I graduated college with a 3.97 GPA. I was also valedictorian of my high school.
The only classes I ever got below a perfect score in were a middle school gym class (yes, seriously) and a summer school accounting class (I will never forget that TA’s face). I say this not to brag, but to set the stage and illustrate that to say I lived my life by a grading scale would almost be an understatement. It was everything and all that I knew.
For more than half my life, grades were what mattered. Being the best according to that scale. Setting the curve – a straight-A student’s dream. Forget the fact that friendships and fun were things that people had in their lives, I had textbooks and notes upon notes upon notes.
And I clung to said textbooks and notes for years. I kept and moved boxes full of them for years after I graduated college, like some twisted and sad badge of honor. Like these were the things that could prove that I measured up. This was the proof that I knew the answers. These boxes contained the evidence that I was a Grade A Human.
It was a difficult process to let that go. Literally, I felt a physical reaction when I tossed those notebooks into the dumpster. (Pretty sure my husband’s physical reaction was a fist pump in the air to finally not have to move that stuff one more time.) And figuratively, it was transformative for me to release that identify.
Who am I if not The Girl Who Gets Good Grades?
I mean, I’m a lot of other things. They were just hidden beneath my one-track, blinded effort to be at the top of my class. But equally as important as my subsequent journey through my adult identity, was the discovery that this is a learned behavior that we often find other ways to apply and express in our lives beyond formal education, which ends up causing a lot of pain. I’ll explain.
I see it often in the fitness world. Think of something like CrossFit or Orange Theory. You’re always stacking up and grading against not only an arbitrary target scale, but other people. And even in training on your own, there’s an unspoken pressure to want to be able to achieve a certain target lift. In individual sports like endurance running, there are tacit gauges that imply being a good, bad, or mediocre student of the sport. If you don’t measure up, you may as well quit.
In the business world, working up the ladder is a pretty clear grading scale. Making more money is another. You’re definitely looked at with a furrowed brow if you’re happy somewhere in the middle, without constantly pushing for advancement along the scale. Early retirement is like the A+ of career success.
We even have implied grading scales for our personal lives.
Think of conventional standards for good grades in life: getting married, owning a home, having kids, showing up a certain way in each of those things. Don’t meet those milestones, especially by a certain age, in the expected way, and you fail.
It’s really easy to go down that road. We like stuff to stack up against. It feels familiar. We like tangible answers and results. We like grading scales, or at least some indication of what pass/fail looks like. Somehow, it feels better to test ourselves against whatever external scale, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the track we’re on.
Spoiler alert: it’s no wonder, then, that it feels so freaking hard when we don’t feel like we’re getting good grades. This stuff is so ingrained in how we operate, it leaves us feeling like failures, even when that’s quite obviously not the case.
But if you work from the place of someone else’s standard grading scale, what can you expect?
I was recently reminded of this tendency when a client of mine recently expressed her challenges with this. My red flag shot up, and I excitedly rubbed my hands together for the opportunity to have this conversation. In one of her self-reflection worksheets around purpose, she responded:
“I want to feel like I’m a good mother, wife, employee, co-worker. I want the blue ribbon. I want the “A” in these areas, but the grading scale is just so much more difficult to define at this stage in my life/career!”
I could just feel her hurt and frustration! With the fixed mindset that there even is a grading scale for being a “good” wife, mother, employee, and co-worker – not to mention that she wants to conform to it – no wonder she feels a little lost.
Interestingly, this very same client is struggling a bit with discovering and owning her purpose. She has clearly identified that something that feeds her and makes her feel great and fulfilled is encouraging even one moment of laughter, happiness, or joy in others. So I challenged her on how all of this fits together during a coaching call.
First of all, she immediately admitted that the reflection itself was difficult because she typically looks for an outside opinion – AKA a grading scale to stack herself up against. Then, as I asked further questions about why that joy, that lightheartedness can’t count as purpose, success, a positive outcome in itself – finally, I saw her lightbulb come on, just as mine had years ago.
This is a woman who was always, always seeking out the things she could grade. In personal and professional life, those were the things that made sense, and therefore, mattered. Promotions, awards, appropriate life milestones. Achievement was important, and you achieve things by right answers, according to that established life grading scale. If you fail to excel there, you’re failing at life. And joy and lightheartedness in your personal and professional relationships are not on the grading scale. It’s secondary, not something to be valued, because it can’t be conventionally measured.
But you know what? Of course, there can be a scale for joy and lightheartedness. You get to make it up. Perhaps it’s smiling at someone on the train and getting a smile back. Or getting your kid to laugh at one of your cheesy jokes. Or dancing in the gym, even when people are watching.
There are a million intangible things in life that are more valuable and worthy achievements than any A+ on a standardized scale.
Or, you can live with no scale at all. You can drop out completely. I know that might seem completely mind-blowing, but it’s true. In the end, living by any kind of a good/bad, pass/fail scale is a recipe for disappointment – especially if you’re not the one in control of the scale.
The true shift here is that there is no grading scale. And life is not pass/fail.
It’s more like an independent study. And to get the most out of your experience, you have to design it, create it for yourself, according to your values and what matters to you. Visualize what it’s going to look like, what you’ll do, what projects you’ll take on, what you want to explore, where you want to end up, who you want to help you, and who you want to be there with you in the end. Sure, there can be outcomes, but you get to decide what they are and what makes them valuable, and the biggest benefit of the independent study of life is the study process itself.
As a reformed Grade A Student who occasionally still struggles to release that narrative (#therapy), trust me when I say the grading scale isn’t all there is. And who you are in relation to any of the perceived grading scales of life or career is not all that you are. It might take a while to process that and figure out where you stand on your own, or to create your track. But it’s a hell of a lot more constructive and enjoyable work than staying in on a Friday night reading the assigned chapters while everyone else is out living.
It’s your life. You get to be the teacher and the student. Hell, you’re the principal and the dean. Screw it, you’re also a dropout, and that might just lead you down the best possible path you could ever imagine, or never did. (I know that’s the plot twist in my life I never expected to love so much!)
Listen, remember how you felt in school when you ended up in the middle? Or when you didn’t get a passing grade? When you were generally disappointed by whatever letter showed up in red ink on your paper? Why on earth would you continue to subscribe to that system when it no longer applies? Why seek out a scale that will ultimately end in some kind of heartache?
You don’t get gold stars for living your life. But you also don’t get held back a grade for the times when things don’t go so well. There are no do-overs or re-tests, but there are also no exams. And if you’re constantly living by an arbitrary scale, you’re bound to feel like a failure at some point, at some thing.
So take the scale out of the picture. Throw away those old projects and papers. Step outside of those boxes. You don’t need to lug them around anymore.
If you ever need help dumping those boxes, you know where to find me. Schedule a call below and let’s talk it out.