"The most interesting thing I see, the most interesting commonality, is a kind of seriousness of purpose," says Tim Walch, director of the Hoover Library.
Walch, a presidential historian, helped put together an exhibit called "School House to White House: The Education of the Presidents" at the National Archives.
The exhibit includes report cards, school essays and the memories of 11 presidents.
"They kind of set for themselves personal goals," Walch says. "And so you really sometimes see, very early on in a child, that has ambition."
As boys, the men were all voracious readers, enjoying Shakespeare, Dickens, history and biography. They also had ambitious parents.
"Well, she pushed me into high school, made me take the college entrance exams when I didn't want to do it," President Lyndon Johnson said about his mother.
While a handful came from wealth and position, like FDR, JFK, and the first President Bush and his son, most came from modest families and small towns.
"We had the store and the service station, one of these family enterprises where everybody had to work," President Richard Nixon said.
Dwight Eisenhower remembered that life as a boy on the farm in Kansas was more fun than drudgery.
"On the contrary, felt we had a pretty good thing going here..."
"So many of our presidents come from small towns. They're all part of a collective experience that gives them the values that take them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," says Walch.
Ordinary boys who, from somewhere, received the gift to become extraordinary men in Washington.
"I know it sounds kind of hokey," Walch says, "but I would say to most people: read the lives of our presidents and you'll find some lessons that you might wish to apply to your own families and to your own children."
And don't forget to remind them that any American really can grow up to be the president.