For many Americans, intelligence is an enigma.
We assume it is a prerequisite for success, or, worse, that success and intelligence are intertwined – you can’t have one without the other. “If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich?” is the common refrain.
If I had any such illusions, they were destroyed in college.
Many of my classmates were recipients of the Taylor Scholarship for National Merit Scholars. National Merit Scholars are very smart. They are selected because they’ve managed to score in the top for their state on the PSAT.
So Patrick Taylor, a wealthy oilman from New Orleans, decided to try and attract these bright kids to his area. He arranged with the University of New Orleans to provide a stipend and full scholarship to any National Merit Scholar who chose to come to New Orleans for college.
Certainly they attracted smart students. But they also attracted an amazing number of unmotivated underachievers. If you are good at taking tests, but haven’t bothered to study in high school, you probably don’t have a high GPA. When it comes time to go to college, and you’ve done well on the SAT, your choices are limited.
Even though you are a National Merit Scholar, many scholarships want some sort of minimum GPA or class standing. The Taylor Scholarship made no such requirements. They didn’t even ask for an essay.
“Check here if you want a full ride scholarship to New Orleans.” So easy. But the experiment failed.
My freshman year at UNO was the last year Patrick Taylor decided to offer the scholarship. He had evidently become frustrated with the type of students his experiement attracted. Instead of smart students who worked hard to succeed in school, many of the students were apathetic. One semester, a friend and one of the Taylor Scholars, heartbroken over a relationship, spent every night in my room playing Street Fighter II against my roommate all night long. He failed out that semester. My roommate, another scholarship recipient, managed to finish up that year.
I’m sure that Mr. Taylor hoped to breed a new generation of professionals in New Orleans. New Orleans certainly needed an infusion like that to succeed. The city had been in an economic tailspin since the bust of the oil industry in the 80s. Had the program produced engineers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists who wanted to stay in New Orleans, things might be a little different for New Orleans now.
Many of those students did become professionals — but they didn’t stay in New Orleans. They were lured away by cities with more potential for growth, places with more opportunities.
And then there were the students who didn’t pursue a career after college. Some of those very smart students — students who had the ability and education to succeed — had no motivation to do anything more than work as a barrista in a coffee shop.
Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with working in a coffee shop, but this is not what the rich, old oilman had in mind when he handed out money so students could come to New Orleans and study.
So I learned that intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean success. At least, not the kind of success most people dream about. It takes a good deal of motivation to succeed. Motivation that must be backed up by hard work.