Good Grades v/s Bad Grades: which defines success?

This article first appeared in the Hindu on August 14, 2021.

As a country, we are obsessed with grades. According to data from the Ministry of Home Affairs, around 2,500 students commit suicide each year; most due to exam failure. So good and bad grades in Classes 10 and 12 affect mood, self-esteem and future prospects of adolescents. But what do these grades actually mean? 

While good grades indicate subject knowledge, they also show the ability to structure time, put one’s head down and slog. Therefore, they are strongly correlated with success. In fact, a 2016 research paper co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman indicates that grades capture personality traits like perseverance, diligence and self-discipline that are among the strongest predictors of career success. 

Intelligence and grades

But do they measure intelligence? The short answer is yes. Several studies have shown a positive relationship between intelligence and grades when adjusted for learning disabilities, time and motivation to study, economic backgrounds and mentorship. What this means is that, while good grades point towards innate – as well as learned – intelligence, bad grades do not always indicate the lack of intelligence.

There are many successful people who did not achieve top grades in school. Several CXOs, entrepreneurs, actors, filmmakers, writers and lawyers — such as Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg — had “average” grades. In India too, there are examples such as actor Akshay Kumar, writer Chetan Bhagat, stand-up artist Vir Das, entrepreneurs like Subash Chandra, Sunil Mittal, and Saket Modi. 

Perhaps the biggest confirmation of this comes from Google. In 2013, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google, had said, “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s (grades) are worthless as a criteria for hiring — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t any more, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.”

Intention to innovate

Could low grades actually indicate something valuable? An NYU study of 10,000 student from the U.S., Canada, Germany and Qatar found an inverse relationship between grades and innovation. While innovation itself was tough to measure, they measured the intention to innovate and found that the lower the GPA, the higher the intent. What could be behind this? Aaron Dinin, a software engineer who teaches entrepreneurship at Duke University, points out, “Every semester, some of my most obviously entrepreneurial students — the ones actively building companies — are also the students who get the worst grades.” He attributes this to their trading off study time with working on their passion. Students with great grades are often focused and, therefore, voluntarily shut off passions and new experiences that could ignite innovation.

Another underlying factor could be the ability to handle failure. Students with lower grades often do not fear messing up and do not have a stellar reputation for success to defend. This makes them less fragile psychologically and more enabled to take risks. They are also more likely to be intrinsically motivated to follow their passion. 

While good grades are one predictor of career success, creativity, passion, ability to handle failure and, sometimes, sheer doggedness too are indicators. Good grades are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to achieve success, however you define it. But, all things remaining equal, they will definitely give you a boost whatever direction you are headed towards. 

So, while you aim for good grades, don’t let them define you. Ask what else you bring to the table and build on your strengths. There is more than one route to the top.

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