Rationalizing Performance- Putting the Blinders On

The professor’s voice faded as I sunk deeper into my own thoughts. Internal distraction, I’ve heard this called. I was struggling to rationalize my academic performance last semester, which dipped slightly below the acceptable standard. This is new territory for me that brings with it unfamiliar emotions. I’ve always been a high performer, at or near the peak of any group or endeavor of which I was a part. It’s important for me to be at the top. Yet, although I did not expect to be at the top of my MBA class, I also did not expect to be at the bottom. My peer group is chock full of exceptionally bright engineers, bankers, policy analysts, even a geologist! They are, without exception, hard chargers and successful in their companies. Of course, their quantitative analysis skills far, far exceed what my qualitative mind can offer (which is a significant advantage in business school). I was still reeling from my position at the rear of the pack.

As the professor evaluated the operations strategy of a major athletic shoe company in a voice that seemed muffled and far away, I was deep inside my own mind trying to rationalize my academic performance. I even crafted a visual model to help me understand the dynamics of the MBA curriculum.

Now I was getting somewhere! I was beginning to understand that academic performance is measured by Grade Point Average in individual classes, but our ability to forge these disparate skills together in the form of effective management was not being evaluated and measured. So, with that logic, the system was against me! My strength was my ability to forge all of these functions together and provide the leadership necessary to make use of them! The game favored everyone else, bright young individual contributors who could skillfully succeed in each core class but may not be prepared to put all of the pieces together to perform actual management.

I took my rough sketch and showed it to my classmate, friend, and fellow Green Beret, John. I was looking for validation, someone else to agree with this incredible model I had dreamed up to justify my academic shortcoming and allow me to feel better. After walking him through my logic, John took several uncomfortable seconds to silently inspect my sketch. Without removing his eyes from the crackled white printer paper, John said “You know Joe, there may be some truth here, but I am focused on what John wants out of this MBA experience.” Then shifting his gaze up to meet my eyes, “I’m focused on what John wants.”

Insight bomb.

John wasn’t using GPA as a measure of success. Sure, there are standards to meet and that is non-negotiable. But being at the top of the class in terms of GPA was not what John needed to feel successful. Alternatively, simply having the highest GPA would not provide John with the experience he desired. John was looking beyond grades to the deeper intangible benefits of an education…such as actually learning shit and being able to apply it. More importantly, John wasn’t attempting to rationalize his performance relative to the rest of the class. He recognized that it doesn’t matter. Education is an individual endeavor that impacts us in different ways.

Wow. My ego was driving my thoughts. I was so consumed by my perceived performance relative to everyone else, measured in a way that was not important to me. In the reflection that followed, it was easy to see that my MBA experience was actually far exceeding my expectations and absolutely providing me with the knowledge, awareness, and relationships to fuel professional success. My GPA, although certainly a factor worth paying attention to because it still measures some aspect of my experience, was far from the most important thing. It clearly wasn’t the end goal that I should be fixated on. In doing so (as my shitty model demonstrates), I was grossly over simplifying the situation and marginalizing my classmate’s abilities. The risk of carrying this narrow view was compromising these relationships and resisting the greatest gifts that the education experience can provide.

Lessons Learned:

  • What is my true goal? How do I know if I’ve achieved it? Stay focused on THAT goal.
  • Don’t blindly apply everyone else’s measure of success. If it doesn’t apply to my goal, find a measurement that does.
  • Competition isn’t always “me vs. them.” Competition is frequently inward. Don’t marginalize everyone else and pit them against me just to make myself feel better emotionally.
  • Consult others often. They view the problem differently and can quickly identify flaws or twists in my logic and unlock new ways of thinking.
  • Ego is the enemy. Beware of its ability and propensity to cloud my judgement.

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