What Adam Grant Gets Wrong About What Straight-A Students Get Wrong

I have now seen Adam Grant's article titled What Straight-A Students Get Wrong circulated on two platforms three times over the past two days (sorry WSO won't let me link). The article and everything it stands for is driving me crazy and I have nothing productive to do, so I am going to incoherently rant about why Adam's ideas are half-baked and dangerous. In an OpEd that seemed primarily concerned with justifying his decision to levy an A- on a kid who subsequently had an emotional break down in his office (and who I think it would be fair to assume had a 4.0 until (s)he made the mistake of taking Adam's class on organizational psychology), Adam claims students who earn straight A's are ill-prepared for the real world because it means they haven't experienced enough failure, aren't social, and have instead wasted their time on meaningless subjects and exams (the unintended self-deprecation inherent in that last point is priceless). In Adam's world of management theory diagrams and books chalked full of questionably supportive anecdotes, I am certain objective measurements of performance and intelligence are indeed weakly correlated with performance. In the real world or an academic discipline worth its salt in empirical evidence, the idea that students who have yet to fail in one narrow (albeit important) aspect of their college experience are somehow poorly equipped to succeed in this world is worse than laughable: it rationalizes and encourages sub-optimal performance.

The kid whose only redeeming quality is a 4.0 will certainly not succeed in life. However, the kid who is socially competent, fights through obstacles (subtly but crucially distinct from failure), finds time to expand their mind with interesting topics outside the credit hours they're paying for, and still manages to swing a 4.0 will almost certainly be successful. Adam (and a lot of people) like to assume if you are succeeding in one area you are incapable of an equal or higher degree of success in others. Yes, time and willpower are finite resources, but some people have more of them and/or are able to stretch them a little further than the rest of us (try Googling MIT 2020 Schwartzman Scholars and check out the French kid). No one likes perfect people, but it is counterproductive and nonsensical to write them off as incompetent because we know they are succeeding in any given aspect of their life. A random quote from my sixth grade health class textbook that has somehow stuck with me over the years: 'just because you see a fit and healthy person eating junk food all the time doesn't mean they're lucky. For all you know they could be running a 5k every morning.' Inverted a bit, but the point is you don't know the entire essence of anyone's being, so instead of assuming they're shit at enough things to assume you're on equal footing, accept your weakness and do something to improve. Or sabotage them. Whatever works. The point is to internalize the blame, not to irrationally impose it on someone else.

To wrap up his cute little article Adam assigns blame to universities, employers, and the straight-A earning culprits themselves. Conveniently Adam forgot to assess his contribution to the problem. The kid was crying in Adam's office not because of the A-, but because of the class that gave him/her the A-. If your 4.0 is felled by a 400-level physics class, so be it. But if your 4.0 is ruined because you got an A- in organizational psychology?! That's like Paul Singer & Friends trying to weasel their way into the fulcrum only to be out-maneuvered by a family office operated by an arrogant third generation schmuck whose great granddaddy made it in railroad spike manufacturing. Anyone who's been through an undergraduate business school program knows the sinking feeling when you realize there's a chance you may not get your easy A in a ridiculous class that no one could possibly extract real value from. The real solution is for universities to stop requiring its students to take classes like "organizational psychology" and "design leadership". "But then no one will take our classes and our students wouldn't be as valuable to employers and graduate programs!" Adam Grant and his colleagues would protest. I guarantee two things: 1) employers would keep hiring from Wharton and 2) no one would take your classes. Maybe that shows you something, but in the meantime quit grading your classes on a curve that implies your students are actually learning anything. What could that kid have possibly done wrong in your class to distinguish himself from the kids that got A's? Did (s)he really learn 7.5% less than the kids that got A's? My money says no. Leave the hard-line grading to professors in the Wharton departments that actually add value to their students.

Of course grades are stressful and sometimes discourage students from maximizing their learning, but I doubt many reasonable people would argue grades are unnecessary. Grades in essence are a signal to employers. Admission into a school is a signal too, but grades help separate the cream from the crop within the school. You're probably pretty impressive if you got into Wharton, but you're really impressive if you went to Wharton and earned a 4.0. When employers recruit at Wharton they want to return to the mothership with the highest quality candidates' signatures on the dotted line. Similarly the admissions department wants the best employers to keep returning to hire more kids. Somehow the school needs to signal which kids are the best students so employers are less likely to hire scrubs and more likely to return to extend offers. Obviously this is where GPA plays its part. All students have a vested interest in a signal system since it maintains the school's reputation. Even the worst performers benefit, because even though they can't expect to be hired by Blackstone or McKinsey, they'll still land somewhere pretty nice because Wharton has such a great reputation. Besides, if a kid is really bad they'll be kicked out for having an intolerably low GPA. A school can screw all this up by inflating grades. It will improve placement in the short-term, but in the long-term, employers will notice they've been hiring a lot of duds with a 4.0 and will be less likely to return for more new hires. Sure, relatively low-quality students can game the system by stacking their schedule with blow-off classes, but in theory every rational player would be expected to game the system and the playing field would be level. In practice it isn't level of course, but I'd argue its pretty close. Universities give students plenty of opportunities to expand their minds and diversify their thoughts by auditing classes and pursuing extracurricular activities. And if students want to signal they are really something special they can risk their GPA for another major or a couple of minors.

In spite of what you may have assumed given my misguided passion over this article, I don't have a 4.0 on my transcript, but I do have a lot of respect for well-rounded kids that do. Despite everything Adam says, it's the only remotely comparable metric to measure someone's college performance, and accordingly it is widely used in our industry. Although it would be highly advantageous for me if prospective employers looked at my GPA and said: "Wow! That's nowhere near a 4.0! (S)he must be incredibly social and well-rounded with diverse experiences and ideas!" I don't think it would be fair or make much sense, and its dangerous for anyone to go through recruiting with a false sense of confidence or contentedness because their sub-optimal GPA would make Adam Grant proud. My wider point here (if there is one) is for the kiddoes going through Summer 2021 internship recruiting: don't rationalize your shortcomings into strengths or assume an especially strong aspect of your application is going to earn you a job. Work hard, stay stressed, and don't get content. And if your GPA isn't looking great it's time to buckle down and spend some time on it. It will continue to matter in PE / HF recruiting and B-School applications. Good luck all.

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And just because I can't resist, I absolutely love how Adam begins his evidence for the meaninglessness of GPA with the phrase "For example, at Google". I'm not a statistician, but I think few people should be surprised that a study conducted on the employees of (arguably) the most prestigious employer in the world showed weak correlation with GPA and performance over time. Half the new hires there probably had a 4.0 and/or are exceptional in countless other ways. Of course GPA didn't account for much you insufferable goober. There are a lot of other issues with the studies he cited but that one really set me off.

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Dec 10, 2018