Yesterday was my graduation. As I gaze nervously towards the future, I also look back on what it is I spent the past half a decade doing. From a very young age I was told to chase excellence, and if I achieved that success would coming running after me. Over the years I’ve heard this refrain many times in different ways; “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. In the context of university, when we talk about excellence we primarily mean grades. And why shouldn’t it be that way? First class Honors are based on grades, your employers will be hiring you based on your grades, and even your peers will judge you on the grades you get. They are, to many, the single source of truth regarding the quality of the time you spent at university. However, as any reasonably astute teenager (perhaps one that isn’t doing particularly well on their test averages) will tell you, grades a poor proxy for learning. It’s why cramming works, why doing past papers is the most important form of revision, and why the highest achievers tend to be the same people asking “Will this be on the test, Professor?”. Is that means to be excellent? Hacking tests?
I knew this when I was a decade younger, so how did it change my attitude towards learning? I like to think that I chased understanding over grades. For the courses I enjoyed (which was most of them, I am lucky to have gone to a great school studying what I love) I followed my curiosity down paths I knew would not be on the test. I learned things for no other reason than I enjoyed learning them. I was never afraid to ask questions, and I engaged earnestly in both class and tutorials. I never questioned the grades I received because they never really mattered to me. Don’t get me wrong, a bad grade would make me upset, and a good grade would make me feel proud, but I tried to focus my energy on the outcome of learning, not grades.
Could I have done better? Surely. Was I chasing excellence? Well, I’d like to think so. When we talk about excellence we seem to take for granted that there is an objective scale by which we can measure how well someone has performed. I certainly could have gotten higher grades if I focused precisely on what the exams would question, rigoursly assessing the marks per question, style of the examiner and likely questions. But would I have come away learning more? I don’t see how.
And now that my time at university is over, I worry about my learning muscles atrophying. There’s just so much to learn. I like to say I’m brave enough to learn it all and dumb enough to believe I can. So I look to services that podcasts and YouTube channels endlessly advertise towards me; Brilliant, The Great Courses Plus, Audible. I scour textbooks that I can digest slowly but surely. Self paced MOOCs. To continue to chase excellence. And yet I worry that something of value is still missing.