Surprised by the different types of feedback I received from my last column (A Tale of Two Students, 10/4/11), I have decided to continue my study of Ryan and Josh.

There are three main factors that have contributed to who Ryan and Josh are today and where they will go in the future.

The first factor is their upbringing.

Though Josh grew up in a household that stressed the importance of financial success, he believed that this wasn’t enough. There had to be more to life than just money. Whereas growing up his parents had asked themselves: “How can I make enough money to live the good life?” Josh instead asked himself: “What is the good life?” and then later, “ignoring money, how can I change the world?” (The great irony, of course, is that the answer may require making lots of money.)

Growing up, Josh was a people-pleaser. He was often “adapting,” which, in his case, meant bending his interests and whims to what other people expected from him. Everyone liked Josh, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was why they liked him. People liked him because they could easily influence him. People liked him because they felt constantly reaffirmed by him. People didn’t like him, however, when he expressed ideas that went against the grain, even if he felt he was becoming more like himself.

Ryan has a different story. Though his parents had modest incomes, the rest of his family did not. He’s seen the stress that comes from living paycheck to paycheck. At an early age, he vowed to never let money be a concern. Grades, as a result, were always of paramount importance. When adults were hard on him for achieving anything less than perfect marks, he was harder on himself. As long as he can remember, perfection has been habitual.

Yet his academic achievement didn’t translate to social success. His lack of a certain indescribable quality, prevented him from having any social influence. Other people had that quality and he couldn’t figure out what it was and why he didn’t have it. He didn’t dwell over social dynamics for too long, however, because soon — for reasons he would neither know nor question — he too would have that social influence.

The second factor pertains to their natural talents and interests.

Josh is and always has been strongly affected more by his own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. Though he loves to connect with people, to delve deeply into why others do what they do and why they think what they think, he is at his best alone — where he can contemplate and make meaning through analyzing memories.

Whereas Josh is at his best one-on-one, Ryan is at his best in large group settings. Though he enjoys meeting and mentoring individual peers, he feeds off the energy created by a collective, whether through laughs at a party or brainstorming sessions for a project.

The third factor deals with perceptions of success.

If Josh had any doubts about basing life decisions on his conscience and intuition, Steve Jobs’s words — “They somehow already know what you truly want to become” — eliminated any remnants.

Ryan read biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and craves a similar type of influence, of legacy.

So it’s no wonder that Josh strived to obtain the internal success in college he couldn’t find growing up. Josh grabbed the opportunity to redefine himself, encouraging people to understand him for who he was — or who he aspired to be — rather than fitting himself to how others wanted to see him. He often over did this.

And it’s no wonder that Ryan strived to obtain the external success in college he didn’t have growing up. Ryan grabbed the opportunity to become a campus leader, influencing and mentoring his peers instead of shying away from displaying his talents and abilities. He, too, often over did this.

Although there certainly is some overlap between Ryan and Josh, there are fundamental differences in these three factors — upbringing, natural talents and self-perceptions — that have led each man to where he is and will indicate where he will go.

Whereas Josh naturally bends any assignment to himself, to how he can personally benefit, Ryan naturally bends himself to the assignment, to how he can amaze the grader. Whereas Josh is rigorous in his quest for the right balance, Ryan finds a balance in his rigorous track. Whereas Josh views life as a sculpture to be built from scratch, uncertain of whether the final product will stand strong but confident in his approach, Ryan views life as a sculpture to be built based on other great models. He has the blueprints of his ideal life, and he is using the traditional, proven medium accordingly.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu.

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