There are two types of successful college students: One excels within the traditional path; the other succeeds by drawing his or her own. Let’s illustrate these two types through the stories of hypothetical students — Ryan and Josh.

Ryan came to college with a simple plan: To be the best. And he does exactly that by achieving a 3.9 GPA while studying economics and leading a major organization on campus.

These activities take up most of Ryan’s time. Old hobbies fall by the wayside. He can’t do everything, but he does have an active social life. His accomplishments and easygoing personality earn him many friends. They relish when his name comes up in conversation: “Oh, you know Ryan too? Yeah, he’s great! How do you know him?”

Ryan works hard. He often gets little sleep. But once in a while, he makes time to let go: He watches bad sitcoms. He fights with his ex-girlfriend. He goes out to black out.

Still, Ryan leaves his mark on campus. He mentors many students in matters personal and professional. He develops close relationships with influential professors and alumni. Their approval encourages him to work harder, be better.

Ryan doesn’t choose this path because he is passionate about each part of it. He doesn’t always enjoy those problem sets, those sleepless nights.

Ryan chooses this path because it fits his personality. His identity has roots in academic excellence and future professional success, so he achieves what he believes to be absolutely necessary — one hell of a résumé.

And the pieces fit. He has a natural aptitude for economics. He found his organization early on, but he could have had a different major, joined a different organization and achieved just as much.

In hindsight, Ryan was very proud of his college experience, and deservedly so. After graduation, he chose between high-paying positions at highly respected companies.

Most importantly, Ryan never let success get to his head. He remained jovial, caring and honest.

Josh, the second case, finishes college with a GPA of 3.3 in the same major as Ryan. The class work does not inspire him to strive for perfection. He is too curious and too stubborn. He is determined to prioritize his education over his grades.

Josh stumbles with his extracurricular activities too. He joins a group, immerses himself in it and then leaves when he feels he has maximized the ratio of personal benefits to time put in. He becomes an extracurricular nomad. To others, it seems like he is all over the place.

But Josh keeps exploring opportunities. He begins to notice patterns, certain aspects he enjoys about his experiences and ones that he does not, and applies such recognition to his future endeavors.

Josh dedicates most of his time to his passions: He reads voraciously. He experiments with filmmaking. He pursues these side projects with peers who share similar interests, many of whom become his close friends.

He creates his own social scene. Certain things that once seemed integral to his college experience — football games, party culture, social status — suddenly become less significant. The vicissitudes of college life allow him to detach just enough to realize what exactly has lasting importance: losing yourself in a passion, a project, a person.

In hindsight, this path, albeit circuitous, also fit Josh’s personality. When others inquired about his ostensibly random decisions, he would say that he simply followed his intuition. Josh knew he had a unique skill set that could not and should not be boxed; he just needed to find a way to put it all together.

Josh would also choose between quality options after college — ones that matched his interests, values and desired career path.

Ryan and Josh are intriguing case studies because they challenge our perception of success. We typically differentiate between outer success — money, lifestyle and reputation — and inner success — mastering ourselves, pursuing wisdom and having meaningful relationships with others.

Ryan equates success with external achievement: He receives a high mark in anything assigned to him. The grade is more important than what he does or how he does it. Although he knows that outer success doesn’t necessarily equal inner success, he believes attaining the former will make attaining the latter a bit easier.

Josh equates success with personal excellence: He pursues his passions and lets his conscience judge his performance. This satisfied conscience is more important than any external measure of achievement. Although he is aware that attaining inner success doesn’t necessarily lead to attaining outer success, he doubts the converse is true — that aiming for the latter will facilitate the former. Regardless, he would not do so even if he could.

It all leads to this: Whereas Ryan strives to be the best in everyone’s eyes, Josh strives to be the best in his own: the best version of himself.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at

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