Why Good Grades Often Lead To Failed Businesses

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Growing up as an Asian American with strict parents, I was expected to get good grades in whatever subject I took. There were no exceptions.

And even though I haven’t taken a class in decades, the thought of getting a B still sends chills up my spine.

In fact, I occasionally have nightmares where I’m taking an exam in a classroom full of nerds and I don’t know any of the answers. Crazy right?

Now what if I told you that getting good grades was bad for entrepreneurship and that my entire Asian upbringing actually hindered me from starting a successful business?

Why Good Grades Often Lead To Failed Businesses

Ok…calm down crazy tiger parents. I haven’t gone off the deep end and please don’t revoke my Asian membership card.

But I do want you to hear me out.

After starting multiple 6 and 7 figure businesses while raising two kids, I’ve come to realize that getting good grades and entrepreneurship don’t always mix.

A Personal Story

Asian card

You’ll probably find this shocking, but I was a model student in both high school and college. And my parents raised me to believe that getting good grades would take me the distance in life.

Get good grades, get into a great school, get a job and ride your career into the sunset.

-Every Asian Parent

Now for the most part, I still believe these principles hold true.

My grades in high school allowed me to get into Stanford which allowed me to get a great job designing microprocessors where I worked for 17 years before I quit.

In hindsight, I could very easily have stayed at my day job for another 17 years and lived a cushy corporate lifestyle.

Would I have been happy? Probably.

Would I have the freedom that I have today? No way.

In fact, the freedom piece is the missing ingredient from the prototypical Asian success equation. And it’s something that I didn’t realize until I had my own kids.

Here’s the thing.

My parents did a great job of raising my brother and I and supported us no matter what profession we decided to pursue (as long as it was a doctor, lawyer or engineer:))

Editor’s Note: My brother and I are typical cookie cutter Asian kids. My brother went to Harvard and Harvard Law and is now a practicing lawyer. I got a BS and MS in electrical engineering from Stanford. We both played piano and a varsity sport in high school. We were on the math team etc…

But growing up, I didn’t see them as often as I would have liked. And I was actually closer to my Grandma who took care of me during the day while my parents were at their day jobs.

My Mom worked from 9-7pm M-F and often spent time in the lab on weekends. Likewise, my Dad was gone from 9-6pm M-F and worked a good number of weekends too.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the opportunities that my parents opened up for me.

But for my kids, I wanted to provide the same level of support that my parents gave me WITHOUT sacrificing quality family time.

Editor’s Note: In order to afford my Stanford education while my brother was in Harvard Law School, my Dad came out of retirement and went back to work full time. I did not realize why he took another job until well after I graduated. Thank you Dad. I appreciate it!

Anyway, I told myself that I would never choose money or work at the expense of getting to know my own children.

Entrepreneurship was my solution.

Today my wife and I have the flexibility to be present with our family without worrying about financial constraints. We are not rich but we are not poor either.

My only regret? I wish I started my businesses sooner.

And I honestly believe that being raised as a straight A machine held me back.

Anyway, the purpose of today’s post is to reflect on specific examples and experiences where getting good grades had a negative impact on my entrepreneurial spirit.

chouminator

Grades Prevent You From Thinking Outside The Box

Right now, you are probably wondering where I’m going with this post. After all, how can getting an ‘A’ possibly hinder you in business?

It’s not about the grade itself, but the mindset of getting the ‘A’ that kills you.

First off, the quest for the ‘A’ grade often requires you to follow directions and complete assignments in a way that the teacher or professor expects.

I once took a software programming class in college where one of the final projects was to design a blackjack game using object oriented principles.

Now this assignment was actually a great exercise and fun to code but there were many problems with the way the project was presented to the students.

Instead of providing high level objectives and letting the students run with it, the teacher gave us pre-written skeleton code which made the assignment essentially brain dead.

All you had to do was fill in the blanks where the guts of the functions 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 my finished product was way beyond the scope of the assignment.

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

The professor explained to me that while my program worked just fine and fulfilled 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 complete the assignment the same way as everyone else.

What could I do? I didn’t want a bad grade so I grudgingly completed the program by just filling in the predesignated functions.

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 coding the way I wanted to code and restrained my creativity.

Grades Force You To Conform To Someone Else’s Style

mime

Getting good grades also requires you to conform to your professor’s way of thinking. This is especially true for classes that are fuzzy and 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 the 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. This resulted in a B-.

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 terminology that the professor used in describing the paintings.

I used verbiage 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 imitate someone else to do well.

Grades Teach You To Plug And Chug

formula

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 many classes don’t emphasize the applications, 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 for what the equations are used for, you often end up plugging and chugging to get the answer.

Now why would your use your brain 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?

Solving problems based on formulas is problematic because it trains you to see the world in terms of right and wrong answers. It makes you less likely to take action unless you have all of the information.

