Evaluate people at their best or their worst?

Here are three ways to evaluate a person’s performance.

  1. How good are they at their worst?
  2. How good are they on average?
  3. How good are they at their best?

Schools use the first two criteria, but the market uses the third.

Schools evaluate people at their worst

Teachers average grades to come up with semester grades, and semester grades feed into a grade point average. So in some sense schools evaluate average performance.

But in more subtle ways schools evaluate students by how good they are at their worst.¬†To graduate, your lowest course grade in all your required courses must be passing. Brilliant achievement¬†in one area cannot compensate for a failing grade in another area, so in that sense grades aren’t really averaged. Your creative writing grades are excellent, Mr. Shakespeare, but we cannot let you graduate until you pass physics.

How do you get on the honor roll? Your lowest grade has to be above a certain level. Again, what matters is how good you are at your worst.

How do you get to be valedictorian? Be good enough at every class to get an A. You have to be pretty good at everything, but you don’t have to be truly exceptional at anything.

Schools encourage perfectionism, not excellence. They encourage people to avoid mistakes, not to be creative.

Markets evaluate people at their best

Markets often evaluate people and products at their best.

If you write 100 obscure novels and one best-seller, you’re a best-selling author. If you consistently write moderately popular novels, you’re not. If you write one really good novel, you might get a Nobel prize. Imagine the Nobel committee evaluating a writer saying “Yeah, these two novels were brilliant, world-changing. But he also wrote this one novel that was mediocre. Let’s give the prize to someone whose books are consistently pretty good.”

The Ford F150 did poorly in focus groups. The average rating wasn’t good. But the people who liked it really liked it. And the F150 went on to be the most popular truck in history. All that matters in business is people who like your product enough to buy it. You don’t make any money by being everyone’s second choice.

If a company has one product that is a runaway success, the company is a success. If it has two or three runaway successes, even better. But a company can produce a few dismal failures (think Microsoft Bob or the Apple Newton) and still do quite well if their flagship products succeed.The same is true of the people behind these products. Someone can make a successful career with one big win even if they have a number of failures.

We all want others to see the best in us. There are ethical and economic reasons to look for the best in others. But years of education can incline us to look for the worst in others and in ourselves.

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10 thoughts on “Evaluate people at their best or their worst?

  1. Bill the Lizard

    Hmm…maybe if our schools truly wish to produce more innovators, they’ll start concentrating on more rewards for outstanding best performance. It seems like it isn’t until graduate school at the earliest that students get the kind of encouragement needed to be successful. I’m not saying that we should completely revolutionize our education system (I’m not not saying that either), but maybe we could add incentives for outstanding best performances. I’d love to see more essay contests, math tournaments, and science fairs at my child’s school. These are the sorts of things that get kids excited about learning because everyone has the same opportunity to win. You don’t have to be a straight-A student to excel in one area.

  2. I agree that you’re not evaluated at your best until grad school. And the odd thing is that you’re admitted to grad school by doing well by very different criteria than what it takes to succeed once you’re in.

    Instead of saying “grad school” I probably should say “a PhD program.” Masters programs have essentially the same evaluation criteria as undergraduate programs: required classes, exams, etc.

  3. Outside of MIT and Caltech, are there any colleges that “cannot let you graduate until you pass physics”??

  4. being constantly average or ‘good enough’ seems to be the criteria to survive on markets in the long term for the /vast majority/ of people. ‘the best’ isn’t required or not affordable.

  5. One of the problems with academia is that they grade on a curve most of the time. Minimums are adjusted, passing is adjusted, so that a C grade becomes the average grade by definition.

    Another failing of academia is that in order to move on to a higher level course, you need only pass the prerequisite. I am of the mindset that you should need far more than merely a passing grade.

    A third failing of academia is that the first week of every course is wasted reviewing the same material that was supposedly learned in the quarter/semester that just ended a week prior.

    I believe that if your transcript says you have taken and passed a class, then there is no reason to review it in this course. If you dont know the material already then you shouldnt have passed the previous class.

    And if its because you took that class long ago, that isnt an excuse. Its just as much the schools responsibility to assess your readiness to move forward as it is the students. Arrogance is what gets a lot of students to push forward further and faster than they can handle. If the student doesnt perceive themselves as genuinely prepared, then why not take a refresher course?

    I dont believe degrees should be given to those who pass their classes. But rather to those who have actually learned the subject material. Its too easy to get a degree these days… and too many get one to save face and look good for employment, having learned nothing. But thats not the image they give. And its all about superficial image.

    Back in the day, any high school drop out could succeed. A GED was better and a diploma was better yet. People were highly successful and innovative. Nowadays degrees are so prevalent and the standards so low that you cant even get anywhere with an Associates, but need at least a Bachelors. Its hurting the economy and the job market, I think.

    People arent interested in education. They are interested in buying, purchasing a degree from a for-profit institution selling them. Degrees are bought with tuition money, time-spent, and going through the bureaucratic motions stipulated by the school.

    I get so annoyed at my fellow classmates for holding up the classroom, for holding up lecture. They ask the teacher ridiculous questions about subject matter they should already know… because their transcripts say they should. I was enrolled in Multi-variate calculus and one day a student asked how to distribute a constant through a polynomial. No joke. “How the hell did you get into this class?”… I wanted to scrutinize and belittle so badly. This held the classroom up for at least ten minutes. Ten minutes of my tuition money, enrolled in an advanced calculus course, spent teaching trivial algebra. These are the standards of academia to date.

    I am actually personally offended at the fact that my school would assess my skills and place me into the same course as these “people”, “students”. I dont believe for a minute that I should be any further ahead than I am… that would be arrogant on my part. I am placed into multivariate calculus because that is what I am ready to learn. Rather I think that 99% of my classmates shouldnt be where they are. The fact that they met the prerequisites of the course suggests to me nothing short than they managed to rote memorize, but still fail to comprehend.

  6. Brandon Thomson

    People arent interested in education. They are interested in buying, purchasing a degree from a for-profit institution selling them. Degrees are bought with tuition money, time-spent, and going through the bureaucratic motions stipulated by the school.

    That’s because that’s what corporations are interested in and people respond to incentives.

  7. Does school education really handicap a person from being successful?
    I don’t quite agree,Mr.Shakespear is good at creative writing ,but he is more likely than not to be good at physics as well.A person’s talent is usually not confined to one field,but pervasive to all fields that he or she is willing to be engaged in.

  8. Some places (a college I used to work in) evaluate according to their actions in recent months. If you are lucky, you had been at your best in those recent months; some places don’t have long term memory.

  9. I dont think more math contests or science fairs is the answer. I have watched Good Will Hunting , Finding Forester and love these movies(dont know why). Today kids are hooked up to the Internet so it’s not realistic to believe that is possible. eg. Facebook, Youtube. My kids spend all their ‘creative energy’ on these sorts of things because it is popular amongst their peers. Sad but True. I do enjoy the discussions on how to promote better learning environments. Thanks!

  10. I have always thought that education has two contrasting purposes.
    One is get everyone up to a certain minimum standard across the board, so that they will be to be functioning adults and informed citizens. To test this you evaluate people at their worst.
    The second is to encourage everyone to discover what they really enjoy and have the potential to become really good at, and then help them to become really good at it. To test this you evaluate people at their best.
    All the schools’ success metrics are about the first, but we all remember the teachers who did the second (if we had any such teachers).

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