If C’s get degrees and A’s make your parents happy, what do B’s do?

The only A+ I received at school was when I obtained my blood type result… I was very much a B student.

Even though I never achieved perfect marks, I left school with eleven university entrance papers. This is what I cherish the most about my education. I had the opportunity to learn about a diverse range of subjects, including classics, the languages, art, and the sciences, on top of mathematics and English, all at a time where I had no other option but to learn such things.

It’s an unfortunate reality of our society, however, that we don’t celebrate the diversity of one’s education as much as we do the grades one achieves. Academic grades are still very much a surrogate predictor of future success, which goes on to reinforce the dogma that to succeed in life, one needs to achieve good grades at school.

There was an unwritten understanding at the school I attended that certain subjects were superior, and therefore more ‘becoming’ for certain students to take than others. To be considered a “success” at the school, these subjects must be taken, and excelled at, over the ‘easier’ subjects such as classics and art. To me, belittling students who want to learn subjects outside of ‘the Asian five’ (their term, not mine), for fear of being considered a failure, seemed to contradict the point of what an academic institution should be trying to achieve. I always felt this was a problem with the school, not the students.

To me, studying papers that vary so much in subject matter is a sign of a genuine desire to learn. Taking a risk to learn something one doesn’t ‘need’ to know is precisely what we want our young people to be doing. If they achieve an A grade in the process, then great, but B’s and C’s are still commendable.

What got me thinking about all of this was an article written by Dr Adam Grant. In his article, Dr Grant argues that academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence and that a determination for academic success, mainly through university, produces non-useful people. Dr Grant points out that if your mission is to only succeed in school, you’re not setting yourself up for success in life. It’s a sentiment that resonates with me.

I always applied a diminishing-returns argument on why it wasn’t a good idea to actively pursue A grades at school. The 10% improvement in an exam mark required to move from a B grade to an A grade required a doubling of the effort needed to attain the B in the first place. Multiply that over six subjects a term, and I couldn’t ever understand the point of spending the time and energy on something that offers such little marginal return. I believed then, as I do now, that the effort and time were better spent on things like learning music, socialising with peers, having time for sport and other activities, all of which made me a more well-rounded person.

The most interesting and inspiring people I have ever worked with, and the people whose careers I now admire the most, are all people who didn’t achieve good grades at high school, nor did they succeed at university, if they attended one.

Case in point is Madu, my co-founder at EMGN. Madu was on academic probation at AUT when I first met him, and he was a ‘mid-alphabet’ alumni of the same high school I attended. On paper, and to his teachers, that made him average, and they all told him so. As soon as I met him, it was entirely plain to see that he had (and still has) a brilliant mind that was simply interested in different things. Within the first year of starting our business together, he quickly became a world leading authority in programmatic advertising technology, which we leveraged to grow our business exponentially. Now that we have finished up with EMGN, he is still a level-headed, driven, happy, well-balanced guy in his mid-twenties, who also happens to drive a Lamborghini.

I was fortunate to grow up in a household where education was celebrated and encouraged as part of a ‘balanced diet’ of becoming a functioning human and was not the only measure of success. My parents encouraged and embraced education and gave us every opportunity to learn, fail, and succeed with their support. That support, thankfully, didn’t include setting unreal expectations of grades nor did it include laying out dogmas such as the only way to succeed in life is to get good grades, from a good school, to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or other such professional. My parents’ ambition was to provide us with the environment, tools, and resources to learn but allow us the freedom to fail and find our path without imparting too much of their bias in what that path should be.

When I think about my son’s education, and what success for him should look like, I honestly have complete apathy to the topic. It’s something that people can find quite confronting when I admit it to them. I take this approach because I’m not arrogant enough to think I know what’s best for my son, nor can I ever honestly ‘know’ what the best educational requirements for anyone are. These are things we simply can’t know with any certainty.

I’m also well aware that I have no real way of controlling my son’s educational outcomes. There are too many factors that we, as parents, have no control over. All we can do is guide them to become resilient, empathetic, self-sufficient and capable people. That is something well within our power as parents but is arguably wholly independent of the schools they attend and how ‘well’ they do within them.

I do believe, however, that there is incredible value in learning less about more while one can. Even if one fails to engage with a subject, there is still value to be taken from the experience. If we have all our kids leaving school with only the knowledge needed to specialise in activities that will earn them a living, and that this has been their sole educational focus, we will quickly lose the diversity of knowledge that makes people useful and interesting.

I do believe that my son’s academic education will be an essential part of his broader development into becoming a balanced and functioning member of society and that it’s something my wife and I will need to help him to achieve. It’s a journey that I’m incredibly looking forward to but one that I am entirely open to discovering with him at the time. I don’t expect him to become like me, or my wife, nor would I begrudge him if he did. All I know for sure is that I won’t be judging my son’s success as a person solely on the number of A’s he achieves at school.

About the author — Aidan Kenealy

My mission is to help those with high growth businesses realise their vision for success. I draw from the unique lessons learned growing EMGN to help founders and CEOs get the best out of what their businesses can be.

If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your business — please reach out via LinkedIn or email aidan@hiov.co.nz

Professional startup advisor for founders of high growth startups. More details @ https://aidankenealy.com/

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