“Will it be on the test?”
This was my favorite question during the first two decades of my life.
I was the stereotypical Asian who sat in the front of the classroom, taking notes on everything and nothing. My attentiveness was deceiving. I didn’t care very much about what I was learning. And almost minutes after the last exam, the facts were forgotten.
Mastery of cram and dump gave me what I wanted: a perfect GPA. A perfect GPA meant a perfect me, which equaled acceptance and ultimately, love.
Looking back, I remember the moment that triggered this mindset. After my first art class, I overheard my teacher tell my mom that because I didn’t have natural talent, I should try other things.
I was five years old. The next day, I traded in my paper and crayons for multiplication tables.
Fear of Creativity
In the years that followed, no one told me that it takes more than talent to create art. Or maybe, it is more correct to say that I wasn’t open to accepting these ideas after my first art class rejection.
I never took any more art classes. They didn’t contribute to the only “acceptable” job options: doctor, lawyer, or engineer. And I avoided these classes because I didn’t think I’d do well. It’s easy to quantify the scores on a math test and to memorize my way through any history test, but an art class? Who knew how that would go?
Rather than countering these thoughts, the GPA system cultivated them. I did what I knew I’d be good at. I avoided everything else.
“[I]f you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” Ken Robinson says in “Do Schools Kill Creativity,” which is the most viewed Ted Talk of all time. “[B]y the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
We live in a culture of over-protection.
In soccer, everyone’s a winner so that no one loses. Teams are assigned for kickball so that no one is the last kid to be picked.
Fragile perfects will never create anything original because originality involves a willingness to fail. If there is no risk of failure, then the project, whether it’s a work task, entrepreneurial venture, or a new painting, will never be original.
There is no lesson plan on failure. Students must be encouraged to explore their interests and try new things. A student shouldn’t be discouraged from taking a difficult course because he’s worried about his GPA.
The GPA system is great at creating what author and New York Times columnist, David Brooks, calls “approval-seeking machines:”
In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes approval-seeking machines as “active, busy, and sleepless… [I]nside, they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria, and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.”
I flourished in the GPA system. I was always praised and never criticized. I learned how to grind through tasks that I didn’t care about. And I learned how to sleep only three hours a night.
And I did it all for approval.
Further, in his New York Times article, “Putting Grit in Its Place,” David Brooks discusses the flaws of the GPA system:
“In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the G.P.A. system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.
Creative people are good at asking new questions, but the G.P.A. rewards those who can answer other people’s questions. The modern economy rewards those who can think in ways computers can’t, but the G.P.A. rewards people who can grind away at mental tasks they find boring. People are happiest when motivated intrinsically, but the G.P.A. is the mother of all extrinsic motivations.
The G.P.A. ethos takes spirited children and pushes them to be hard working but complaisant.”
After I graduated from college, the GPA system was no longer there to feed my inner approval-seeking machine. I turned to other methods of extrinsic motivation. I worked harder at more things. I said yes to every opportunity that would build up what Brooks calls “resume virtues,” or those skills that contributed to my career growth. But I never thought to ask, “What do I want?” “What do I love?”
These questions arose after a series of burnouts. I did everything that I was taught to do, but I was unsatisfied. Discontent. I didn’t have the answers, but I knew I would never find them if I remained in the comfort. I knew that doing what I believed others expected of me was no longer the road to achieving inner satisfaction.
I had the right job, the right things, and the right skills, but there weren’t right for me. Decades of schooling, dozens of all-nighters, and a near-perfect GPA taught me how to work for what others want, but never gave me the tools to ask myself what I want.
Recently, I read Gratitude, a collection of essays by Oliver Sacks written during the last few months of his life. In his essay, “My Own Life,” he said that “it is the fate…of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
We can’t raise our children to be fragile perfect, complaisant, approval-seeking machines devoid of creativity. We must love and encourage them, but we shouldn’t protect them from failure. We can’t always call them winners. Our connected world demands a willingness to make mistakes and an ability to work through criticism. It needs originality and innovation.