I read Emily Clasper’s post yesterday about overachievers, underachievers and motivation and found that some of what she wrote made me very uncomfortable. I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate my feelings until I read Jennifer Macaulay’s rebuttal. Jennifer thinks she’s “odd” for not believing in absolutes and thinking that there isn’t any one definition of “the best” out there. If that’s odd, then I’m glad to be one of the oddballs.

I completely agree with Emily’s intent in writing this piece, even if I didn’t love how it was expressed. It’s important to realize that people are coming into any learning experience with different expectations and goals. While we can (and should) try to motivate people, we have to understand that they don’t all want to be wildly successful with what we’re teaching them. Having gone through a 3-day Microsoft SharePoint training last week, I can completely understand that because I don’t particularly care about being the a SharePoint goddess. I just wanted to be exposed to how it works and what is possible. That’s perhaps why I read the following situation differently from how Emily did (though admittedly, I wasn’t there):

I’ll never forget the first semester I taught a college course. I was so nervous when I gave out the grades at the end of the semester. I mean, I couldn’t just give everyone A’s, after all, and what was I going to say when the students came and complained (as I figured they were bound to – I would have freaked out not to get an A!!). The next day, a student knocked on my office door. I cringed and thought “oh, here it comes,” since I had given him a B. To my surprise, he thanked me for a great course, and seemed quite pleased with his grade. It was my first real look into the psyche of people who, while not underachievers, aren’t overachievers either. Not a single person in the class complained about their grade.

I don’t think we can assume that people who aren’t overachievers in one setting are necessarily underachievers. Can any of us really say that we work to be the best in every aspect of our lives (from career, to cooking, to housekeeping, to yardwork, to being the best spouse, to being the best friend, etc.)? I’m great at some things, but there are other things that have to suffer because of what I’m passionate about. I brought a store-bought desert to a holiday party at work and was the only person who did. Maybe people in my neighborhood think I’m an unmotivated person because I don’t have beautiful landscaping or a garden. Maybe the SharePoint trainer thought I was the sort of person who doesn’t want to excel at things because I just wasn’t all that motivated during the training. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. In addition to understanding people’s motivations we have to realize that we all put emphasis on different things in our lives and we all define success differently.

My vision of success was really formed by my college experience. In high school, I was definitely into grades and accolades. I liked getting A’s and I liked being one of the top students in our school. But I never had to work all that hard for it; I was a big fish in a small pond. Then I went to college at Wesleyan and got the ultimate smack-down. Suddenly, I was a very small fish in a very big pond full of really smart fish. Most of the people I went to school with were brilliant and also had the advantage of having gone to prestigious prep schools where they were studying Latin and philosophy in 9th grade. I think I’m smart, but I wasn’t smart enough to excel at a school like Wesleyan (and my crappy Florida public school education didn’t exactly help matters). The classes I took were really academically rigorous and grade inflation definitely wasn’t something done much at Wesleyan, especially not in the History department. I worked so much harder than most people I knew just to get a B+ in a class. I always felt overwhelmed. I can’t imagine that I will ever work as hard in my life as I did during my four grueling years at Wesleyan.

And, after all the hard work, I didn’t graduate with a 4.0. I think I graduated with a 3.3, but it was one heck of a hard-won 3.3 average. And I’m sure I could have gone to a less competitive school and have gotten a 4.0, which would have looked better to the 99.9% of the population who hasn’t even heard of Wesleyan, but it would not have been as satisfying for me. I learned something important about myself in the experience. Challenging myself matters more to me than the grades. I loved taking hard classes at Wesleyan, because of the feeling I got from making it through. That was brought home to me in the two graduate programs I completed at Florida State University, where I did get the 4.0’s and it didn’t feel good about it at all because I didn’t have to work for it. It just goes to show how arbitrary grades are. I’m much more proud of my B+ in Modern European Thought than my A in Collection Development because I knew I made it through something that was really hard for me (though if I ever have to read Hegel again I think I will cry). I wouldn’t trade those four hard years for anything.

But does everyone feel that way? Probably not. Should they? No. We all value different things and that’s totally ok.

So maybe that student who got a B knows that he did his best and came by that B honestly. Or maybe he’s like my dad, who’s smart, but was more into learning than he was into grades. Maybe the fact that he enjoyed the class and got a lot out of it is his measure of success. And there’s still another reason why a student might not dispute his grade. I remember getting a B+ in my Russian Literature class and being really puzzled by it since I’d done so well in the class on the whole. A friend of mine also got a B+ and he went to the teacher, complained about the grade and got an A-. I kept my B+. Unless a clear injustice had been perpetrated on me and I could count up all my grades and clearly see that I deserved a different grade, I would never visit a professor and ask for a higher grade. For me, it would hurt my sense of dignity. I have too much pride to plead for a higher grade, and it would be more harmful to my sense of self-worth to ask for an A- than to take my B+. Other people see things differently, and that’s fine. I don’t judge anyone but myself. We all have our own personal codes, and maybe this B student was like me and felt he deserved a better grade, but wasn’t going to beg or argue for it.

The fact of the matter is, we all define success in different ways. My father has owned two companies that have done extremely well and have allowed him to live a life of leisure. Does he consider himself successful? No. He seems to only see the business ideas that didn’t work, not the money he made or the fact that he raised two successful and happy children. My husband, with his father, developed an extremely successful online community for optometrists. He has been instrumental in the success of the company he has helped to build over the past 18 months that is now raking in money. On top of it, he’s the CEO of his own software company. But does he consider himself successful? No, because for him, it’s about money. And while he makes a lot more than me, it’s not enough for him. As for me, I do consider myself successful. My vision of success was always pretty modest. I wanted to be financially stable (not rich), have a partner in life whom I enjoy and love dearly and have a career that I love that challenges me. Anything else is really gravy. If I didn’t have the book, the column, the speaking gigs, etc. I would still feel successful and whole as long as I was still being challenged on a regular basis and had my wonderful husband. Doesn’t mean I don’t push myself constantly to do more, but I don’t need to be doing that all the time to feel good about myself.

Like Emily, though, I believe that we should try to motivate people. I constantly push for change at work. I like to push people to question their views of themselves and maybe consider that they can actually do the things they’re certain they can’t. I’m encouraging my brand-new colleague to make a name for himself in the profession, though in whatever way fits his personality. I don’t think everyone should be a speaker or a writer or a blogger, because not everyone wants to do those things. But I like to encourage people to stretch themselves beyond what they think is possible, because it feels damn good to do something you never thought you could.

What I took from Emily’s post, which is a very important point, is that we can and should try to motivate the people we are teaching, but we have to also accept the fact that not everyone is going to be motivated because they may just not care that much. And at some point, we have to accept that we can’t motivate everyone, no matter how hard we try. We need to accept people as they are.