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.
Oh, the part about moving from high school from college just tickled me. During my time as a student, I jokingly coined it “the Bowdoin smackdown”–the inevitable day when each egocentric bright young spark realized that there was always going to be someone smarter in the room. Once they got over the crisis, people usually became much more fun to be around after that.
More on topic:
Who decides what’s best? My best? Best for someone else? Best in the library/state/bibliosphere? I keep thinking of the reference desk at an academic library. I never asked the reference librarians for help in college. Why? Because they took a lot of effort giving me the best answer. And now I do it to students. I fuss away about which subject heading to try or the best database. They just want something to run with. Is it settling just to find an answer that gets you to the next stage?
Hey Alisia! Nice to “see” you again! 🙂
Oh yeah, I was definitely pretty full of myself at 18 (like most 18 year olds) and being at Wesleyan taught me a lot about humility and how much I still had to learn. 🙂
You are so right about the tension between giving students the “perfect” answer and giving them what they want. And I don’t think there’s a right answer to that either. Sometimes the student needs education, sometimes they need a quick answer, and always, it depends on the individual situation. I think the best thing we can do is really listen to each individual patron and find a balance between what they want and what they need, between perfection and getting them where they want to be quickly.
I agree with the no absolute theory. Robert Kiyosaki who wrote the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” said that the only place where he felt stupid was in school. I’m a big believer in education but it is true that there are other ways to succeed along with getting a degree. Solid Meredith.
I’m with you on the grade thing. I have never, ever thought about arguing with a professor over a grade – even when I didn’t particularly agree. More importantly, I didn’t think the part about the grades strengthened Clasper’s argument – there is an assummption that overachievers will argue for a higher grade and underachievers won’t.
You also make an important part about people being overachievers or underachievers in one area, but not in others. No one can give %150 in every area. We all make decisions about what is important to us.
I agree with you about Clasper’s message. Finding ways to motivate peopleis important. It is a struggle – and I haven’t figured it out either.
By the way, I love Hegel. If you ever need to read him again, I volunteer to do it for you! 🙂
Just for the record, I never have disputed a grade I got to try to get a higher one. I just got an A in the first place. 🙂 That’s just the sort of person I am… hard wired to just about kill myself to get everything right the first time through. What I need to remember, and what I was trying to get at, was that this is not the way that everyone is wired, and I need to remember that when I am working with people and trying to get through to them.
For me, the first time I realized this difference in expectations between people. This student really was happy with a B and that surprised me. He was OK with something I would have fainted over. That lesson about differing values has really stuck with me.
As for absolutes, I think I needed to express the idea of what “The Best” means (at least to me) better. You’re absolutely right, this is a term that means something different to everyone. What sometimes surprises me is that no matter what “the best” can and does mean to you personally, how many people don’t even consider that goal as something achievable or even desirable. As someone who shoots for it in everything I do, this is something that’s hard to remember, even though I see it every day.
It’s hard to work with people who I think COULD do so so exceptionally well, but just have no desire to. A lot of the people I’m trying to work with in my job only want to do the bare minimum. And that’s OK. But I have to keep it in mind that it’s OK sometimes to do “well enough”. That’s hard for me. But I feel like if I can remember that and work with it I can use that understanding as a way to connect with the other people’s point of view and help motivate them to reach “good enough” plus a little bit.
Hi Emily. I thought it was a really interesting post, because it IS so important that we consider other people’s mindsets/values/goals when we are trying to teach or motivate people. Motivating people who are change averse is a real challenge, and it’s definitely not a feat I have mastered. I’ve been able to sell some ideas and others have fallen flat.
I agree almost everything said here, in your post, Meredith, and in everyone’s comments so far, except for the conclusion.
Yes, it’s true that not everyone can or wants to be the greatest at everything. Yes, a lot of people who come to the ref desk simply want AN answer and not THE answer. And yes, it’s certainly better to feel better about the grade you get than to feel bad about the grade you badger someone into giving you. But all this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t aim for the top, that we shouldn’t give 150% at the reference desk even when the patron only wants 15%, or that higher grades shouldn’t be expected and requested when you see no reason why you shouldn’t get them.
