as a shard of obsidian.
So how does one who encounters such success avoid succumbing to the folly of egotism and self-importance? The first step is quite simple actually: Keep in touch with your peers. Many congressmen, entranced by the allure of greater power on the Hill, have a bad habit of losing touch with their constituents. A similar idea is applicable to achievement of academic success. Losing track of who exactly you’re supposed to be appealing to is the easiest way to fall into the trap of conceit.
Second, don’t be afraid to acknowledge what you don’t know. If someone asks you a question, don’t be afraid to display honesty. Don’t be afraid to confront the unknown. While in a debates, ignorance may largely be frowned upon, in normal life, moments mired in mystery are commonplace and necessary in maintaining humility. It’s part of being human after all.
And lastly, always be learning. Growth is the strongest bulwark against complacency. Just how Warren Buffett advocates to never retire, I advocate to never stop striving for further academic achievement. It keeps the mind nimble, and ties heavily to the previous point of acknowledging the unknown. Push the boundaries not just because you can, but because you must.
Just like wealth, academic success is a powerful tool for shaping the world. But what it potentially comes with – arrogance – is dangerous. It demoralizes, devours, and ultimately, destroys. But by keeping friends and peers close by and never ceasing to pursue the mysterious, you can insure that your success can foster great things to come.