Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where You Start Is Not Where You End

I've written about my daughter's exploration of colleges and my sense that college fit for her including teaching style, student peers, setting, culture, and extracurricular activities is more important than US News and World Report rankings or the parental ego boost from the college prestige beauty contest.

As an experiment, I asked several of my staff where they went to college.

There was no correlation between their current roles and the prestige ranking of their college. College was a nurturing experience that enabled them to explore their interests, find themselves, and build the skills to succeed in life. Graduate school did correlate a bit. Aiming for a great Master's program (MS, MBA, MPH, MPA) is an enabler to find a good job.

Interestingly, of the folks I work with in Washington, most identify themselves with the institution of their final degree and not their college experience. After a few years in recognizable positions, any mention of even graduate educational institutions fades away.

As I look as my evolving CVs through the years, the pedigree of my 20's is no longer relevant to my trajectory at 50.

The point - where you start is not where you end.

I disagree with those who believe the right kindergarten leads to the right elementary school leads to the right high school leads to the famous college, which immediately produces fame and fortune. From my limited experience of managing 500 people, it's the person and their individual journey that leads to success, not their pedigree.

My own life has been filled with twists, random acts of kindness from others, good karma, and Brownian motion that as led me to my current positions.

My daughter's passions are mathematics, Japanese culture/language, archery, the outdoors, and art. Might she be an environmental engineer working in Japan and studying Kyudo, the mediative archery martial art? Could she be the designer of the next generation of Lego toys? Might she teach English to Japanese elementary school students after college, then work in Japanese government as a liaison to visiting technologists? All are possible - the world is her oyster.

In life thus far, I've been a son, programmer, author, editor, manager, winemaker, physician, technologist, politician, husband, and father. Fate usually reinvents my role every few years and the final chapter of my story has not yet been written.

So, Lara, go write your story. You're at Chapter 1. I look forward to reading the novel of your life as you write it, your way, in the years to come.


Joseph F. Sucher, MD FACS said...

Poignant perfection. I am in a position now to help guide those going into college, graduate schools and medical schools. I consistently tell those younger than me not to worry about the destination, but rather, enjoy and relish the journey. If you focus on the destination being the ultimate prize, I believe you will be disappointed.

I have been a son, brother, soldier, biochemist, physician, husband, father, technologist, business owner, surgeon, researcher, and soldier again. I will share your excellent post with others.

Frank Fortin said...

John, thank you for this.
My oldest daughter is about to start on her college exploration too. So many parents in my community make this an obsession, and I have this nagging feeling they're doing their children a horrible disservice.
Provide guidance and structure? Sure. Treat it like the decision that will affect your life forever? Hardly.

Aaron Hall said...

Dr. Halamka, I read a case study that focused on your IT for my MBA program. I and my friends (of all politics and professions) are discussing what could or should be done to reform healthcare. My thoughts: triage algorithms (improving care, perhaps allowing nurse practitioners or some alternative to elevate necessary care to physicians), requiring (perhaps most?) contracts have out of pockets so no coverage is "free" making the customers the patients instead of just the government and insurance companies, tort reform (decreasing malpractice insurance costs and CYA testing), standardized coverage insurance contracts (why not, we do it with options?), and tax incentives to buy insurance. What are your thoughts? (If you'd prefer to respond privately, my email is

(Here's a really wild suggestion: allow medical institutions that meet some sort of relaxed international standards to serve certain areas of the country, and give medical consumers choice.)

(Some of these ideas could be implemented piecemeal or at test sites.)

SusanF said...

Thanks very much. It sounds as if you are as amazed by your daughter as I am by my 16 year old son (also an only). He loves science and math, speaks French fluently, plays piano and guitar the way I wish I could, is all-state in swimming, and the varsity lacrosse goalie. When we discuss what he will be when he grows up I urge him to do the things he loves to do and the rest will follow. We will start looking at colleges soon also. Most important to me is whether he feels at home there.

John said...

You don't need to read "Outliers" to know how over-rated formal education can be. We all know examples of high achievers with unremarkable academic credentials and even more examples of middling accomplishments with sparkling credentials. The further I plowed into college the more I realized that the real reason I was there was to help me understand how little I understood, not how much. It's fair to argue that the end of school is really the start of learning. Too bad that idea is so alien to most people's thinking.

(I see you're gonna be in Atlanta next week. I wish I were an IT wonk so I could meet you but I'm just an old guy blogging in retirement. If you decide to hold court somewhere outside the World Congress Center where blog fans can have a drink and say hello, give us a heads-up.)

Aaron said...

I agree that the College decision is not all it's cracked up to be.

However, I do not quite agree that an adult's proper academic allegiance is to his or her graduate school.

I will cherish the small liberal arts college I went to long after I leave the uber-prestigious university where I'm getting graduate degrees.

Some college experiences are truly special

Terry Ketchersid said...

Very well written John. My wife and I are physicians and have 3 college aged sons we raised in rural VA. Each is unique and will/have flourished in vastly different college environments. The title of your post is as applicable to their life journey as it is to the actual colleges they enter as freshmen. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

John, I learn much from your blog, so I'm happy to have a chance to give back. As a graduating senior at Harvard, I've had a lot of time to reflect on what college has meant to me.

Above all, it will be the people I have met and the conversations I've had that I will carry with me. More than academics or extracurriculars, my peers have shaped my growth here.

My advice to your daughter as she searches is to look for places that will allow her to explore as many of her interests as possible (I have loved Harvard's Japanese language program, fyi), but above all, make sure she can see herself among the students at whatever schools she chooses. Finding the right type of learning environment with people who can challenge and learn from her will make the experience truly memorable.