When Getting Good Grades And Entrepreneurship Don’t Mix

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Students often have to make certain sacrifices in order to earn good grades in school. I used to be a model student in both high school and college and I always thought that earning good grades would take me the distance in life. It was only when I graduated did I realize that my emphasis on getting good grades contradicted some of the fundamental principles of entrepreneurship .

First off, I just want to emphasize that the point of this article is NOT to discount the importance of getting good grades in school. My purpose in writing this article is to reflect on specific examples and experiences with my education in both high school and college where getting good grades had a negative impact on my entrepreneurial spirit.

Fire And Water

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So how can getting good grades possibly be construed as a negative? How can getting an ‘A’ possibly hinder you in any way?

It’s not about the grade itself per se, but the process of obtaining the ‘A’ that can affect you the most. I’ve been out of school for over a decade now, but some of these experiences still stick with me today and I’d like to share them with you.

Grades Prevent You From Thinking Outside The Box

The quest for the ‘A’ grade often requires you to simply follow directions and complete assignments in a way that the teacher or professor expects. I took a software programming class in college where one of the final projects was to design a blackjack game.

This project was designed so that the students would learn how to take advantage of object oriented programming in C++. Writing the program in itself was a great exercise but there were many problems with the way the project was presented to the students.

Instead of just providing the project objectives and letting the students run with it, the teacher provided a detailed framework of the program along with prewritten code to implement many of the functions.

The framework the professor provided made the assignment essentially brain dead. All you had to do was just fill in the blanks where the guts of the function were missing.

I wanted to learn how to create this program from the ground up, so I didn’t use any of the sample code or frameworks at all. Essentially, I chose to write the program completely from scratch. It took me a while, but my blackjack program was excellent if I do say so myself and I went way beyond the call of duty.

When I got my project back, I full on expected to get an ‘A’. But instead, I was greeted with a “Please See Me” note and a poor grade.

The professor explained to me that while my program worked just fine and fulfilled all of the objectives of the project, he couldn’t give me a good grade because I didn’t use his frameworks and pre-written code.

He called me in to give me another chance, but I had to rewrite the program to conform with everyone else.

What could I do? I didn’t want a bad grade so I grudgingly completed the program by just filling in the blanks. Later on, the teaching assistant commiserated with me and told me that all students had to follow the framework in order to ensure easy and consistent grading.

While I can understand the motive, I still find this policy ridiculous to this day. The professor effectively prevented me from exploring my potential and from thinking outside of the box. He clearly didn’t understand the implications his policies had on my learning experience or my entrepreneurial spirit.

Grades Force You To Conform To Someone Else’s Style

Getting good grades also requires you to conform to your professor’s way of thinking. This is especially true for classes that require you to write papers as part of your final grade.

I took an art history class my freshman year in college where the final grade was based on two essay exams that were taken in the middle and end of the term.

I took a keen interest in this class and for my first midterm exam, I decided to write an essay that captured my own interpretations of the art. I wrote a pretty good essay that compared and contrasted my views to that of the professor.

While I mostly agreed with the professor’s points, I also provided arguments that contradicted him as well. Needless to say, I didn’t do too well on the exam.

Fearing a bad grade, I decided to not make the same mistake on the final. For the final essay, I wrote a canned paper that essentially regurgitated the lectures. I used similar language and terminology that the professor used in describing the paintings.

I wrote down phrases like “resilient suppleness” and “textured reasoning”, both phrases that would normally never come out of my mouth. I got an ‘A’ on the final and for the class, but what did I learn?

I learned that I had to agree with my professor’s viewpoints to do well.

Grades Force You Not To Think

Sometimes getting an ‘A’ requires no brain power at all. This is especially true for classes such as math where various formulas are used to obtain an answer. Because classes don’t emphasize the applications of the math, getting an ‘A’ often entails plugging a bunch of numbers into a formula.

Sure the teacher derives the formula for you, but unless you have context to what the equations are used for, you often end up plugging and chugging to get the answer.

Why would anyone want to use their brain to figure out the solution when you can simply use a canned method to obtain the answer? How many of you actually remember Calculus or Differential Equations from college? How many of you actually know when and how to use it?

Grades Force You To Compete Rather Than Collaborate

I was very shocked when I found out on my first day of college that all of my classes were going to be graded on a curve. For my freshman physics class, my professor outright announced to the class that only 10% of us were going to get an ‘A’.

What did this do to my mentality? Immediately, it put me into competition mode. I didn’t try and help anyone out with their problem sets nor did I collaborate with anyone on the assignments. As far as I was concerned, it was every man for himself.

Grades And Entrepreneurship

When I look back at some of my high school and college classes, I can understand the need to assign grades to students. Unfortunately, I don’t quite agree with the current methodology nor do I have any answers or solutions to these problems.

What I can say though is that thinking outside the box, non-conformity and collaboration are the pillars of entrepreneurship. There is no magic formula or canned methodology for success. In order to succeed, you have to stand out from the pack and demonstrate your personality. That’s one of the reasons why I love to blog.

Collaboration is crucial as well. As an entrepreneur, you need to help others and provide assistance freely and without expectation. Especially today, it’s almost impossible to get anywhere alone. I just hope that these principles are reinforced when my daughter starts attending school.

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17 thoughts on “When Getting Good Grades And Entrepreneurship Don’t Mix”

  1. I am a full pledge accountant, by the book like what you mentioned in your post. But when I started my business, I have to play by the street smart rules. In three years, I proudly say I fail more then 10 times and try three business so far, been kick out of my shop and accumulated huge debt. But then, this is business not by the book.

  2. I agree with this post although I am quite biased since I fancy myself as a wannabe entrepreneur. There are obviously other instances, but Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Ross Perot did not do well in school. In fact, Dell and Gates did not finish.

