Why You Shouldn't Give A Damn About Your Grades

Grades never really have been a sufficient metric for measuring intelligence or predicting success.
Indian Ambassador To France, Dr. Mohan Kumar
Indian Ambassador To France, Dr. Mohan Kumar

I was recently at ESCP Europe’s Paris Campus listening to a talk given by Dr. Kumar—the Indian ambassador to France. He was there to talk about the United Nations’ sustainable development goals regarding globalization in the context of higher education. Feeling skeptical, I assumed I would be getting another dry and trite lecture from yet another disconnected diplomat.

A man of small stature, he took the podium and prefaced his speech by saying that he probably shouldn’t say what he was about to say in a theater full of professors and students.

What he said next completely blew me away:

“If I were you, I wouldn’t give a damn about your grades.”

He said those exact words.

It was ironic coming from such an erudite individual—Dr. Kumar is the ranking diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service. He has an MBA from the University of New Delhi and a Ph.D. from the reputed Sciences Po in Paris.

His message seemed to resonate with the entire room. The audience was captivated.

He commanded the entire theater ― a true orator. But what was more shocking was how frankly he spoke about the failure of the formal education model in preparing students for challenges of globalization.

He continued, “If I were your potential employer looking to hire you, I wouldn’t focus on your grades at all. Instead, I would focus on one thing: How quickly you can learn a new skill, unlearn that skill, and then learn a brand new skill and apply it.

If you’ve been an ace at selling insurance for the past five years, can you learn to sell software? If you’ve been talented at programming with C++, can you quickly learn Python to stay competitive on the cutting edge? If your job or career could be threatened by automation, can see you the coming trend and prepare yourself by learning new skills which will keep you in demand?

In other words, can we evolve with the changing economy?

More importantly—are we willing to?

I thought I would be getting a lecture on the importance of formal education. Yet here he was lecturing us in un-education. That is—unlearning what we thought we knew to be true.

What we thought we knew to be true was this: that if we just studied hard enough, got the best grades, we would somehow get the best career.

Grades never really have been a sufficient metric for measuring intelligence or predicting success. If anything, they are an effective metric to measure one’s ability and willingness to memorize and reiterate information.

But in an economy where complexity is only increasing, and our ability to create, collaborate, and extract value from massive quantities of data is becoming more crucial, grades are becoming an irrelevant metric.

Certainly, good grades are necessary to become a good doctor, right? Of course, but again, just because a doctor aced all of his organic chemistry exams does not mean he or she can integrate and apply this complex knowledge in a meaningful and effective way when caring for his or her patients. It just means he or she had studied very hard, is an excellent test taker, or has a photographic memory.

Albert Einstein once wrote that he would never waste time memorizing anything he could look up in a text book. As he saw it, encumbering oneself with too much external knowledge was a hinderance to the creative process his work demanded.

And that’s what happens to many students, their heads are crammed full of textbook knowledge. It’s an education from the neck up.

As Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his famous TED talk, our current education model mostly prepares us to be future university professors, which is fine—if you want to be a future university professor.

Grades become important when they are the only distinguishing factor between job applicants. Can they open doors? Sure, when all things are equal between five Ivy-League job applicants, and one of them has the highest GPA, then such an applicant stands out from the rest.

But grades are nonetheless an abstraction. And it’s so easy for everything we learn in university to be abstract rather than practical.

It starts when we are very young in our education: we are told to get the best grades possible and then we’ll get a gold star. We must do our best to keep collecting these gold stars. The more we collect, you more we are. We enter into adulthood assuming these gold stars signify our worthiness and ability to excel in the real world.

But what the education system doesn’t (or rather can’t) teach you, is that once you finish academia, life stops being about collecting gold stars.

Life starts becoming about how much value you can add and has little to nothing to do with your academic accolades.

Your career becomes about how much value you can add to your company, to your vocation, to your team, and to the lives of others. Life stops becoming about what you can collect for trophies and more about what you can give and contribute.

And in this economy, the more value you add, the more you are rewarded—whether it’s in business, art, education, or health care.

If Dr. Kumar’s first message about grades his left jab, his next was a haymaker:

“The story of spending $100,000 on a set of degrees and living happily ever after is over. The dream is over.”

Many of us grew up naively assuming that climbing the ladder of higher education was our ticket to both career and financial prosperity. We just drop $30,000 - $100,000 on our education, check a few boxes, and the rest takes care of itself.

But the rules of the game are changing.

McKinsey recently released a report claiming that technologies have the ability to automate 45 percent of the activities workers are paid to perform.

Those occupations most susceptible to automation were “data collection, data processing, and predictable physical labor.”

Those least susceptible? “Managing and developing people, applying expertise, decision making, planning, and creative tasks.”—what grades cannot easily measure, I might add.

Some of the jobs universities are preparing us for may not even exist in the next 10 to 20 years; at least not in the same way.

“We need to fundamentally change our education system,” he continued.

“It’s a naive idea to think that everyone should do 12 years of schooling. If you don’t belong to STEM (science, math, engineering, and technology), you don’t necessarily need a 4-year degree.”

Is the modern education model a complete failure?

Of course not.

An MBA for a businesswoman with a few years of solid experience under her belt will likely be a valuable asset. Getting your Ph.D. in Biochemistry is an excellent idea if you are deeply interested and passionate about researching the future of microbial populations in the small intestine.

But getting a degree because you just want to check a box? Just because you want another proverbial gold star?

“Models of educations can decide how people cope with globalization,” he added.

It just so happens there are alternatives education models—and much less expensive and much more specialized alternatives at that.

  • You can take advantage of the incredible resources of online education. You’ll have less student debt, and you can gain practical and applicable skills that make you an asset to a company.
  • You can take free online courses from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. You can learn to code online from professors at MIT.
  • You can learn the most up-to-date cutting edge digital marketing strategies by enrolling in an online “nano degree” at Udacity.
  • If you’re already enrolled at university, the focus should be on real world experience—internships, volunteering or taking on projects that challenge you and stretch you to solve real-world problems for companies and people.

The main point is not what grades you got (or didn’t) or what prestigious university you got into (or didn’t)

The main point is:

  • Are you adaptable?
  • Can you quickly learn a new skill?
  • Can you draw on different, seemingly unrelated knowledge and then connect that knowledge in a meaningful, creative and effective way?
  • Can you throw yourself into a job or career and learn quickly without needing a supervisor to hold your hand?

And can you prove it consistently?

I’m not Dr. Kumar. If you’re in higher education or even high school at the moment, I’m not saying you shouldn’t give a damn about your grades.

Strive for good grades, but also strive to look beyond them. Try to read between the lines, try to see where you can learn to create something of value and where you can gain real-world, hands-on experience.

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t pursue higher education.

But I am saying that it should be a supplement to your practical, professional, and real world experience; not a substitute for it.

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