In my new consulting job after my recent career redirecting, I have been accused of being a ”straight A student”. It is extremely offensive to me. Sucking up to an authority by aiming for artificial brownie points? Yuck! I don’t think like that, I never have. Aiming for perfection? Of course I don’t, that’s stupid and impossible. Of course I aim for only good enough. Nobody is dishing out any A’s here and even if they did I wouldn’t care. I never did. (I just got them.)
To prove my point that I never cared about high grades I recite a memory. Or I should call it a narrative in my personal life story because I’ve recited it so many times its factual validity is dubious, but I’m quite confident the sentiment was there.
I was a small school child and it was the first time we got actual grades instead of stickers or stamps they used first. I took those home as required for my parents to see. They were amazed and slightly shocked. Apparently I had gotten very high grades across the board (or maybe full marks on a single test, I have no idea because as I’m trying to say, I didn’t care). They wanted to know if I had done ”that” to please them, because they really didn’t want to give the impression that they’d require that from me. Ah yes, dear parents, I said. I see the problem. Since you don’t go to school, you don’t know how it works so let me explain. At school they first tell you things, then sometimes they ask you to tell back to them what they have told you, and so you do that. Then they give you these grades. And that’s what you’re looking at.
Another memory, from 5 to 7 years later. For reasons both unclear and forgotten I got on bad terms with one of my teachers. Once she asked me to stay after class and gave me a proper talking-to about, I don’t know, my attitude or something. It was so stressful for me that after she let me go I cried in the corridor. Some boys I didn’t know too well passed by and scoffed ”yeah she’s exactly like that, ’boo-hoo I didn’t get an A’”. ”Why on earth would I do that?” I wondered behind my tears.
I never aimed for high grades. I just got them. School was easy.
I did do my homework and I did prepare for tests, but it was never something that required much effort, it was just something you did. Small mistakes that blemished an otherwise perfect score annoyed me, yes, but only because they were by definition small mistakes that I could easily have gotten right too. If I got something flat out wrong I was disappointed but only because I cared about being right. But I never ever put in a lot of effort in order to get a high grade.
Whether the effort I did put in was a lot or a little I can’t tell at this point. But I know that I didn’t exactly push myself, or vary the effort that much. So I never learned one of the most important lessons at school, the one that says ”your input has an effect on your outcomes: if you slack you get lower grades, if you try hard you get higher grades”. Instead I learned just ”you are a person who gets high grades”.
I understood this only very recently, after reading a blog post called Half-assing it with everything you’ve got by Nate Soares. The essential point is here: “Most people are trapped in the slacker/tryer dichotomy. They either do as little as they can get away with or as much as they can manage. They’re either aiming for barely acceptable or they’re aiming to be the best. Very few people seem able to pick a target in the middle and then pursue it with everything they’ve got. Very few people seem capable of deploying their full strength to hit “mediocre” as efficiently as possible.”
It has been a real epiphany. So yes, I do not think you’re supposed to get a perfect A in anything in any sense, that doesn’t exist in real life. I can say that no, I don’t aim for perfection. But here’s the kicker: I am not aiming for anything else either. Actually choosing a quality target and the level of effort needed to get there has never crossed my mind. I have just done things.
The effort I’m willing and able to put in is pretty high in academic and work endeavours but I’ve never really chosen that. By the time I was studying math and statistics at university I had started to care about grades to a degree because ”you are a person who gets high grades” had become part of my self image. It would have made me uncomfortable to observe myself getting lower grades so I studied hard to avoid that. But I still didn’t see the grades as the target, they were a proxy. My target was learning the content, and the grades would be a measure of that. I would not differentiate between ”learning badly” or ”learning well”, my target was ”learn it”. All of it.
And it was still easy, in the sense that it was possible (for me at least) to learn “all of it” in the given time, with the given resources. You could trust that the lecture notes had all the necessary definitions and worked examples, even specifically that for this week’s exercise problems the last week’s notes had them. And that the test would be just more of the same problems so you didn’t even need to consider whether you were studying the right thing. I’m not saying it was easy in the sense that riding a bike downhill is easy. Sometimes the problems strained me to my limits. But it was easy in the sense that the correct solution always existed and it was always possible to find it with the skills and knowledge accumulatd up to that point. I could still learn it all. And consequently, I still didn’t have to learn how to aim for a lower quality target. I know that others skipped studying a part of the course content and just gambled on what would be on the test. I never considered that. I didn’t have to. I didn’t exactly “choose” the high target either, since I simply went through what ever it was that was put before me, without questioning it.
The original title for this post was “I was never an A student”. But preparing it has made me admit that yes, I have been. I am. I react strongly to the label because one of the lessons I did learn in school was that people who study really really hard and fret about getting the best grades get bullied. And I’m not like that, it’s unfair. (As if it was fair to bully for the right reasons…) I didn’t do it for external motivations, but I never settled for less than learning it all. I never chose a mediocre or low target, and that is basically the same thing.
But now I am a consultant and I literally can’t operate like that anymore. I work in a booming field, it is simply utterly impossible to have learned it “all”. There are strict time limits. The questions put before you are badly defined and potentially not at all the right ones. Attempting to deal with this situation as if it were a class that one can ace by just showing up and following the curriculum is only going to make me miserable. I will have to learn to actively choose a quality target.
It sure helps to realise a choice like that exists.