Grades Force You To Compete Rather Than Collaborate

I remember being shocked when I discovered that my college classes were all 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 and I carried this frame of mind into business for the longest time.

Grades And Entrepreneurship

When I look back at my high school and college career, I fully understand the need to assign grades to students.

But the skills required to get straight A’s in school are not conducive to success in less structured environments like the business world where there is no set path.

Now I’m not an expert in education.

But what I can say is that thinking outside the box, non-conformity and collaboration are the pillars of entrepreneurship.

There is no magic formula for success. And in order to succeed, you have to stand out from the pack and make up your own rules.

Here’s the irony of my life…

I spent 16 years following a rigid set of guidelines, trying to please everyone and fit in with my peers when the complete opposite is what made me successful in business.

When I graduated from college, grades were the only thing that I was good at. I was great at following rules and not making them which made me second guess myself a lot.

Am I doing this the right way? How are other people doing it? Am I even qualified to do this?

For example when I first started writing for MyWifeQuitHerJob.com, I tried to blend in with other blogs in my niche. I avoided controversy at all costs and I mimicked other popular authors.

I was afraid of upsetting anyone with my writing and I copied other people because I was searching for rules to follow and role models to imitate.

It took me several years, but I eventually learned to trust my own voice, worry less about rejection, and that’s when my blog started really taking off.

Anyway, here’s my dilemma with my own kids.

On one hand, I want my kids to get good grades in order to develop a great work ethic. But on the other hand, I don’t want them turning into mindless grade grubbing robots that can’t think outside of the box.

I also don’t want them to fear rejection like I did for many years and it’s a delicate balance that I’m still trying to figure out. What are your thoughts?

photo credit: Arman Dz

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33 thoughts on “Why Good Grades Often Lead To Failed Businesses”

  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!
    -HIB

  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!

    @Evan
    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.

    Cheers~

    Mark

  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!

  16. Alex says:

    From a teacher’s perspective I totally agree with the fact that in schools creativity has been restrained. There’s even a TED talk about it. When you are a teacher you can tell which parents spend time with their kids and which don’t. Those students are the ones that can easily think outside the box when pushed. The other students are capable, but since they haven’t been taught how to do it at home, it requires more time to teach them this skill, and you may not know this but teachers are being pushed to cram information into their students to get them to pass a test. As bad as it sounds, the education system itself, test based, it’s setup for failure. Like the article said, the students that are well taught at home can easily grab a formula, plugin the numbers and apply it to a higher thinking level. If the other students can barely memorize the formula, then how are they going to plug in the numbers, how are they going to apply it on a higher thinking level.

  17. Ben says:

    Wow. This really resonated with me on many different levels. Though I am not Asian, and my parents never really pressured me to get A’s all the time, Some of those same tendencies are still in me and I have to fight against them.

    I regularly find myself in a “Ready” – “Aim” – “Ready” – “Aim” – “Ready” – “Aim” cycle, and never “Firing” because I don’t feel I know enough or have the experience to succeed, but you can’t get those things without “Firing” and experiencing the problems and failure and overcoming them.

    I’m on my journey and articles like this give me a bump in the right direction that I need. Thank you.

  18. Such a great post, thank you for sharing! I am currently pursuing my MBA and have the same struggle. In order to get an A, I must satisfy my instructors precise instruction and preference and nothing more. It is definitely a bit drone-like and I am looking forward to no longer having to do that the rest of my life! It is unfortunate that higher education can’t be used to create creative thinkers and problem solvers, encouraging the kind of behavior that leads to success instead of conformity.

  19. Ian says:

    Hi Steve,
    I think a lot of parents are really risk averse when it comes to their children’s futures, and focusing on grades and doing homework and hitting milestones is the best course to be in charge of your future in a safe, community approved way.

    My parents didn’t go to university, so they didn’t see the value in taking humanities classes that taught me to write, research and think critically. When I stumbled in college, they wanted my to go to trade school, ie — being a plumber or an electrician was seen as a safe, dependable choice.

    On the other hand, I have an uncle who made a fabulous career as an entrepreneur (seriously, probably a nine figure net worth), but his kids are just set up in the family business, in safe roles where there is not really room for failure or experimentation.

    So, from an entrepreneurial POV, parents just f–k you up?

  20. It’s been a long time since I actually cared about getting an A in any class I’ve taken. I’m currently enrolled in two MBA classes, organizational management and statistics, and I just want to pass. I’ve always been more concerned with the big picture but at the expense of maintaining a good GPA.

    I’ve realized more and more that the classes and degrees I’ve chosen aren’t aligned with the path I want to go in life.

    Awesome post! I’m at a transitional point in my life and it’s inspired me to focus on what’s important to me.

