A For Effort

candido-portinari-coffee-worker19391Once, way back when I was a working man, I had a conversation with my boss about an issue with  the operation I was managing. I can’t remember whether it was about our receiving operation, i.e. getting stock into inventory so that our call centers could sell the stuff, or whether it was about our shipping operation, i.e., getting the orders out of the distribution center and into our customers’ hands as quickly as possible. Either way, in the process of defending our operation and my management of same, I made the mistake of saying that we/I had worked our tails off to get the issue resolved to my boss’s satisfaction (and his boss, and his boss, and so forth up the food chain); but there were still problems. I will never forget his response: “We pay you for results, not effort”.

The unsaid message was, of course, that a failure by me to produce results will inevitably result in my boss’s decision not to pay me.

It’s a hard world out there in the work-universe, and by all accounts it’s getting harder by the day.

Thus, it is interesting to see this article come across my google reader this morning, via Maggie’s Farm. Their post reminds us of a possibly archaic use of the term “Give an A for effort” that implied sarcasm. Yes, I do remember that usage……

Regardless, the NYT article discusses the expectations of students in college regarding grades and effort. It makes for interesting reading. Snippets:

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”…

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “…

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”…


At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

Poor Student Greenwood. Obviously he has not yet encountered the perils of working for pay, else he would not let slip some foolish words. But, to answer his question, there is something else beyond effort. It’s called results, proficiency, mastery of the subject, the ability to excel in a job. Not everyone gets an A in life or work because they worked hard.

I know first hand.

UPDATE: Q and O, as usual, states the issue more clearly….

UPDATE #2: Michelle Cottle, writing for The New Republic, is a bit harsher on the kids…..

No, Jason. What would be wrong is if a university trained its students to believe that they were excellent simply for getting up off their futons and doing what was expected of them. Did the reading? Attended class? Stayed up late working on a paper? Good for you, puppy! Sure, you did a craptastic job on that paper–not to mention the final–suggesting that you have no more than a fourth-grader’s grasp of the material. But what the hell!? You worked hard. You showed up–even when you had that reallllly bad hangover. You may not have learned much, but you sure did try. Have a nice fat A. And here’s hoping it comes in handy when your first employer fires you for not being able to tell your ass from your elbow when it comes to doing your job.

Sweet Jesus, where did such dizzying nonsense come from? Sure, it’s easy to blame today’s youth for being whiny, spoiled, and entitled. But the kids had to get these delusional ideas from somewhere. I suspect at least part of the blame lies with all those well-intentioned self-esteem-boosting messages that anxious parents, educators, and coaches feel compelled to spout in this era of making every child feel like a winner all the time. You know, the cheery, you-can-do-it mantras along the lines of, “All that matters is that you tried,” “The only way to fail is not to try at all.”

Um. No. While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we’re trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail–much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere. (As could the rest of us: Not to state the obvious, but I don’t want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.) Go ahead: Aim for the stars. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you’re not so hot at it, don’t whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren’t properly appreciated in the real world.

There’s The Dip and there’s self delusion. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate.

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5 thoughts on “A For Effort

  1. Pam

    I always think about this with respect to my graduate students – it’s a different scenario, but sometimes I have a student that works long hard hours in the lab – a smart student, focused on an interesting question – who comes up empty. Then there will be a student who is more of a 9-5’er who is just for effective – I used to think this was mostly related to the project (and question) the student was focused on – but there’s something remarkable about genuine effectiveness. I definitely feel for the student who has worked so hard on a problem, who shows that level of dedication – but now, years into this whole research lab mess, I hate that I often look for effectiveness as much or more than passion.

    Reply
  2. Agricola

    The thing is, passion is easy to see and to appreciate. We like passion for the job. Effectiveness is an ephemeral quality that often lies hidden until needed. It may be, too, that effective people do not present as passionately as their less gifted compatriots.

    Reply
  3. Pam

    Perhaps. But I’ve also noticed that passion is what keeps them in a specific field of study (and still in research) – my more effective students have always been the ones less attached to a particular field of study or career direction. So while I’ve considered it a good thing, I’ve also thought that it was a fundamental character trait – so, in other words, they would be effective at whatever they did – but that it didn’t mean they would be driven enough or patient enough or, yes, passionate enough – to dedicate themselves…to whatever. It’s like the student that gets straight A’s that can memorize things well, even things they don’t care about – for graduate school and research, it’s not always those students that do the best.

    Am I making just a little sense here?

    Reply
  4. Agricola

    Yep, plenty of sense. It’s like they have things figured out before anyone/everyone else, and know how to get things done. Not always the best student, or best worker, but deadly when motivated.

    Reply
  5. Becky

    I couldn’t agree with you more! There are a whole lot of things I think we are inadvertently teaching people in college and the idea of effort being good enough because they can get good grades just for trying is one of them. good post!

    Reply

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