Going through schooling, we’re preached the importance of having good grades. We’re told that if we get good grades, then we’ll be set for life. We’ll get into college. We’ll get into grad school. We’ll get a good job, have a family, live a good life, and live happily ever after. So we follow this mindset. We sacrifice sleep, our health, our mental stability just to earn an A. It’s okay to suffer now in order to get good grades because we set ourselves up for success later.
But this way of thinking is backwards. We don’t need to suffer now. We can live happily, get good grades, and let our happiness lead us to finding success. And we don’t even need good grades. Just live happily and let our happiness lead us to finding success. Steve Jobs had a 2.65 GPA in high school and dropped out of college. Colin Powell barely graduated high school while Richard Branson didn’t even make it through high school. Malcolm Gladwell couldn’t get into graduate school because his undergrad grades were so poor.
What these people show us is that it doesn’t take good grades to be successful in this world. Even more, the way we’re framed to think about grades isn’t true. It’s a fantasy our parents and teachers tell us because it provides a “safe” path through life. Getting good grades doesn’t guarantee success. We need to stop this way of thinking. The biggest school regret for many people is that they worked too hard to get good grades. Don’t make the same mistakes that these people made. When you look back at your schooling life, let it be a good memory. Here are some things to think about and focus on that will help you create that good memory:
1. Realize that grades are not always an accurate measurement of your ability.
In sports, you don’t ask a sprinter to run a marathon and you don’t ask a marathon runner to run a sprint. In education, we have everyone take the same exam. If you’re a sprinter and you get a marathoner’s test, tough. If you’re a marathon runner and you get a sprinter’s test, tough. It’s unfortunate that our system is like this, but you just have to deal with it and understand that the test isn’t always suited for your style of thinking.
So sometimes you’ll do poorly on exams. It happens. There’s no need to stress over a bad exam. As long as you understand the material, then you’re fine. You don’t need an exam to tell you that you know the material, you know that for yourself.
Grades are more a measure of conformity than a measure of ability. Instead of being, “how well can you think?”, most tests are, “how well can you think like your professor?”.
2. Embrace the unknown.
The best part of life is not knowing what comes ahead. If you knew, it’d be boring. There are so many things that can happen to you the next day, the next hour.
There’s a hill behind the Greek Theater here at Berkeley. When concerts go on at the Theater, many students go and sit behind the hill to listen to the music because they don’t want to pay for a ticket. My friend, Nick, wanted to go to the hill to listen to a Wilco concert. He asked my other friend to go with him. My other friend bailed at the last minute and then Nick wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to the hill anymore. Things aren’t as fun without someone to share the memories with. But he ends up going. When he gets there, he sees someone giving away a free ticket. He gets the ticket and has a blast inside the venue. A night which was supposed to be sitting behind a hill with a friend listening to a concert first turned into uncertainty when the friend bailed, and then turned into a fun night with a free admission to an amazing concert.
You never know what will happen next. Embrace it. Live for it. Let the motivation of getting up everyday be that there are so many exciting possibilities that can happen. Each day is a new day and with it comes the excitement of not knowing what will happen.
3. Don’t be the hardest worker.
People who work the hardest are overachievers. There’s no need to be the hardest worker. It just means you’re not as smart, as confident, or as happy as other people. You can’t work all the time and live a healthy life. There needs to be a balance of working hard and not working at all. These Asians worked incredibly hard in school, but fail in the workplace. Don’t be like them. Be independent. Be assertive. Be risky. Don’t work so hard.
So don’t be the person who takes 7 classes in college just because you can do all that work. People will see you as an overachiever and won’t value your intellect. And when you’re that busy, you don’t have time for anything else. It’s just all school. You won’t be able to grow as a person.
Learn when to work hard and when to play. I work hard throughout the week so I don’t have to work on weekends. All I do on weekends is relax. Everyone needs a time to relax.
But when I work, I really work. I put everything aside, focus intensely for a 30 minutes, and then take a ten minute break. My work is meaningful and efficient. I’m not talking to people while I’m working. I’m not surfing the web while I’m working. I don’t let things distract me when I work. If you look at athletes, they work intensely hard for about 20 minutes and then take a 5 minute break, 20 minutes and then another 5 minute break. They also might have one day off in the middle of their training schedule. Train two days, break, two days, break. Our mind needs time to recharge just the same way as our bodies do.
4. But develop your perseverance.
Every successful person has a high level of perseverance. They fail many times before getting something right. It’s not being scared of failure and acting on their ideas that get them to succeed.
There’s a point in whatever project you’re doing that you’ll want to quit. Projects that start off easy and fun all of a sudden become very hard. Seth Godin calls this “The Dip”. Judging whether to quit or not is the key. If you can make progress towards a well defined goal, then don’t quit.
I had a project due this week for computer science. When I first started, I thought the project would be easy. But then I coded 40 hours in the next four days in an attempt to get a working project before the deadline. Just as Godin detailed, there was a point in the middle where it got really hard. And I thought about quitting. Many of my friends quit. Many others gave up as well and just used their friends’ code. But this project was important — you learn a lot from the projects. So I powered through the next few days working 10 hours a day. I got my code working and it definitely paid off. I don’t care what grade I get on it. I wasn’t doing it for the grade, that’s not important. What’s important is that I was able to understand the material and that I had the ability to persevere when things got tough.
5. Take classes and do things that you find interesting.
Today one of my friends said that she hates all her classes. She said they’re not interesting. She said she needs to take them for her major requirements. I told her she’s in the wrong major.
If you don’t like what you’re studying, then why study it? You’re given a choice of what to do, don’t waste it on studying something that you don’t find interesting. If you take classes that are interesting, then doing work for those classes won’t be a bother to you. You’ll enjoy doing the work. It will be more like intellectual play than drudgery. When people tell me that they’re “on the grind”, or “on the struggle”, I tell them that they’re not picking the right classes. Because if you pick classes that interest you, even with a lot of work, it won’t feel like a struggle.
And if you’re doing what you find interesting, you won’t worry about the grades. The focus should never be to get an “A”. The focus should be to understand the material. Love what you’re learning. The grades come later. They’re secondary to truly getting an understanding for the material.
I went to my TA for discrete math a few days ago to try to appeal my exam grade. I thought the grading rubric was bad — I lost points for very small reasons. In the course of our discussion, he said this to me:
“You’re arguing over a few points here. In the big scheme of things, it’s not important at all. You have a very good understanding of the material and that’s all that matters. Don’t worry about the exam grade.”
And he’s absolutely right. All that matters is that you understand what you’re doing. If you don’t, then get yourself to a level where you understand what you’re doing. And when you understand that you understand what you’re doing, you’ll enjoy this life.