  21. As someone currently in business school, this mentality of grades is rampant among my classmates – even when it is very well known by everyone that business school grades are mostly irrelevant. I think this mentality is mostly personality driven, and as a result, many of my classmates will make great corporate employees. Fortunately I’ve always been a B student and have chosen to focus on thing that matter more. Let my classmates fight for the allotted A’s in the class, see if I care! :)

  22. Hello says:

    Great article! Laughed at the Asian things that resonated so well. I think the comments below the article misses the big point: school conditions you for a job, which sets you up for lack freedom, especially time freedom. The way I think of it is, my parents taught me the best they knew, but not what was available. I believe Asian parents ( in particular) tell their kids to get good grades, get into a good school, and get a good job out of financial fear. They were brought up in the same system that teaches them to override their own passions, creativity, and inclinations.

  23. I feel that you are so right, but I want to add even more. I feel that people that get good grades are usually smart, intelligent, very deep thinking, conscientious, not impulsive people. And all those things contribute to people not wanting to start a business. I know that’s what kept me back. I always thought about all the steps necessary to take, including 20 steps ahead, knew all the risks, and didn’t want to upset the balance in life. Since I felt I had good standing why would I want to risk that for being a possible failure? I saw many people, that weren’t too smart, didn’t think too much, just jump into businesses, and some succeeded. Sometimes being smart is a hinderance in life. You need to be adventurous, jump in headfirst and not second guess yourself. The key here being a risk taker. We need to teach our kids I guess, to be willing to take risks.

  24. Paul says:

    Some of what you mentioned in this article I have recently read in The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg. I highly recommend the book if you haven’t read it already.
    Another problem is that good students often only learn to work with what is handed to them, instead of searching for something to solve. It’s that desire to find a market in need of a product or service that doesn’t quite exist yet, that is at odds with how academics approaches problems. Academics says, “Here’s your textbook and lectures. Show up and turn your assignments.” Being an entrepreneur is very rarely like that at all.

  25. Great post and I agree with every word you published. I am trying to raise my kids to live their truth. They are way too stressed out by school and themselves are realizing the difference between school and education.

  26. I agree with you on the Asian thinking regarding education and it’s so hard to rub it off! I realize that my apprehension in getting into the online business is exactly because it’s not like getting grades in school… there are no set rules to follow and it scares me. Thanks for making me rethink and reflect. :)

  27. I’m curious if you think that the routine and habit of your upbringing are perhaps underrated? I’ve almost always found that people who develop habits earlier are the ones who apply themselves to whatever it is – work, sports, businesses – and generally speaking experience success. Perhaps it is not so much about what you do, but how you do it?

    As for your question – I think that we are all afraid of rejection. It is natural, but needed! If you aren’t doing things that are outside your comfort zone it is highly unlikely that you are going to succeed to the degree that you want. Comfort leads to mediocrity in many circumstances. Thanks for the thought provoking read!

  28. Having nightmares about this stuff isn’t uncommon. In fact, I think it’s a pretty standard side effect 😀

    I’ve also been raised to aim for the highest of grades, no matter what. And while I believe learning as much as possible is a good thing, I couldn’t agree more with your idea that good grades mean you’re basically agreeing with someone else, instead of analyzing things by yourself.

    With that being said, I believe children should definitely be encouraged to study hard! Just not for the grades, for themselves.

    School-age is the perfect time to ‘absorb’ as much info as possible on many, many subjects. And I think it’s only by learning about different things that you will eventually discover a passion for something and pursue it later on (in college or by opening up a business or whatever).

  29. What a refreshing read Steven!

    Growing up Asian, I’ve been through the same process. Up until the age of 20 actually, I never even considered starting a business! I was so caught up with the idea of being a scholar and scientist that I thought that businesses were evil.

    Luckily, reading a few books help me build a more constructive view towards making money.

    I really do appreciate the sacrifices my parents have made to give me an education, but like you said, having the mindset of a straight A student is definitely a stumbling block when it comes to entrepreneurship!

  30. This is a motivating post. The reason I am now an entrepreneur is because school completely failed me for the exact reasons described in this post. I was in medical school, and the robotic nature of it mind-boggled me. Challenging teachers was met with resistance, rather than open-mindedness. People who graduates are only good at thinking in the box, repeating things they have memorized, and doing things in a predictable way. The art is lost. Thank you for your post.

  31. Education is an asset for every individual but grades matter during exams. Life has no grades but success is rated primarily by what you achieve. Our society and more so our colleges train students to pass exams and the major reason is that the lecturer are lazy enough to venture into entrepreneurship.

    How can you expect lazy mind to teach you how to make money with themselves having debts to pay due to their laziness and cant make enough money to free themselves to financial slavery? In other words the comfort zone kills innovation and laxity paralyses self motivation. Good day anyway

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