The ABC’s And Some Times D’s of Success

When I was in college my Dad told me this story. Now just because I site my source does not mean this story is not apocryphal. Apocryphal in this context means anonymous, legendary, and slightly mythical. So does that mean it is not true? Like all good stories this one bears enough truth to be worth retelling.

The real question is this, “Is the story true for you?”

Only you will know the answer to that.

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My father was the first child in his family, possibly his gene pool even, to get a college degree. Growing up in Detroit in the 60’s, my father attended the one school which would not only admit him, but pay for his tuition to become an engineer; General Motor’s Institute in Flint Michigan.

Now named Kettering University, GMI was founded in 1919 as the School of Automobile Trades. It was renamed to GMI in 1926. General Motors allegedly hired 80 to 90 percent of GMI’s graduates for decades. As my father relayed the story, it was this prolonged hiring from one institution that inspired someone at GMI to ask the question, “Was there any correlation between grades and performance on the job?”

In other words, did success at school predict career success? In the book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman conveyed that “success in education only predicted success in education”. There was very little correlation between grades and life. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discussed a similar study done by the University of Michigan Business School. The Michigan study revealed that selection criteria (high school results) did not predict B-School graduate life success. Most people took away from Outliers that you need 10,000 hours to master any skill, but I took away that the opportunity to achieve 10,000 hours of mastery is more important than the skill or the time spent getting it. If we use grades to determine who gets an opportunity to succeed, we might be missing some of our most valuable and talented people. What’s more, if you are disqualifying yourself from trying something hard because you don’t have the grades or the qualifications, you might doing yourself an enormous disservice.

Predicting human future performance is always tricky. The GMI situation however study was unique because so many people from the same school went into the same company and stayed there for so long. What’s more, they performed mostly the same job. That is an unusually high number of variables to remain constant for such a long period of time.

GMI also had one other unusual distinction, at least as far as modern day college graduates are concerned. GMI awarded degrees not only to A, B, and C students. It was also possible to receive a degree if you earned a D. That’s right, they gave degrees to people who were below average. Apparently, below average was still not failing, and therefore worthy of a degree.

It is hard to even conceive of such a thing today, and technically speaking they did not use letter grades. My father translated the old GMI point system into letter grades to make it more understandable for my sister and I. However, they definitely had four clear demarkations which could result in your earning a degree; A-Excellent, B- Above Average, C-Average, and D-Below Average.

So what did the study discover? Did grades accurately predict career success? The short answer was yes, but not the way most people would expect. Convention says the A students would be top executives, the B students would end up in middle management, and the C students would be in the rank and file, and the D’s, well surely they must be sweeping the floor or no longer employed right?

The actual results were somewhat surprising. The top performing group (by career success) did not come from the A students. The A’s were good employees, but did not prove to be exceptional in the work place. The C students proved average was average. No the top leaders came from the B’s and the D’s. What? How could that be? It seemed the A students excelled at applying proven solutions but could not seem to develop them while the B students tended to be the most socially active and therefore possessed valuable skills that were not easily captured by grades.

But what of those D’s? How could they be successful?

The answer comes from two ungraded traits they demonstrated. First, they were so creative they barely fit the constraints of a rigidly formed education. They were non-conformists. They chaffed at the rigors of school. But they did not flunk out thanks to trait number two. They were so stubborn they wouldn’t quit. Imagine someone intelligent, creative, and relentless. What kind of person barely gets by but refuses to quit? That kind of stubborn determination in the face of incredible odds proved to be exactly the ingredients GM needed to solve the kind of problems no one had ever solved before.

When you had a problem with no answer in the back of the book, you needed a problem solver who was creative, and unwilling to quit until they worked it out. Enter your ’D’s.

But is it true?

I never tried to find the study or any evidence of it, but in my own experience, the story rang true. Some of the most brilliant and successful people I have had the privilege of working with in the video game industry fit this template. Many had a GED, but never graduated from college. They are creative, intelligent, unconventional, and easily bored. But more than anything they were tenacious. They created technologies other people could barely comprehend. Perhaps most important of all they were not too proud to learn from anyone or anything. They were driven by their vision for what must be done, tirelessley committed to making it happen.

My father once told me that he got a C in high school, a B in college, and an A in life.

I would add, “the grade you give yourself is far more important than any grade handed to you by someone else”.

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