Today, some of my highest paid employees have weak academic credentials, but amazing practical knowledge and deep wisdom. Once I started succeeding in college, I discovered how competitive I was. If I got an A, but a friend had a higher A, it would bother me, and next time I'd study harder. I had many semesters of straight A's, passed the CPA, landed a great job, and subsequently graduated with honors from one of the best graduate business schools in the nation. When I achieved something, I instantly moved onto a bigger goal.
This "constant dissatisfaction" sounds negative, but it's actually very positive as you grow a company year after year, and prevents resting on laurels and getting lazy. Today, when I hear of someone who is "really bright, but doesn't work hard," I know that person isn't as bright as people think. Sure, I had potential in high school, but had I not paired it with super hard work in college and beyond, I would have failed in life.
I believe true intelligence has an execution component, because all that matters is results. I'll hire a person who works their tail off every time over dilettantes who rely on IQ or a fancy resume. I give my saintly mom credit for not taking a baseball bat to my head in high school, especially since my older sister was a star student who studied tirelessly. Good grades are extraordinarily important because they signal intelligence, discipline, focus and work ethic — all crucial character traits. And someday when my boys Grant and Pierce, or my niece Jaden or nephew Max, finds this article, I hope they learn from my mistakes and realize that track records matter and that there is only one recipe for success in life: hard work.
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I was stubborn. I was addicted to risk-taking. I was always a storyteller. Feedback wasn't where I found motivation. Feeling small created huge drive. I always read obsessively. Memorizing information isn't knowledge. I was never satisfied. Here's the catch: Eventually, grades really do matter. News Tips Got a confidential news tip? We want to hear from you. Get In Touch. CNBC Newsletters. As he described his situation, it became clear that his fixation on his grades was consuming enormous amounts of his attention.
Through our discussion, he was able to redirect his attention from his focus on grades and the goal of graduate school to his love of material science -- a shift made easier by his resignation that graduate school was now out of reach due to his grades. Over the next couple of weeks, he reported feeling less stressed and more excited about learning than he ever had in college.
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The results of his first round of midterms were so strong that graduate school was back on the table. With that realization, his attention shifted back to his grades and calculating what he would need to score on the remaining exams in order to be a competitive applicant. His performance tanked. Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.
But the point is, as clearly demonstrated in the case of the aspiring material-science graduate student, when students focus their energy through their attention on learning while optimizing effort, grades are a natural result of this effective learning process. In contrast, when they focus their energy through their attention on grades, learning may or may not result. Even more important is the fact that when they set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.
I will never forget the excitement that I saw on the face of the young engineering student struggling with Russian literature when it dawned on her that she got to decide how she would show up for her learning. There is no shame in going all in, and just maybe the rewards will outweigh the risks.
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Topics Teaching and Learning. Too Smart to Fail? By Joseph Holtgreive. August 16, Read more by Joseph Holtgreive. Want to advertise? Click here. College Pages. Subscribe for free today.
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