Do grades predict performance?

Dr. McDonnell shares his thoughts.


Born in Ohio in 1822, Hiram Ulysses Grant went on to lead the Union Army to victory during the American Civil War. A national hero, he became the 18th president of the United States.

During his time in office, he created the Justice Department and used it to aggressively suppress the Ku Klux Klan.

Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Almost famous: Ophthalmologist gained worldwide attention in 1910


William Halsey Jr, born in New Jersey in 1882, became the second-highest ranking American naval officer in the Pacific in World War II.

Described as “flamboyant, vulgar, aggressive, and spectacularly ugly,” the admiral was loved by his troops.

An intelligence officer described the reaction to the news that Admiral Halsey had been ordered to take command during the Guadalcanal campaign:

“One minute, we were too limp with malaria to crawl out of our foxholes. The next, we were running around, whooping like kids.”

Halsey’s leadership is credited with turning impending defeat into a major Allied victory. He was decorated with the Navy Cross, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the Army Distinguished Service Medal.

Joe Jamail Jr, born in Texas in 1925, served in the US Marine Corps for over 2 years in the Pacific in World War II before becoming an attorney.

He became known as the “King of Torts” in recognition of his victories against large corporations, winning more than 200 verdicts, or settlements, of at least $1 million.

Related: Living forward: We still have to understand backward

In 2010, the American Bar Association Journal proclaimed him the nation’s richest practicing lawyer, and Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $1.65 billion.

Aside from military service, what do these 3 gentlemen have in common?

The common thread that strikes me is that all 3—while enrolled in the schools that would prepare them for their subsequent meteoric careers—were considered mediocre by their professors.

At West Point Military, Grant proved himself a talented horseman, but ranked in the bottom half of the class, which prevented him from qualifying for a position in the cavalry upon graduation.

Halsey proved himself a talented athlete at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but graduated in the bottom third of his class. And as a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, Jamail’s professor flunked him in the class on torts.

How could their professors have failed to recognize the future superstars they would become?

Are the traits that allow doing well in class so different from those that predict ultimate success in “real” life?

Related: Oh, the people we meet

Do our professors value the wrong things?

Or is it the case that these young men matured and blossomed later in life, finally focusing on what was needed to rise to the top of their respective professions?

I wonder about this when it comes to how we train our young physicians and surgeons.

In your residency, did your faculty emphasize the right things? Did they recognize your future promise?

See more by Dr. McDonnell