Life as a young alumni – Defining success

I was asked by Elon University’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, to write a few articles about life as a young alumni. This letter is about defining success, especially when you’re not getting As & Bs anymore.

Dear Alum,

Right now, I get a grade for everything I do. Either I do well enough to pass, and I get to shake Leo’s hand at graduation, or I don’t, and my parents strangle me for wasting $100k on an education I apparently never received. If jobs don’t give out grades, how do I know if I’ve passed or failed?

Straight A Student

Dear Straight A Student,

I wouldn’t go repeating this to your parents (or your professors), but grades are overrated. Many of you would do better without them.

With grades, everyone is on the same playing field. They give us a standard way to define success and failure. However, there are two problems with this:

  1. Everyone is not on the same playing field. Life just doesn’t work that way.
  2. There is no standard definition for success and failure. They are defined by you, the individual, not the dictionary.

This is a new way of thinking for most of you. You’ve lived your entire life up to this point being graded on a common scale – the same scale that everyone around you was using.

Now, the grades are gone, the scale has been lifted, and you are free. Free to study whatever topic is of interest to you. Free to work as hard as you’d like, toward whatever goal you are trying to achieve. And free to be your own judge of success and failure.

But let me warn you. While it’s a liberating experience, it’s not easy. There’s a reason why grades have existed for as long as they have. So how do you know if you’re working too hard, or not hard enough? How can you tell if you’ve succeeded in making a difference? Or perhaps failed miserably?

I can’t answer those questions for you. But here’s a fundamental difference between grade school and the rest of your life:

You get an F in grade school, it’s always looked down upon. You encounter a failure in life, and it might just be the single best thing that ever happened to you.

The Alum ’06