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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Long-term success doesn’t always start with A+ at school

The race to secure high marks, high-paying jobs and resulting competition can dilute the joy of learning. It may end up stifling the natural passion that develops through free exploration and in-depth study of specific topics

The past decade has seen inflation in marks secured by students in India’s board examinations. In 2020, over 38,000 students scored above 95% marks in the CBSE exams, a jump of over 100% over the previous year. This has led to some anxiety-inducing stories about sky-high cut-off marks for admission in top universities. The contagion of ever-increasing cut offs has inspired memes about the covid-19 vaccines’ effectiveness rate of over 95% not being good enough.

Business schools in India are no different—hiring practices at top business schools in India can be quite intense. For example, coveted consulting and banking firms utilize Excel-based shortlisting tools, which automatically rate the candidates on a range of criteria, from marks secured in school and college, ranking of undergraduate college, to ratings of extracurricular activities. The resulting benchmark for shortlists is pretty daunting . It is nearly impossible to gain a shortlist for anyone who has ever secured marks below 90% and has had a less than stellar column of extracurricular activities.

On top of this, the shortlisted candidates must go through back-to-back interviews with multiple firms on “day zero" and accept offers “on the spot". On the other hand, hiring from global business schools is a long-drawn process of conversations and interviews that affords both recruiters and candidates a better chance of finding their right fit. So how can people set themselves up for long-term success in the workplace, without getting sucked into this quagmire?

The joy of learning

The race to secure high marks, high-paying jobs and resulting competition can dilute the joy of learning. It may end up stifling the natural passion that develops through free exploration and in-depth study of specific topics. The long-term advantages of being the school topper, however, are not exceptional.

In the book, Barking Up The Wrong Tree, Eric Barker has highlighted a study that tracked school toppers for 14 years after graduation in the United States. The findings suggest that while the school toppers did reasonably well in their careers, none of them ended up becoming a standout success or leaders in any field in the outside world.

Mid to late-stage career is shaped by the ability of an individual to carve and apply their distinct personal advantage. Typically, those who are able to identify their strengths early and hone them on the right type of work profiles tend to do well. This applies both to jobs at large corporates and to starting a new company. Achieving exemplary success requires three things : building from a springboard of right credentials, identifying the intersection of strengths and passion and finding the right role models and mentors.

First, it is well established that building one’s credentials through degrees from well-known educational institutions is useful. Unless supported by a sizeable inheritance, we all want to reach a position of relative educational, financial and job security. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are notable exceptions. They have been immensely successful despite being college dropouts. However, a significant body of research has established that the conventional wisdom of getting a good college degree is indeed a good idea. For example, a research by Pew Social Trends suggests those who do not obtain college degrees end up earning half the median annual salary while suffering four times higher unemployment rate. Moreover, this same springboard effect can be achieved from other sources. Putting in stellar performances, achieving good referrals, rapidly upskilling, and fast-track promotions are all ways of opening doors for new and extraordinary opportunities.

Second, people who are able to find the right intersection of their strengths and passion are happier and more productive in their jobs. However, finding the right job that allow individuals to apply their strengths will require active exploration—a regular day-zero job secured at a business school may not make the cut. Once an individual sets their north star, being open to new experiences may seem risky but eventually aids the process of self-discovery.

Third, finding role models and seeking mentorship early can help people shape their careers. Finding the right role model helps an individual orient their aspirations and goals. Similarly, a right mentor is a critical catalyst in the journey of self-discovery, helping identify strengths and carving a distinct personal advantage.

Overall, a good blend of conventional wisdom and “being lost in the right direction" can help people discover their mojo in their work lives. An increasing share of graduating students are opting for unconventional careers. In addition, many in their middle age are exploring their passions when beginning their “second innings" after careful consideration. This is an early trend but holds promise.

While there is no magic bullet, finding our purpose in life and our mojo at work can be an enjoyable journey—one that doesn’t rely only on marksheets but builds on joyful life experiences.

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