Making The Grade


I read this Op-Ed in the New York Times the other day in which the author, a psychologist and professor at Wharton College, examines the limitations of being a devoted straight-A student. Sighting his own personal experiences with a student devastated at having just received his first A-minus, as well as a 1962 study of America’s most creative architects, the author concludes that good grades are not in fact a predictor of professional success.

He goes on to explain that in the case of the architects, the grade they received when they were students depended more on how interested they were in the assignment. If they were interested, they got an A; if not, they might get a B or maybe not even do the work. In other words, personal, inherent, authentic, unique interest is actually our best motivator and indicator of success, not the ability to jump through any hoop, pass any test, complete any assignment.

My first reaction was to ask aloud, “You needed a study for that?” But this was unfair. I’d been quite a good hoop-jumper once myself. I got good at being good at things. I know this sounds like bragging, which it would have been once, back when I thought simply being good at anything was the best route to wherever I wanted to go. Now it’s a confession. Being good at something isn’t a route; it’s a means of travel.

It’s important to know the difference. It’s relatively easy to distinguish between being good or not so good at something. You either clear the hurdle or don’t, hit the note or miss it. It’s not so simple with routes. Like stories, all are equal before they are chosen. What distinguishes between a good story and a bad story, a good career and bad career, a good marriage and a bad marriage, is how authentically interested I am in a story, job, or relationship. What’s good for me might be awful for you.

Therein lies the greatest challenge and pleasure of being human. No matter how much someone loves me, they simply cannot tell me which stories to write, which relationships to pursue. All they can really do is remind me that I know what’s best for me. This may have been what Hemingway was talking about when he complained about the loneliness of the writer. Like it or not, we’re on our own. Like it or not, we alone know the correct answers to the only questions worth asking.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.