Do Grades Matter?

Perhaps you, like me, were told that getting excellent grades would pave the way to any future you wanted. But, according to a recent Time magazine article, high school valedictorians (aka the people with the highest grades) are rarely the ones who go on to meteoric success or revolutionize a particular field. The explanation for this outcome is two-fold:

  1. Schools are structured to reward students who color inside the lines and follow rules, not those who shake things up. They reward conformity, which is the opposite of what’s necessary to be a successful innovator, founder, or visionary of any kind.
  2. Valedictorians (and all “good students”) must excel across the board, in all subjects, in order to maintain a high GPA. This comes at the expense of being able to focus more time and energy on the subjects they find most interesting and engaging, which is where their entrepreneurial inklings are bound to flourish.

In truth, grades don’t matter as much as we think they do. Our focus on grades alone as a predictor of future success is flawed and harmful for a number of reasons.

First, the subject matter itself is something that administrators or educators — sometimes at the local or school level, but often at the state or even national level — decide students need to know. That means choices are made about what you learn and how you learn it, without you having a say (and with much being left out due to time constraints).  As an educator, I had to come up with a grading rubric for the class I teach at MIT – trying to factor in portions of the grade that would ensure students completed important materials and incentivized them to do the work that would yield the most learning.  I had to come up with one framework for all of the students, but success-oriented education cannot be one-size-fits-all, since some of the things that are crucial to one person’s success aren’t going to be as necessary to another’s.

Further, the rules and rubrics by which grades are determined are somewhat arbitrary. An “A” term paper in one teacher’s class may garner a “B” in another’s; a “C”-earning science project in one school may receive a “B” in another. Some teachers offer extra credit to allow those who don’t do well on tests and regular classwork to pull higher grades, while others don’t. While you might (and hopefully do) know exactly how your grades are being calculated, that doesn’t mean it’s the same way that the grades of your peers across town or in another state are being determined, and these grades are especially not being calculated based on a formula of what you should know to be successful in your future career. Even with the very best intentions, grading subjectivity still comes into play.

The rules and rubrics by which grades are determined are somewhat arbitrary.  The subject matter is set by administrators or educators, without the opportunity for tailoring to or input from students.  Grades are not calculated based on a formula of what you should know to be successful in your future career.

You may not need to be good at geometry in order to be in marketing, but you would if you were going to be an architect. Similarly, a future graphic designer may not need a strong grasp of biology, whereas that is crucial to someone who plans to pursue medicine. Neither of these subjects is useless, but each is far more useful to some people than to others. A “C” or “D” in geometry — and the subsequent toll it can take on a student’s GPA — is not an indicator of whether that student can start a successful media company down the road.

Success-oriented education cannot be one-size-fits-all, since some of the things that are crucial to one person’s success aren’t going to be as necessary to another’s.

To an extent, grades also reflect how well you do with the subject matter as it’s presented to you. You may have an aptitude for or interest in a subject, but if the way it’s taught doesn’t engage you, you still might end up not doing well in the class. The sciences can be dynamic and fun if your teachers are able to use experiments and field research to let you explore concepts hands-on, but they’re dull and dry if you’re just sitting at your desk memorizing formulas and terms from a textbook. English Language Arts can be immersive and captivating if the curriculum includes novels and stories with which you identify, but it can be stifling if everything you read was written hundreds of years ago and you have no opportunity to explore your own connection or creativity with the subject matter.

The only aspect of your education that grades truly reflect is knowledge. They don’t take into account your mindset, resourcefulness, adaptability, or your work ethic (some students can work extremely hard and never earn more than “B”s, while others can get straight “A”s without breaking an intellectual sweat). Inherent talent in a subject is a small piece of the equation of success, where hard work tends to be much more valuable to sustain over time and truly achieve going forward.  Many of the things you need to be successful in life going forward are not considered when grading. And this is especially true for entrepreneurs.

Despite what some might think, grades do not measure intelligence in all its varied forms.  Intelligence may be logical or linguistic, which would be displayed through math and English classes, though there are many more intelligences that are required for success, and people with a propensity for these other areas are often discounted when the education system doesn’t value them.  These other forms may include interpersonal, musical, kinesthetic, or or spatial intelligence, among many others.  While these can be harder to test, they often have more relevance to future careers.

Oftentimes, grades instead just measure your ability to retain and regurgitate information. But information is everywhere these days; knowledge is — literally — at our fingertips. The ability to structure problem solving to then find the right information when you need it, and apply this knowledge effectively, is far more important than simply knowing something that someone can easily lookup on the Internet.    

Grades typically just measure your ability to retain and regurgitate information.  The ability to structure problem solving and apply knowledge effectively is far more important than knowing something that can be easily looked up on the Internet.

Grades also offer the wrong incentives and set you up with the wrong expectations. The value of grades is extrinsic: it’s not about you learning and engaging with a topic you find interesting, it’s about you getting a high mark from an external source. Learning becomes about finding the best shortcuts to the top grade, and a continual drive for recognition and validation.  Grades can even reduce your intrinsic joy of delving into something that excites you.  By assigning a numerical value to your “success” in exploring your interest, the fun of self-guided exploration is stolen by someone else’s directive of what should matter to you.

Plus, the potential instant or near-term gratification of grades can lead to a problematic mindset for business. In startups, while there may be small wins here and there, there is rarely instant gratification. There are times when you put in a ton of effort over a long period of time before anything majorly gratifying happens. If you’re trained by your education to look for quick validation and rewards for your hard work, you’ll find yourself disappointed and potentially discouraged in your career, especially if that career involves entrepreneurship.

Grades offer the wrong incentives and set you up with the wrong expectations.

Know that your future business or entrepreneurial success doesn’t hinge on your grades. Some companies may look at GPA, but that is only one component of a larger picture you’ll need to paint for them. A potential employer or investor will examine how you’ve overcome challenges, where you’ve taken initiative and shown ingenuity on projects, how well you work with and choose your team, and how resourceful you are. Those things are going to weigh more heavily than whether or not you passed calculus by the skin of your teeth or with an A.

If you don’t believe me, take for example Richard Branson (founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, which includes Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records, and Virgin Mobile). He did poorly in school partially due to dyslexia, then ended up dropping out of high school. But neither his grades not his learning disability reflected on his motivation, curiosity, vision, and the work ethic that made him both highly successful and widely respected. Gary Vaynerchuk (aka Gary Vee) is another entrepreneur who admits he did poorly in school and has had multiple successful ventures in the world of wine, media, and investing.

Good grades may be able to open a door every so often, but they won’t be able to carry you for your whole journey.  There is a path for everyone, because there are so many ways people can display their excellence and creativity. What matters most isn’t whether you take the “good grades” path or a different one, it’s what you do once you start walking it — how hard you work, the mindset you cultivate, the people you choose to surround yourself with.  

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