    If you believe in the premise of Robert Kiyosaki’s game, Cash Flow, you could also make the claim that there is an inverse relationship between good grades and financial independence.

    Good article!

  3. It seems to me that American children in schools are taught to get a grade or taught to do well on a test, which does result in a high score or grade, but is the information retained? Is there any real life application involved? It seems like the school systems could better serve our future leaders by teaching life skills. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t teach algebra, but teach it in a way that the student can actually use. It’s a tough spot to find yourself as an adult and have to completely re-think the way you approach success. Great post!

  4. Since I NEVER got good grades in school (maybe in music and art) this article is very encouraging to me for different reasons. I know I probably could have benefitted had I went to college which would have been a requirement if I wanted to work in the medical, legal, or any other field that requires specific knowledge and/or certification. I guess my task is to try to “make it” as an entrepreneur without a degree – it’s hard enough to do it in the working world. My fiancée has been running his business for over ten years and he doesn’t have a degree himself. Though college is extremely valuable, it’s good to know there is “the untold story” or some of the negatives along with the benefits.

  5. This is a great post. Shows reality instead of “get good marks, get a good job.”

    The thing is, it’s not that easy. If it was, it would have been done already!

  6. Well said. I agree completely, but I think that (thankfully!) things are getting slightly better now (At least, in some universities).

    In my computer science degree, we’re given extra credit for going above and beyond, and we’re given a large degree of free rein on our projects. We still have to conform to a certain style of writing/documentation, but they justify this by saying that clients would expect things in a certain way as well. It’s fair enough really, though frustrating sometimes.

    And there’s a module purely for “Entrepreneurship and Innovation” though I haven’t taken it so I can’t really comment on how good it is! Still, the name is promising. :)

  7. @HIB There is no such thing as a wannabe entrepreneur. You are definitely an entrepreneur! I’ve been reading a lot lately about successful business people that never graduated from college. While people like Bill Gates may lead you to the conclusion that grades mean nothing, I think that good grades and college open up opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

    @Carla – Many of my friends’ parents came to the US with no degree and no grasp of the english language. Yet every single one of them found a way to be wealthy. Clearly, there are more positives than negatives in favor of going to college, but nothing teaches you more than when you are forced to succeed.

    @Michael – I’m glad things are different with your CS classes. I think it’s also very cool that your school offers entrepreneurship classes. My college was just starting to offer them when I started graduate school. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take advantage of a few classes before I left.

  8. For alternatives to the abuse humorously referred to as education, see: Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation and The Community of Scholars.

  9. This reminds me of a recent post regarding why people look at twitter stats etc – we’re so conditioned to look at rankings, gradings, comparisons with others… You’re right on the money however when you suggest entrepreneurship has more to do with thinking outside of the square rather than conforming to expectations! Thought provoking stuff, my friend!….

  10. @Ross
    I definitely see the need for statistics and rankings, but its way too easy to get caught up in it all and lose sight of the overall picture. Thanks for the comment!

    I will definitely check those books out from the library next time I have the chance. Thanks for the suggestions.

  11. TO HIB says:

    HIB– You might want to look up Bill Gates’ past. He did exceptionally well in school. He went to HARVARD for undergrad and finished almost every single CS class Harvard had to offer. Every single class includes all graduate level CS courses too. He went through to his junior year and originally was just going to take some time off but Microsoft started making a lot of money so he never went back. To call him a bad student is ridiculous.

  12. Hi Steve,

    While I’ve always believed that there is little correlation between good grades and success in life, your insights offered in this post still come across as very fresh to me because although I thought there’s no correlation between the two, I never thought good grades would actually be detrimental to the entrepreneurial spirit.

    And though I generally agree with all your points here, I have to say there are still some merits to getting good grades in school because excelling in whatever you do is a habit and attitude you need to develop to succeed in life. And the best time to develop that habit and attitude is from a young age starting in school.



  13. There are certainly some problems with the way we grade. For example, it is possible with “curving” to have an average of 99% and still fail the class. In general, grading is either really subjective, or it is based on tests which may or may not be good ways to measure one’s learning.

    I have to say that grades can teach you something. When I was in high school, I was bored because almost all the content of my classes is the same stuff we covered in fifth grade. Boredom and the pressures of home together with the aforementioned emphasis on formatted regurgitation make for poor grades, even if you already know the stuff. I learned to measure my learning internally and to target my own goals.

    For many people, I think, grades are the best measurement we have, even if they are not a perfect one, of one’s learning. It is only those of us who don’t quite fit into “the mushy middle” who need to find another standard to use.

    In thirty years since I got out of school, I still set my own goals and use my own standards of measurement. I think that an owner-manager needs to do that anyway. Your measurements will primarily be related to the reasons you started a business, along with whatever standards are required in your field of business or your location (e.g., financial standards for tax reporting).

  14. Leona says:

    This is a great article. My 9-year old gets straight-A’s and just cried for two days over her first A-minus. I need to teach her that standardized exams and in-the-box thinking are not the way the world actually works, and to prepare her for much bigger disappointments (and victories!) than an A-minus along the way. Good article, and I also appreciate that you didn’t “slam” the “book-smart” kids in writing it.

  15. Rachel says:

    I’ve had mixed experiences…some teachers love it when I give them a out-of-the-box and risque essay that challenges their viewpoint or takes it to the next level, others really just want an eloquently written version of what they they think. You really have to read the teacher and their grading system — I’d argue that reading people is an important skill for entrepreneurship. 😛

    It really comes down to the teacher. What we really need is more teachers who exercise critical thinking; that’s the only way they’ll be able to teach it to their students!

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