Don’t Confuse Grades with Accomplishments*

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optical-page-1-1561577By the time I reached the rank of college sophomore this real world adage had slapped me in the face. OK, that’s not quite the truth. It wasn’t the first time the concept slapped me in the face, and it wouldn’t be the last. Despite all this slapping and resulting sore cheeks, it has taken decades for the true meaning of this bromide to slowly ooze into my psyche. When I look back into my past, at all the times I failed to live by this maxim, my only response is a Homer Simpson-esque “D’oh!”

But I get ahead of myself.

Throughout high school I had only one measure for myself – grades. This was in part due to the encouragement of the prevailing authorities (parents, teachers, and administrators), but mostly due to my rejection of the typical teen angst that places peer acceptance ahead of all else. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends. I had a great group of friends. I just had this compelling urge embedded deep within my soul. I was on a mission (from God?). I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but my intuition told me grades and high test scores were the surest way to get there.

Today, I realize the memories from those times don’t come from my GPA, class rank, or any arbitrary perfect test score. No. The things I have retained all contain the drama of true life. They’re stories involving real people (including me) doing real things accomplishing real results. Even when I look back at what some might say was the crowning achievement of that episode of my life – Yale’s invitation to attend – it’s clear those much ballyhooed grades and test scores merely opened the door.* It was the accomplishments that pushed me through the portal. (Of course, there were other environmental factors – the fact no one from my only recently accredited high school had ever been accepted and the fact I listed my ethnic group as “Italian-American” instead of Caucasian – that certainly influenced the Admissions Office.)

I should have suspected something during the extended interview process as well as the immediate aftermath. Few, if any, of the professors, alumni, or admissions officers I spoke with ever touched on the subject of grades. Instead, they focused on these odd vignettes – the aforementioned “true life dramas” – sprinkled throughout the essay section of the application. No doubt there was something in my rewritten retelling of those stories that captivated this elite audience. Wordsmith abilities notwithstanding, those stories would have been quickly forgotten had they not focused on a particularly unique accomplishment.

Permit me to digress for a moment. In high school, I positioned myself as “the science guy.” I made no pretense for liking English class (I once led a strike against my 12th grade AP English class), reading (I once got out of an assignment to read and analyze a classic novel in, well, a “novel” way), and literature in general (OK, I did like Shakespeare, but only because I got to read the Soothsayer’s lines in Julius Caesar, “Caesar, beware the Ides of March). Nonetheless, my 10th grade English teacher once predicted I would have a second career in writing. I scoffed at him.

It was during the second year of college that I began in earnest to stop confusing grades with accomplishments. Yes, this would soon reflect itself in my GPA. More importantly, though, it would also manifest itself in a growing portfolio of measurable, meaningful, and – dare I say – mighty accomplishments. While what I’m discussing may sound like it applies only to students, whether in high school or college, I’ve seen how these strategic insights continue to have an impact throughout one’s career and life. Let’s take a look at each of these three key “M’s” of accomplishment:

Measurable – This is at once the most abused yet most overlooked component of accomplishment. Before we explain its common misapplication, we first must emphasize its importance. (You might detect a bit of “the science guy” here.) When something is measurable, it becomes objective. And when something is objective, it becomes universal. Here’s an example. Many people (like my wife) prefer the snug warmth of the color “red.” Many people (like me) prefer the cool refreshment of the color “blue.” Unless you’re a professional psychologist, these subjective feelings are not readily measurable. On the other hand, in physics, “blue” is objectively hotter than “red.” That’s because heat increases kinetic energy, which creates a higher frequency in radiation, Blue light has a higher frequency than red light; hence, blue is hotter than red. This is measurable. This is objective. Therefore, this is a universally accepted truth. This is the power and importance of being measurable. This is why “measurable” is the first most important attribute of an accomplishment.

Meaningful – Just because something is measurable, doesn’t mean it’s meaningful. Herein lies the great fallacy of measurability. This is also consistent with the theme of this Commentary. Grades, by definition, are inherently measurable. The broader question, though, is what precisely do they measure? The most charitable explanation claims grades measure “potential.” Perhaps this is true, but would you rather hire someone who has actually accomplished “x” or who merely has some potential to accomplish “x.” In fact, both factors are measurable: 1) Your potential to accomplish something; and, 2) How many times you’ve accomplished something. The first has no meaning beyond interesting personal trivia. The second, however, possesses meaning – you can proudly add it to your resume. This is why “meaningful” is a critical component in any accomplishment.

Mighty – Just because you can measure something meaningful doesn’t place you on that special pantheon of prominence among your peers. Whether you’re trying to earn placement in a choice school, land that special job, or receive that choice professional recognition, your accomplishment must be more than meaningful, it must be mighty. Adding a mighty achievement isn’t as hard as it sounds. All it requires is perspective, perception, and perspiration. “Mighty” is a relative term. A high school student who creates a college-level thesis earns the “mighty” label. A college student who does the same merely performs “as expected.” An experienced worker who continues to produce at the same level will be labeled as performing “below expectations.” Whether an accomplishment is “mighty” depends on your age and your situation. You must look at things from the correct perspective. Next you need to relax, clear your mind, and perceive what your target audience will consider a unique application. Finally, once you’ve settled on a specific idea, simply roll up your sleeves and get it done.

Don’t confuse grades with accomplishments. Grades, like money, represent merely a means to an end. The tapestry of life is woven with those memorable moments that transcend mere superficial markers. Measurable, meaningful, and mighty accomplishments are the stuff of dreams. They represent the stories of our lives. These are the stories we love to tell and audiences want to hear. We all have them. What’s left is in the wordsmithing.

* Grades and test scores are important in two very specific circumstances: 1) Getting into undergraduate college; and, 2) Getting into graduate school. They represent minimum hurdles you’ll need to surpass in order to get past the first review of the applications committee. Remember, though, grades and test scores only open the door. Your accomplishments are what push you in.

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