How I recovered from being a straight-A student

Recovering from being a straigh-A student

I have a confession to make: from elementary through high school, I was a straight A student. If you asked anyone to describe me during those years they probably would have said 'quiet' and 'smart'. For a long time, that was how I saw myself as well, with my identity being completely shaped by my ability to get the right answers.

I had high standards and more than a touch of perfectionism. My poor parents would stay up with me the night before an assignment was due as I cried that it wasn't good enough (though it was miles ahead of what most other kids were doing.)

I got really good at figuring out what teachers wanted and doing exactly that. I excelled at multiple choice tests to the point where I found them fun. On the other hand, tests that involved creating something on the spot—for example, using a prompt to write a story—would reduce me to tears.

I relaxed a tiny bit in university once I realized that it didn't really matter what was on my transcript since I wasn't interested in grad school (and once I learned that my acting teachers wouldn't give me anything better than a B+ not matter how hard I tried) but I still stuck to the program. Pay attention in class, do your homework, follow instructions.

After university, my job at a chocolate store turned into a management position and I went with it because I didn't know what else to do. At that time I couldn't imagine being my own boss, couldn't imagine living without instructions or a formula. I knew that I was stuck inside a box, but I had no idea how to get out because no one had ever taught me and I had never tried to learn. I was extremely shy and the only way that I knew how to distinguish myself, how to be seen by others, was to get good grades. Without that, what was I?

Suddenly, there were no rules to follow, no teacher to give me instructions, no grades to tell me whether I was on the right track.

In a lot of ways, schools do this to people.

Ken Robinson, in one of the most viewed Ted Talks ever, said: "We are educating people out of their creative capacities... I believe this passionately, that we don't grow in creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out it.

If you were to visit education, as an alien,and say “What’s it for, public education?”I think you’d have to conclude, if you look at the output,who really succeeds by this,who does everything that they should,who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners —I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?

There’s something curious about professors in my experience —not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads.They live up there, and slightly to one side.They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way.They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.It’s a way of getting their head to meetings." 

I can't put all the blame on schools, of course. Neither my teachers nor my parents pushed me the way I pushed myself. It wasn't the education system that made me define my identity so narrowly. But I can blame my schooling for not showing me that there was any other way. The only rewards that I knew of came from check marks and the shiny red A at the top of my paper. So that's what I desired, what I worked for, what I thought would get me ahead in life. I didn't see a reason to strive after anything else.

I was disembodied. I was (and still am in a lot of ways) completely stuck in my head. I often beat myself up for not getting started on this path of creativity and entrepreneurship sooner, but I feel better when I think about how much I had to unlearn.

How could I cure myself of the need to follow instructions once the instructions stopped coming?

For a long time I didn't think I was capable of:

  • creating my own opportunities
  • experimenting, trying different things
  • talking to people, networking, collaborating
  • finding intrinsic motivation to create

Of course, in the last five years, I've learned that I AM capable of stepping outside the box that I built around myself (though I still doubt it frequently). I learned that the hard work I did in school laid the groundwork for the hard work that I have to do now. I've learned how to let go of perfectionism and create my own rules. And I'm absolutely still learning.

Here are some things that have helped and are still helping me rework my identity and live without a textbook:

I travelled and followed my heart: I spent 10 months basing my decisions entirely on what seemed fun or interesting and saying yes to everything, whereas before I had been much more of a no person. I learned that I can step off the beaten trail and make dreams come true.

I got started: I still don't really know what I'm doing, but I'm plugging away, day after day, trying to figure it out. It has become clear to me that the only way to learn is to first do—not the other way around. I need to take a step before I can see where that step will take me, and where the next step might fall.

I learned to accept mistakes and failures: In school, failing is a bad thing. The goal is to get all the answers right so that you can proceed. In life, failing is both inevitable and essential. Now my biggest teachers are mistakes and failures and (on a good day at least) I'm excited about seeing where I went wrong and what I can do better.

I'm learning not to define myself by praise or criticism: When your entire identity is wrapped up in getting good grades, a bad grade means that you're failing as a person. And a good grade affirms that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. In life and in business, things aren't so cut and dried. I'm working on not letting my identity be defined entirely by my work or my relationships, or any one aspect of my life. I'm trying to learn (though it is so hard) that criticism does not define me, whether it's accurate or not. At the same time, I'm trying to remember that praise doesn't define me either. Basically, what other people have to say is not who I am.

I try to remember that life isn't linear and that there are no right answers: In school, you progress from year to year and the whole thing is very structured and linear. But in life, it doesn't work like that either. One success doesn't mean continued success and things can be up and down and all over the place within the space of a week, never mind a year. Despite what people will tell you, there is no step by step formula for having the life you want. It's all about trial and error and making it up as you go. This means that I have to define 'success' on my own terms, not on a predetermined formula. Also, there's much more of a grey area when it comes to making decisions and finding your path. In school, you're either a bad student or a good one. In life, you can be a little bit of everything all at once.

I'm working on trusting my intuition: A few weeks ago I wrote this post about how I'm trying to rely more on my intuition and less on rigid rationality and rules. There are no multiple choice tests coming my way anytime soon and I find myself having to invent both the questions and the answers.

I'm learning to work with others: When having the best grades was all I cared about, I hated group projects because there was always someone in the group that I perceived would pull me down. I didn't look at what different ideas they might have to offer, I just figured out how I could get a good mark despite having to work with other people. Even now I'm still trying to shake the mentality that what I do is all about me and that other people will mess things up. I'm working on playing nicely with others, focusing on what I can learn from other people and how their presence might enrich my experience.

What do you think? Did you learn to think independently in school, or did your learn somewhere else? How are you creating the life you want without any rules or instructions?