Of course it’s perfectly reasonable that not everyone wants to be a “SharePoint goddess” (especially us guys… LOL) but saying it’s ok not to be, is close to saying don’t bother trying. You may not want out of the training what the SharePoint trainer thinks that you should want out of it, but instead of starting out with “I don’t need to know everything about this” so that you don’t feel bad when you don’t, perhaps we could occasionally think “I could certainly be the best in the world at this” and not be angry at ourselves when we’re not. This may not be the case with you or any of the commenters here, but there are too many people who don’t try because they think they won’t succeed completely. Great effort and partial success is perfectly fine (and was obviously part of what you were talking about).
At the reference desk, it’s a similar story. Yes. There are plenty of people out there who just want to squeak by with any answer at all. But as information specialists, I believe it’s our duty to TRY to make them aware that that’s probably not a good idea, that the right answer (or at least a better answer) is out there, that it’s not as difficult to find as they may think, and that this is exactly what we are trained (and often like) to do.
And finally, regarding the grades, two things. One, grades shouldn’t be the point. If you don’t understand why you got a specific grade (or performance review or award or credit or whatever), then you should ALWAYS find out why. What was the point of getting the grade if not to tell you how you did and whether you need to improve or not? Almost without fail, if I didn’t get perfect on something (which was certainly quite often LOL) and it wasn’t obvious what my mistakes were, I would ask what I did wrong and how I could improve. Most of the time, I didn’t even really care whether my grade was changed or not. I just want to know the answer.
And two, grades often have to be the point, but they are very often somewhat arbitrary. Grades are just something somebody made up to try to represent your accomplishment. If they are going to represent you in some way (in terms of a final grade, or progressing through the academic world, or getting you a job) then why should you not try to get them up as high as you can? There’s almost always wiggle room. Wiggle it in the direction you want it.
(Whew. Long comment. Now, why can’t I write this much in my own blog??? LOL)
The only time I got a grade that I felt was clearly unjustified (and I was one of several in the class who had this happen), we preferred to dispute that the teacher should work for the school than that the grades should be changed. And we brought enough evidence that he was let go! But as points of honor, all 5 of us freshmen decided that we’d keep our low grades, just to make the point that it was about the teacher and not about our grades. I’ve often wondered if that was a self-righteous attitude…
Anyway, you’re post just made me remember that whole incident, and the cast of characters that populated my college career, the professors who’s Bs meant so much to me, and the professors who’s A+s meant so little.
But the larger point of your post really resonates with me. I’ve always considered myself un-ambitious, and people have often laughed when I tell them that I’m not ambitious because (they say) why would I work so hard if I’m not ambitious. But I guess what I’ve always meant is that, like you, my life goals include finding and living in a committed and loving relationship, being financially stable (which does not include summer homes, and which does include washing my ziplock bags so that I don’t have to buy them all the time), and being content at work and at home. Anything beyond that is gravy, like you said. And really yummy gravy, but not part of what I need in order to think of myself as a success. So I’m not ambitious, but that is in no way related to my desire to work very, very hard and excel to the very best of my ability.
Just a quick note about your survey–you ask if we’re blogging anonymously, but don’t ask if anyone’s blogging pseudonymously. And there isn’t a box for comments. So I marked “no” to the question but wanted to point out that you might be missing some important data. 🙂
Hey, Meredith, took your survey, and commenting upon the other posts (yours & Jennifer’s) re: Emily’s initial post. What I want to know is–whatever happened to keeping things on the humble? I do my best to do my best at work, and when people start bragging about how great I am, it annoys the snot out of me. It annoys me because I want my library and my school computer network to run pretty much like a well-oiled machine–whether I’m physically there or not. When I hear people bragging about how I’m “the best,” it drives me batty. NOw I’m motivated to read this Seth Godin’s book and try to find holes in the philosophy. I do so love a good argument! Thanks for blogging! You totally rock!
Meredith, If you haven’t been tagged yet for “8 Random Things” consider it done. The rules are on my blog.