The Terrible Curse Of "Most Likely To Succeed"

Illustration for article titled The Terrible Curse Of "Most Likely To Succeed"

It's no longer enough for kids to work their asses off in high school so they can win the increasingly cutthroat race for the best colleges. Now there's something else to consider: the "Most Likely To Succeed" Curse.

Sue Shellenberger of the Wall Street Journal describes this scourge: "Some former winners of the title say what seemed like a nice vote of confidence from their classmates actually created a sense of pressure or self-doubt." Sometimes the Curse takes Coleridgeian proportions — says Blake Atwood, "Being noosed with 'most likely to succeed' is like lugging an albatross to every job interview, new relationship or writing endeavor." For some it's a marker of high expectations — Brandon Hogan says, "I wanted in some way to be a leader for the people who were paying attention to me back home." And sometimes, it takes a stranger form: Sakita Holley had "success" tattooed on her back, changed her middle name to "success" on Facebook, and founded a PR company called "House of Success."

Shellenberger cites a poll finding that a full third of Most Likely To Succeeds think of their title as "a curse" — but this research, conducted by the website, may not be all that scientific. And it's a little surprising to find that so many people take the title so seriously. I couldn't remember if my high school anointed an MLTS — I double-checked with a friend, who can't quite remember either. The only thing we're sure about is that it wasn't either of us.


I'm aware of how being branded "gifted" can hang over a person, and I believe that early expectations sometimes produce anxiety rather than pride. In high school it seems possible for everyone to lead an extraordinary life, and when adulthood turns out to be pretty ordinary in a lot of ways, it's natural to be disappointed. But do titles like "Most Likely To Succeed" really weigh on people so much? Don't we all recognize that of all the silly measures of our adolescent accomplishment, these are probably the silliest? One of the best things about high school is that when it's over, you still have pretty much your whole life ahead of you — and your first order of business should be forgetting whatever title your classmates branded you with, and going out to look for your own.

Update: Another high school friend with a better memory tells me we did have superlatives, and that I was voted "most creative." He was voted "biggest freeloader." Neither of us can remember if there was a "Most Likely To Succeed."

'Most Likely to Succeed' Burden [WSJ]

Image via Falko Matte/

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I was voted MLTS. Each superlative was bestowed upon 1 male and 1 female. My best friend and I won. I was basically Tracy Flick in high school, except maybe a more popular and bitchier. I was such a little elitist. If people tried to make small talk, I'd say, "Why don't we not have this conversation because we both know that neither of us really cares about this." I relate this because I can't understand, looking back, how anyone voted for me for anything. I was certainly more successful at a broader range of activities than other girls in my class, but there is no reason anyone should've voted to give me more confidence. I was such a terror.