Who Decides Whats Good Enough For You

A new book raises a disturbing finding, a third of students at 24 universities did not improve their critical thinking or writing skills after four years. How can this be?

The article goes on to talk about the culture of teacher evaluations and how the incentive is on teachers’ to entertain students, grade easily, and reap the rewards of positive reviews. There are other issues as well, but all of them have to do with expectations being lowered instead of heightened over time.

Schools, particularly universities, aren’t expecting enough of students. I only have to look back at my own college career to find no fault with that statement. However, I think there is much more to the problem than a lack of academic rigor.

The real problem is that students use the external measurements of success provided by the school as their only goal. Good grades are generally the goal and a serious student will adjust his or her effort to match the requirement for that good grade. Very rarely do students go above and beyond what they know will get them an A. I know this on several different levels. One, as a teacher I have seen this over and over. And two, I was a student who did exactly that.


Any time we allow a societal construct to set the standard of our personal success we are setting ourselves up for failure, especially in a school setting. Working hard to get an A because you value that A is not the same thing as working hard because you have the intrinsic motivation to do the very best that you possibly can. When I was in high school I was the king at doing exactly what the teachers wanted in order to get good grades. I thought my number one goal in school was to get good grades, and that was it. In my mind, if I got that 4.0 GPA then I was obviously doing everything I needed to do and I would be set for the rest of my life. What college wouldn’t want me? What employer wouldn’t want to hire me?

It’s only in the past couple years that I’ve been able to divorce myself of the idea that meeting societal standards of success is the same thing as meeting my standards of success. My standard of success should be far and away above what is required to get an A. Or make gobs of money. Or become influential and famous. My idea of success comes from the intrinsic motivation to work on things that intrigue me, that have a greater benefit to the world, and cause me to grow as a person.

The problem with our schools isn’t a lack of academic rigor (although it’s true). The problem is that most schools and workplaces are really, really bad at helping people uncover their intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, doing something because you care about it a lot, is the driving force behind anything that has ever been done well. Not because somebody was going to get an A. Or a pat on the back from a boss. Doing something because you care about it enough to work your ass off even when you’re tired and nobody else seems to care is the core of intrinsic motivation.


The most successful schools and workplaces of the future are going to be places where students and employees have the tools to chase their intrinsic motivation. Harnessing that power into productive output is what the best CEOs and managers do. Finding people whose intrinsic motivation aligns with the interest of the company is what good recruiters should be doing.

I’m really, really, tired of seeing people doing things looking for the pat on the head and excellent report card/review/evaluation. Even more, I’m really, really tired of meeting the minimum societal standards for excellence. I’ll decide what excellent is and you can bet your ass it’s worlds above where society thinks I need to be.

What could be better than people doing the things they love because the feeling they get at the end of the day is worth more than the paycheck/gold star/high five they get in return?